Book Review: To the Spring Equinox and Beyond

Cover To The Spring Equinox and Beyond
“Moreover, Keitaro was a youth with romantic cast to his personality and a hatred of mediocrity.”

Keitaro, a young man is living in Tokyo in the 1910s. He has graduated from school and is seeking for a job and his position in life. He is living in a boarding house where he meets a man who is totally different from him. He is an adventurer and takes many risks. He is called a “high-class idler.” Suddenly, he disappears without paying his rent and Keitaro is in trouble because he is associated with the troublesome man. He left a bamboo walking stick behind which Keitaro takes but is somehow ashamed of.

Feeling alone in the city he often visits a friend Sunaga and his family. There he meets his cousin Chiyoko a beautiful girl. She is supposed to marry soon. The novel is about the relationship of the family members and Keitaro’s observations and interactions with the people around him. The book is narrated from different perspectives in each chapter. The novel is about “ambiguities of self-identity, faith and love.”

Natsume Sôseki has written many books. He is probably the most famous Japanese writer in Japan. Several of his works have been translated into other languages. I mention only the most famous examples of English translations here.

  • I Am a Cat (吾輩は猫である. Wagahai-wa neko de aru. 1905–06)
  • Botchan: Master Darling (坊っちゃん. 1906)
  • The Three-Cornered World (草枕. Kusamakura. 1906)
  • Mon (門. Mon – The Gate. 1910)
  • The Wayfarer (行人. Kōjin. 1912–13)
  • Kokoro (こころ. Kokoro. 1914)
  • Grass on the Wayside (道草. Michikusa. 1915)

To the Spring Equinox and Beyond is one of the less known works and resembles “Sanshirô”. It is his sixth novel which was also serialized in the “Asahi Shimbun” in 1912. The novel is interesting because you get to know about the living habits and customs of the Japanese in the early 20th century. The story has some turns and twists you cannot foresee. Also, the change of the point of view in the narration is a good technique which makes the story richer. Natsume Sôseki is a very skilled writer who observes many details and has a deep understanding of the human heart.

Reviewed Title
夏目 漱石. 彼岸過迄, 1912.
Natsume Sôseki. To the Spring Equinox and Beyond. Translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein. Tuttle Publishing, 2005 (cover).

Book Review: Sanshirô by Natsume Sôseki

cover book sanshiro“Sanshirô was feeling very much alone and hemmed in by the restless city.”

A young man from the southern countryside of Kyushu comes to Tokyo. He wants to study at the local university. It is his first time being alone in a city such as big as Tokyo. The story is about his first steps into adulthood. Sanshirô learns how to deal with everyday life as a student and to manage the challenges of modern life. He falls in love with a beautiful young woman and must deal with friendship and betrayal. “Sanshirô” is set in 1907 with realistic descriptions of the historical Tokyo. It is a coming-of-age novel in the pure sense.

Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) is called the greatest modern Japanese writer. He was born in 1867. He wrote many well-known novels such as

and many more, which have been translated into several languages.

“Sanshirô” is his seventh book, published in 1908, first serialized in the “Asahi Shinbun”. It is based on the writer’s own experiences. Natsume Sôseki was a lecturer in English at the Tokyo Imperial University following the famous Lafcadio Hearn. In 1907 he quit his academical career to become a full time writer.

“Sanshirô” is a vivid and interesting novel with strong references to the historical background. The version of Penguin Classics with an introduction by Murakami Haruki and Jay Rubin makes it easy to understand the historical circumstances and to gain insights into Natsume Sôseki’s work. “Sanshirô” is an adorable classic Japanese novel.

Reviewed Title
夏目 漱石. 三四郎. 1908.
Natsume Sôseki. Sanshirô. Translated by Jay Rubin. Penguin Classics, 2009 (cover).

Book Review: Death by Water

Bookcover-Kenzaburô Ôe- Death by Water“And like the river current, you won’t return home.”
Kogito Choko, a writer in his seventies, is haunted by the memory of his father’s death. He had been a child, when he witnessed his father going on a boat trip during a storm, where he drowned. Kogito Choko has been traumatized by this tragedy, and nightmares about drowning are troubling him ever since. He always wanted to write a novel about it but could not.

Ten years after the death of his mother, he still wants to write his so called ‘drowning novel’. He says that he could not write this novel for several reasons, but most importantly he waited for documents stored in an old red leather trunk, which belonged to his father. His mother had restricted him access to them because she wanted to protect the family’s reputation.

Now, he hopes for creative inspiration by opening the red leather trunk, so he can finally write the ‘drowning novel’.

Kogito’s sister Asa, who is living in their parental home in Shikoku invites him to stay there. She has connections to a theatre group called the ‘Caveman Group’. The stage director and the actors have been dramatizing his works for a long time. The director is devoted to Kogito’s works. The Cavemen Group is staging a play, when Kogito comes to visit. In the ‘Forest House’ they meet and discuss Kogito’s novels and plays.

The actress Umaiko, however, finds new ways of interpreting his works. She is one of the main characters of the book. Her life intertwines with the protagonist’s in different ways as the novel moves forward.

Kogito Choko is depressive and struggles with his writings throughout the novel. His inner monologue is revealing his inner thoughts to the reader over the course of the events. This combined with letters of his sister Asa and descriptions of the evolving story presents a multi-layered picture of his family history.

Two other important characters of ‘Death by Water’ are Akari, his brain-damaged son, and Daio, a friend and life companion, who was devoted to his father. Both persons are also staying at the ‘Forest House’ during certain episodes of the novel.

Structure and Theme
‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburô Ôe was published in 2009 in Japan. It was translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm in 2016 and was an International Booker Prize Nominee for the Longlist 2016.
The narrator Kogito Choko is the literary alter ego of Kenzaburô Ôe. The story is mostly told from the first person’s perspective in addition to letters and dialogues.

The novel is set in the 2000s partly in Tokyo and mostly in Shikoku in the house of Kogito’s sister, a family resident, where Kogito Choko grew up. The setting in Shikoku is essential to the story. The narrator grew up in this environment. When his father drowned in the river nearby, Kogito flew into the forest. The neighborhood is relevant, because of the local myths and legends.

‘Death by Water’ is a multi-layered novel with many references to Ôe’s literary works. Although Kogito Chôko is the narrator, there are many similarities between his and Kenzaburô Ôe’s life and works.

The overall theme is coming to terms with the past on an individual level, and with the past of the WW II and nationalism in Japan. ‘Death by Water’ deals with death, memory, growing older, guilt and atonement as an individual, as a family member and as part of the Japanese society. The novel also depicts the changes of generations and generation conflicts. It discusses the works of the author and presents a view of the younger generation and female viewpoints.

‘Death by Water’ is the latest novel of the Nobel Prize winner Ôe. A late work, where all his former works come together, with many references to his own works and to others, especially Natsume Sôseki’s ‘Kokoro’.

The novel is narrated in a detailed and multi-faceted manner. I liked the honesty in the inner monologue of Kogito Choko. I have not read all books by Ôe but see ‘Death by Water’ as a good reason to study them more deeply. I also liked, that the book is not only a personal novel, but the writer is coming to terms with Japanese history in a unique way. The author also references to the classic novel ‘Kokoro’. I admire the way Ôe has constructed his novel in a multi-dimensional way, and how he mastered to add new perspectives, like through the story of Umaiko.
The novel is detailed and difficult in parts. The repetitive style can be tiring and sometimes even exhausting, but I think that this is a necessary part of the reading experience. ‘Death by Water’ is one of the most complex and challenging books I have read lately.
I encourage you to read the book, but maybe not to start with it as the first book of Kenzaburô Ôe. I would recommend reading ‘A Personal Matter’ and ‘The Changeling’. Ôe also wrote many short stories. I will probably read ‘A Quiet Life’ next.

Reviewed title
大江 健三郎. 水死. 2009.
Kenzaburô Ôe. Death by Water, 2009. Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Atlantic Books, 2016 (Cover).

More reviews of Kenzaburô Ôe’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop
Book review of ‘A Personal Matter’
Book review of ‘The Changeling’