Thursday, June 7, 2018

Botchan, by Soseki Natsume

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Botchan is an early novel by Soseki Natsume, one of Japan's most famous writers. First published in 1906, it is still widely read in Japan today and enjoys classic status.

When first his mother, then his father dies, Botchan (boy master) is given 600 yen by his older brother. He uses the money to study physics for three years. When Botchan graduates, he takes up a post teaching mathematics in a middle-school in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku. All should go well, but soon Botchan finds himself entangled in an intricate web of workplace politics. The head teacher, nicknamed Red Shirt, seems the picture of decency and probity, but it soon turns out that he is quite duplicitious. When Red Shirt tries to have one teacher sent to another post and Botchan's name besmirched in a local newspaper, Botchan knows he must teach the head teacher a lesson, a “Heaven-commissioned punishment”.

Botchan tells his own story in this humane and gently comic novel. His style is rather pompous and self-important, like one of Dickens' grandly deluded characters. Yet underneath his pretensions and formality (Botchan constantly refers to himself as a “Kedo man”, from a long, aristocratic line) there resides a simple man of basic moral values. He can only countenance doing right in the world and where he sees lies and deceit, he feels it incumbent upon him to seek justice and truth. The enduring popularity of the novel obviously derives from Botchan's plain honesty intertwined with his comic bufoonery.

Natsume's early classic is the tale of a simple everyman and eccentric whose sense of decency prevails in a world full of charlatans and double dealers.

Botchan, by Soseki Natsume. Published by Tuttle. ISBN: 9784805312636  RRP: $14.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.