Author: Natsume Sōseki
Translator: Jay Rubin
U.S. publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780140455625
Released: February 2010
Original release: 1909

Sanshirō is the second novel by Natsume Sōseki that I have had the opportunity to read. The first was his masterpiece Kokoro, which I loved. Sanshirō was initially serialized in Japan between 1908 and 1909. Penguin Classics’ 2009 translation by Jay Rubin is revised from Rubin’s original 1977 translation. The edition also includes a delightful introduction to the novel by Haruki Murakami as well as a chronology and translator’s notes. According to the introductory material, Sanshirō is the last novel written by Sōseki in which humor plays a prominent role. It is also the first book in a thematic trilogy (followed by And Then and The Gate) which I hadn’t previously realized. Because I enjoyed Kokoro so much, I was looking forward to reading another work by Sōseki. And because Sanshirō has been sitting on my shelf for what seems like ages, it’s what I turned to next.

Sanshirō Ogawa is a recent college graduate from a rural area in Kyushu. To continue his education he must travel to Tokyo, enrolling in the Imperial University’s division of Law and Letters. After a three day journey by train he finally arrives, a simple-hearted country boy completely overwhelmed by the big city of Tokyo and its people. Fortunately, and occasionally unfortunately, he is befriended by his classmate Yojirō Sasaki. Sanshirō’s circle of acquaintances grows and his social life becomes more complicated. He even manages to fall in love despite being terrified of women. But his inexperience with city life and culture, not to mention his complete ineptitude when it comes to interacting with members of the opposite sex, proves to be problematic when pursuing a romantic relationship.

There is no grand, overwrought plot to Sanshirō. Instead, the novel is a simple portrayal of the life of a university student in Japan in the early twentieth century. In its way, Sanshirō is very much a coming of age story. Sanshirō certainly has quite a bit of growing up to do. For most of the novel, he is more of an observer than he is a person with initiative. Events simply happen around him and he absorbs it all without much comment. It is only at the end of Sanshirō that it becomes apparent that he is about to step into the next stage of his life. Some readers may find Sanshirō frustrating as a protagonist because there isn’t much development in his character. Personally though, I liked him, in part because I could identify with him so easily—I, too, left a very rural area to attend university in a much larger city.

Although I wasn’t quite as taken with Sanshirō as I was with Kokoro, I still enjoyed the novel. Sōseki’s humor shines through, even in translation. Some of the humor is situational, some comes from the characters’ personalities, and some is the result of Sōseki’s delightful writing. I frequently found myself reading with a slight smile on my face and even chuckled aloud on occasion. Sanshirō is both entertaining and amusing. Sōseki also includes elements from his own life in the novel and finds inspiration for parts of his story in real people, places, and events. One of the reasons I am particularly grateful for the chronology and notes is that they help to shed light on this. Sanshirō may not be my favorite novel written by Sōseki, but I am still able to appreciate it. I look forward to reading more of his work.

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