Although I do little teaching in my current job, I am, by trade, a teacher, and I well remember my first experience of this trade. It occurred when I was a language assistant at a technical college in the north-east of France, spending part of my time abroad for my bachelor’s degree in modern languages. One particular class sticks in the memory, mainly because it was excruciatingly embarrassing. Having failed to organise my notes adequately, I turned up to take a class of fourteen-year olds with two activities prepared, both of which I had previously subjected the poor, suffering adolescents to. As the class hurried off to freedom (half an hour before the end of the lesson), a couple of girls attempted to comfort me – which somehow made things much, much worse. The reason for this thoroughly uncomfortable bout of catharsis? Natsume Soseki’s classic novel Botchan…
Botchan is a true classic of Japanese literature, one of those books which everybody seems to have read (most at some point during their own school days). Closer in style to I am a Cat than to Sanshiro, it is short, funny, lively and a wonderful way to while away a few lazy hours. It is centred on Botchan himself (a nickname meaning ‘little master’ – we never learn his full name), a young Tokyoite who, on completing his diploma, accepts a job as a Maths teacher at a small-town middle school on Shikoku. We follow the angry young man through his arrival in this alien landscape, where adults speak with forked (sometimes incomprehensible) tongues and the kids are country boys twice his size (one of the many reasons I have never been tempted to take the plunge into the state education sector).
Despite his gruff demeanour and a refusal to bend an inch to satisfy other people’s expectations, Botchan is actually a very conscientious, honest and hard-working soul, which makes the conniving, manipulative behaviour of some of the other teachers at his school even harder to take. He instantly gives them all nicknames reflecting his view of their external appearance or internal qualities. The Badger, Redshirt, the Hanger-On, the Porcupine and the Pale Squash all become an integral part of Botchan’s life: the only question is which of them he can actually trust… The teachers though are initially the least of his worries as he struggles to cope with a mischievous group of teenage boys, resorting to tactics which, while effective, would see him hauled before a disciplinary committee (or a judge) in our modern, more enlightened times. Rest assured, this is a happy tale, and the forces of good will (to some extent at least) prevail by the end of the story.
Of course, like Natsume’s other early work, Botchan contains many autobiographical elements; the author spent a year in the Shikoku town of Matsuyama at the start of his career, teaching the same kind of muscle-bound yokels Botchan does in the book. Interestingly though, he identified himself more with the character Redshirt, a symbol of superficial adoption of western ideology, than with the hero (who, along with the very spiky Porcupine, represents traditional Japanese norms). The work can be seen on one level as a rejection of the increasing westernisation of early-twentieth-century Japan, where the Land of the Rising Sun took on the fripperies of European culture without acquiring the morals underpinning them. Then again, you can just read it as a fun book (I did).
My version was translated into English by the intriguingly-named J. Cohn, and the dust cover blurb promises “a lively new translation much better suited to Western tastes than any of its forebears”. Not having read any other versions, I’m in no position to evaluate this claim, but I do have one quibble with this. You see, the translator mentions Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn in his introduction, and I can definitely see the resemblance, especially with the infamous anti-hero of The Catcher in the Rye (thankfully, where Salinger’s character is annoying and whiny, Botchan gets on with it and takes no rubbish from the world). However, this just proves the very long and laboured point which I will eventually make (please bear with me…), namely that the translation is not better suited to Western tastes, but rather to American ones – or, at the very least, North American ones.
It’s probably an issue which American readers would have thought little about, but the American domination of Japanese literature translation is a little annoying for those of us born on the other side of the Atlantic (or the South Pacific, for that matter). In effect, we are reading a translation from a foreign language into another one, related, but not identical, to our own. An over-reaction? Perhaps, but Botchan’s slang wasn’t translated into American teen vernacular for my benefit, that’s for sure.
Digression over 🙂 Botchan is, despite its Americanised dialogue, another example of wonderful Japanese literature and Natsume Soseki’s enjoyable writing, and my next book of his, Kusamakura, is winging its way over from the UK as we speak (or blog). Just a word of warning: if there are any budding teachers out there, please do NOT take Botchan’s antics as a guide for your own classroom behaviour. While things end up well for him, I doubt that your future employers will take this kind of behaviour so lightly…