Funny story about this used copy of mine. Not long after I bought it, I set it on my windowsill thinking I'd get to it right away. But instead I let it sit there for months and it blanched in the sun. (That's alright though; the original mustard yellow of the cover was a little ugly anyway, if you ask me.) Then, when I finally picked it up to read it, within days I mistakenly put the book in a bag along with a leaking water bottle. Only minor water damage, but still. So basically, before even getting into this novel it had already taught me two valuable lessons in how NOT to keep old, used books in pristine condition.
Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki
The unnamed narrator of 2/3 of this novel is a university student who one day crosses paths with a mysterious man at a beach. He calls this man "Sensei". An almost teacher-student like friendship develops between the two in which the younger man follows the older one around, often picking his brain about his experiences and philosophies on life and love. Sensei is an obviously sad, cynical, and contemplative recluse who is careful not to reveal too much about himself, but later in the novel he finally reveals his past.
In his late teens, Sensei was cheated out of his inheritance by his uncle and developed a severe distrust and suspicion of people. He had given up on the world and nearly all humanity in it. He eased up a bit after renting a room in the home of a widow and falling in love with the widow's daughter. But then he invited a childhood friend of his, "K", to move into the house with them, and this friend fell in love with the daughter too. Out of jealously Sensei went behind K's back and asked for the young woman's hand in marriage before K could, and his friend killed himself not long after hearing the news.
At present, wracked with guilt and disgusted with the realization that he, as a human being, is not void of the same selfishness and impure tendencies that he condemned in other human beings like is uncle, Sensei has slipped into a depression from which he is unable to free himself. Not only is he despondent as a result of being wronged, but he feels he must also punish himself to atone for having wronged his friend. But the guilt and loneliness become too great, and forcing himself to live an empty life as if he were dead is no longer enough. He writes the narrator what might be the longest suicide letter ever in which he explains his past and the reasons for his behavior, and he takes his own life shortly after writing.
This novel is rich in themes and symbolism, but something that I picked up on in particular was the theme of people following in others' footsteps toward their own undoing. K, Sensei's friend, is a stoic person who becomes increasingly manic and despondent after being disowned by his family. He kills himself due to immense loneliness and disappointment that his lofty ideals (freedom from the fleshy parts of being human through numbness and spiritual devotion) don't match with reality (falling in love but not being able to act on it, being betrayed by a friend). Sensei 's personality comes to mirror that of K's, and he follows K's example by committing suicide in a similar state of mind. Additionally, the narrator initially has simplistic and optimistic views about life much like Sensei did when he was his age. However, little by little he begins to exhibit that same distance from his family and surety of the world's emptiness that eventually consumed Sensei. One could say that the narrator, Sensei, and K are manifestations of different points on the same successive path to despair and death. Only, the narrator has a chance to find his own way out, as K and Sensei's stories could be seen as cautionary tales for him. This difference could also be indicative of another theme: the transition from the Meiji Era to modern times (in the story, the passing of Emperor Meiji can be interpreted as another impetus to Sensei's suicide). The narrator is not a product of the same generation or era as the two other men, and thus is not bound by the same traditional conventions of guilt, honor, loyalty, and redemption through death.
Obviously this isn't a happy read, but as my first Natsume novel I found it beautifully unsettling. Though often disturbing in its darkly pessimistic musings, if you're interested in reading some challenging arguments about love, friendship, or the weight of loneliness and self-hate, Kokoro has a lot to offer.
"A man capable of love, or I should say rather a man who was by nature incapable of not loving; but a man who could not wholeheartedly accept the love of another─such a one was Sensei" (12)."He seemed to be under the impression that once one had become accustomed to hardship, one would quickly cease to notice it. The mere repetition of the same stimulus was to him a virtue. He believed, I think, that there would come a time when he would become insensitive to hardship. That it might eventually destroy him never entered his head" (177).