Botchan: A Modern Classic

botchan

5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best Japanese novels ever! And its funny!

Lighthearted. Fast moving. Hilarious. These are not adjectives usually associated with classic Japanese literature or with Natsume Soseki, an author whose image graces the 1,000 yen note in Japan. Soseki’s intense novel “Kokoro” (which translates as “heart” or “spirit”) is famed for its insight into the Japanese soul. But he was a young man once too, who laughed and loved and mocked, and this early comic novel is no less penetrating for its sense of humor.

“Botchan” is the classic City Mouse tale. Botchan is a Tokyo boy, through and through. Lazy, unmotivated, and spoiled by the housekeeper who raised him, he suddenly finds himself needing to make his own way in the world when his father dies and his older brother inherits the fortune. Thinking school is easier than work, Botchan takes his brother’s offer to pay his way through university. Life is good so far, but even Botchan must graduate, and he finds himself educated and assigned as a middle school teacher in a rural town in the island of Shikoku, Japan’s most rural island. Arrogant and sure of his superiority over the hicks, Botchan quickly runs afoul of the locals and winds up in a merry war with both students and co-teachers.

Reminiscent of the best of Mark Twain’s yarns, “Botchan” is layers upon layers of wit and hijinks. A short, snappy novel, the narrator’s own self-assurance blinds him from the mechanisms against him that are so obvious to the reader. All the townspeople are pure characters, each with their own Botchan-given nickname such as “Porcupine,” “The Hanger-on” or “Redshirt.” Twined into the story is Botchan’s protective elderly maid, Kiyo, who’s blind support and admiration of Botchan only feeds his swelled ego, yet adds a touching element of humanity to the tale.

Added to all this is Soseki’s brilliant insight into the Japanese school system. Over 100 years later, little has changed and I laughed out loud as Botchan experienced things that I experience every day as a teacher at a Japanese high school. To see a Japanese person, especially one as revered as Soseki, voicing the very thoughts in my head is an absolute pleasure. Anyone wanting an authentic insiders look into Japanese society and culture would do much better laying down their copy of “The Enigma of Japanese Power” and picking up a copy of “Botchan.”

J. Cohn’s translation is perfect, preserving both the humor and the insight, and manages to portray the class differences of the Tokyo and Shikoku dwellers without resorting to cheap tricks like using Southern US accents and such. He must have a great sense of humor himself, and I look forward to more translations from him.

Insightful and penetrating, a window behind the hidden doors of Japan, “Botchan” is also hands-down the most entertaining Japanese novel I have ever read. Highly, highly recommended.

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