‘The Miner’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

IMG_5291I’ve reviewed a fair few of Natsume Sōseki’s books on the blog in the past, but having tried most of his better-known works, it’s not always easy to get hold of some of his other books.  I was very happy, then, to see a new edition appear recently, one I hadn’t read.  This latest release is from Aardvark Bureau, the new imprint of Gallic Books, and while it may be one of Sōseki’s less famous works, it’s certainly an interesting read…

*****
The Miner (translated by Jay Rubin, review copy courtesy of the publisher) focuses on a nineteen-year-old on the run, a youth who has left his comfortable existence behind after unspecified trouble (which we later learn is actually relationship issues…).  Within the first few pages, a chance encounter with a dubious-looking man leads to a snap decision to accept a job offer as a miner; as the youth has no plan beyond losing himself somewhere, a life in the bowels of the earth seems as good a choice as any.

What follows is a lengthy journey, over the course of which our young friend has plenty of time to reconsider his decision.  As the narrative takes him, and us, further and further away from Tokyo, the youth experiences a very different life to the one he is used to.  After the discomfort of the walk through the mountains, and the warnings of the people who meet him on arrival, it’s finally time to make a decision – does he really have what it takes to go down into the depths of the earth?

The Miner is a novel unlike many of Sōseki’s works, and at times it reads more like an allegory than a realistic story.  Even the narrator, looking back at his experiences years later, questions his story’s right to be described as a novel:

“All I’m doing here is recording facts that don’t fall together.  There’s no novelistic fabrication involved, so it’s not interesting the way a novel is.  But it’s a lot more mysterious than a novel.”
p.117 (Aardvark Bureau, 2015)

That much, at least, is true.  Much is left unstated in The Miner, and the description of a protagonist’s journey to an unknown location, with the reader often kept (no pun intended) in the dark, has distinct Kafkaesque undertones.  With the narrator involved in a seemingly never-ending journey, some readers may struggle a little, hoping for a quicker end to the walk.

However, the patient reader (and they will need to be patient) will be rewarded.  The Miner is a book where it’s more about the journey than the destination, even if it takes a while for this to become clear.  The older self narrating the story is looking back at his own foolish youth, lending an air of detachment to the story (we’re fairly sure from an early stage that he must have survived his experiences…).  What we’re reading is a description of his first glimpse of a wider world.

The boy (he would have been such in Japan) is a naive, well-off sort, a middle-class kid soon to discover that the real world is very different to the one he’s lived in up to now.  Once he arrives in the mountains, he can’t help but notice the poverty and the hardship the workers must endure:

“Finally, the man stood, leaning heavily on the shoulders of two who had gone to rouse him.  He looked my way.  The single glance I had of his face at that moment sent a shudder of horror through me.  This was not a man who had been lying down merely for the sake of rest.  He was very, very sick – too sick even to stand up by himself.” (p.144)

It’s hardly surprising that health is a concern considering the conditions.  The rice with a muddy consistency, the constant cold, the bedbugs – we’re not in Tokyo any more, botchan

The whole story leads us to the point where the young man finally reaches the entrance to the hole, and it’s time to make a decision:

“This’s the door to Hell,” Hatsu said.  “Got the guts to go in?” (p.162)

Yet this is not your typical Bildungsroman, and  the youth’s descent into a Dante-esque world is simply that – a descent and an adventure.  Despite the epic journey he’s had (and the adventures that follow), it’s doubtful that he actually takes much from it.

The appeal of The Miner to a Sōseki fan lies in trying to work out where it fits into his oeuvre.  It was written in 1908, just before Ten Nights of Dreams and Sanshirō, and followed a couple of more realistic novels, Nowaki and The Poppy (this one is a far more abstract piece than those).  The voice is particularly interesting as it appears to borrow from all stages of the writer’s career.  While it can sometimes have the frustratingly naive tone of Botchan, at other points it’s much more analytical (c.f. Grass on the Wayside, Light and Dark).  There are also glimpses of the wry humour found in Kusamakura and I am a Cat, making it hard to pin the writer’s intentions down.

Luckily enough, I didn’t have to think too hard about all that as Aardvark Bureau have found a couple of people to do it for me.  The first is translator Jay Rubin, whose excellent translator’s afterword sets the historical context and examines what influence The Miner had on Sōseki’s later work.  The other is Haruki Murakami (you might have heard of him?), a big Sōseki fan who provides an interesting introduction to the work.  This is a more personal reading, making for an excellent contrast with Rubin’s academic view, and together the two pieces ensure the reader understands exactly how The Miner fits into the writer’s body of work.

I’m not sure this would be the best introduction to Sōseki for the casual reader – I’d be pointing you in the direction of Kusamakura, Sanshirō, Botchan or possibly Kokoro (if you like your books a little darker) -, but it’s fascinating reading for those already familiar with his work.  Both Rubin and Murakami argue that this underrated novel underpins much of his later work – and who am I to argue with them?

The Miner is an interesting story, a tale of looking back at your youth and not really understanding why:

“I have a habit of recalling the adventures I experienced back then whenever I have a few spare moments.  It was the most colorful period of my life.  Each time I bring back those images to savor, I wield my scalpel mercilessly (you can do this with old memories) in an attempt to chop up my own mental processes and examine every little piece.  The results, however, are always the same: I don’t understand them.” (p.61)

The narrator may struggle to come to terms with his time in the mine, and if you read The Miner, you’ll probably understand why.  Hopefully, though, if you give it a try, you’ll have more luck making sense of it all 🙂

10 thoughts on “‘The Miner’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

  1. It’s great when a new work is made available through translation of a writer you enjoy. Having never read Soseki, however, I’m glad you included some advice on where to start – that’s exactly what I was going to ask you!

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    1. Grant – Glad to help 🙂 While I’m not an expert on his work, I have read eleven(!) now, so I’ve learned a little bit about his style. By the way, it’s actually ‘Natsume’ – unlike most other Japanese writers, his name always appears in the Japanese style in English!

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        1. Stu – Both good, forming a loose trilogy (of which ‘Sanshiro’ is the first) – not that the characters are the same, but the period of life progresses over the three books.

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  2. Hi Tony, thank you for the follow on Twitter. I’ve been following your blog through Dolcebellezza while on hiatus from blogging…3 years…I am back on Blogger, hmmm… and noticed just about everyone is on WordPress, I must have missed something while away 🙂
    I received TEN NIGHTS OF DREAMS from NetGalley, but chose to read DEATH BY WATER by Kenzaburo Oe, a writer I like a lot…it is a long book 600+ pages, a loosely autobiographical work.
    I did see THE Miner on netGalley but passed, your thoughts on the novel I like. I will still pass on this, I have soooo many Japanese novels in several languages and skipped my friend Dolcebellezza’s JLC for to many years.
    Wow, lots of fairies got their wings…my post is so long 😉

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    1. Sylvie – Thanks for the kind words 🙂 I’m hoping for copies of both ‘Ten Nights of Dreams’ and ‘Death by Water’, so my fingers are firmly crossed. By the way, I’ll probably be holding my January in Japan blogging event again at the start of 2016, so if you have any J-Lit lying around unread, that’ll be a goood time to to dust it off 🙂

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