Rating: 4 stars
In his introduction to this book, Haruki Murakami has all kinds of thoughts about why it isn’t a novel, and why, if Sōseki had had more time to think about it instead of a looming newspaper serialisation deadline to meet, it wouldn’t have been written at all.
I don’t know. Maybe he’s right. I don’t know enough about Sōseki, other than that this was written at the time he’d quit being a professor at Tokyo University and was a jobbing author, dependent on his writing for an income. The first 25 or so pages of the book, where we meet the protagonist and begin to learn his existential state, made me think the book might be an allegory for someone throwing over their safe life to do something different with their life.
Our narrator is looking back over his life. He is a gauche 19 year old when we first meet him. He’s had his first crisis and left home, intending to commit suicide, but is waylaid by a man recruiting for the local copper mine. The lad is of such a frame of mind that solitude underground, working for the sake of working, is a decent alternative to ending his life.
He has some interesting thoughts as he’s deciding whether to take up the man’s offer of work.
Nothing in my life before that day should have rendered me so passive, and yet, undeniably, I could not have found in myself the least spark of resistance to anybody.
The only consistent thing about people is their bodies. And because our bodies stay the same, most of us are content to assume that our minds do, too – that we go on being the selves we were, even when we do today the exact opposite of what we did yesterday.
His conclusion is that he might as well live in the moment and, as that moment consists of becoming a miner, he accepts the job. He recognises that the man is feeding him a pack of lies about the opportunity before him, but he doesn’t care. To be alive and working is all that matters to him.
His trouble is because of a girl. Of course. He’s promised by his family to another girl, but has been distracted by another. I really liked the description of his quandary.
If we look into the origins of the matter, the first thing we find is a girl. Next to her is another girl. Around the girls are their parents. Then relatives. And surrounding them all are the people of society. But girl number one looks at me and starts changing: now she’s round, now she’s square. And when she changes, I have to change: now I’m round, now I’m square. But vows I was born to with girl number two mean I shouldn’t be doing this with girl number one. As young as I am, I know what’s happening.
Who hasn’t been there, wanting to do the right thing, but so sweetly tempted by the wrong?
The narrator has a pleasing world weary way about him. He reminds me of the narrators in Kurt Vonnegut novels, affectionately exasperated with their younger selves and with the world at large. He sees his younger self as a gullible idiot, so unversed in the ways of the world as to be completely passive and malleable. His low opinion of this younger version of himself is only beaten by his lower opinion of humanity.
Probably all that saves us all from becoming thieves, finally, is the manner in which we are artificially acclimated to such a state of mind from childhood. On the other hand, a state of mind like this comes about as the result of anesthetizing a part of our humanity, so while they’re forging ahead feeling very pleased with themselves, people end up as idiots.
His expansion on this theme of idiocy through social anaesthesia made me think about the way governments and the media try to keep us dumb and idiotic. Tractable, if you will.
Human beings are supposed to get angry now and then, they’re supposed to rebel. That’s how they’re made. Forcing yourself to become a creature that doesn’t get angry is tantamount to happily educating yourself to be an idiot.
Amen to that.
All of this preamble to the narrator becoming a miner helps to build sympathy for him on the part of the reader. We need sympathy for him because, once he enters the mine, he ceases to be a person. He becomes one of the many, and describes how he feels he no longer has a character.
The description of his first voyage into the mine, when he is shown the absolute depths of the place by a man called Hatsu, is on a par with Kafka’s description of the village that surrounds the Castle in his tale of futility, absurdity and frustration. The images Sōseki’s descriptions evoke are those of goblin kingdoms, dragons’ lairs, circles of hell.
I’ve noticed there is a penchant for describing holes and underground spaces in Japanese literature. I first encountered it in Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, but subterranean spaces where existential crises play out appear in other works by him. I started to think it might be a particular allegory in Japanese culture when I read The Silent Cry, and now I’m almost convinced of it, having read The Miner. What is it in Japanese society that calls up the underground as a metaphor for man’s struggle with existence? Is it the culture of shame that runs through society? Does the compulsion to never let anyone else down become so oppressive for some that it is akin to being buried alive, trapped underground, alone with your own thoughts?
The narrator of this novel is in many ways a nihilist. He has moral principles, but he is of the opinion that life is meaningless. It’s a beautifully written book. I disagree with Murakami. This is a novel, there is a theme running through it, there are things to take away from it. It deals with human events and the state of contemporary society. It philosophises, it ruminates. It is grounded in fact, it’s true, in the story of a miner that Sōseki interviewed, but the flow of the prose says to me that this is less a straight biography of that man and more an extemporisation on the themes Sōseki divined in the miner’s story.
Towards the end of the book, the narrator contemplates death. He reflects on the fact that life is unpredictable. There are no guarantees. We never know what will become of us. The best we can do is ride the wave.
… finally, I didn’t know what was going to happen. And that was all right, too. Even now, as I go on living and working, I don’t know what’s going to become of me. As long as the world continues in an unbroken flow, the bright colours will go streaming by … If I kept my hands in my pockets, destiny would take care of things one way or another. I could die or I could live. It didn’t make any difference.
Once upon a time, I would have rejected this outright, believing that we had influence over the direction our lives take. Now, I’m not so sure. I’ve seen illness rob my mum of all her hopes. I’ve had my own hopes and ambitions disappointed. I’ve found myself boxed in, surviving an existence I never imagined for myself.
Sometimes, the fight to be human doesn’t seem worth the effort.
Hmm. I think I need to read something more flippant next.