The Miner by Natsume Soseki

Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

The MinerShiny new publisher: Aardvark Bureau, the new Gallic Books imprint headed up by Scott Pack, formerly publisher at The Friday Project, which could always be relied upon for eclectic and interesting books (spoiler: his new imprint looks set to continue that tradition). Shiny new translation: Jay Rubin first translated The Miner in 1988, but he has redone it for this edition. Shiny… old book, actually, as the novel was originally serialised in 1908, in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. According to Haruki Murakami’s extensive and illuminating introduction, The Miner is something of an oddity among Natsume Sōseki’s works, in that it doesn’t quite fit with the rest. I can’t offer an opinion on that, as I haven’t read anything else by Natsume; but I can say that I’m now keen to read more.

When we meet Natsume’s (unnamed) nineteen-year-old narrator, he’s on the move:

Left Tokyo at nine last night, walked like mad straight north. Worn out, sleepy, no place to stay, no money. Crawled onto a Kaguta stage in the dark for a nap. Hachiman shrine, probably. Cold woke me up. Still pretty dark. Pushed on without a break, but who feels like walking when there’s no end to these damned trees!

We’ll discover that the narrator has left behind his collapsing love-life; but the experience of reading this novel is all about the now, the journey. As the broken sentences of that quotation above may suggest, this journey won’t be through an especially coherent landscape. There is not much in the way of precise geographical detail, but there is a compelling sense of constant movement through physical and mental space.

In short order, the protagonist meets a man, Chōzō, who asks him if he wants a job in a copper mine. Why not, our lad thinks: ‘As long as I had work, as long as this floating soul of mine could remain inside my body, however aimlessly – what matters most to him is having something to keep him occupied, rather than the exact nature of what he’ll be doing. Notice also the way that his thought merges physical activity with his inner mental life, which is something we see time and time again in The Miner. As he journeys towards the mine, Natsume’s narrator continually analyses himself and those around him (for example, coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that he’s more similar to Chōzō than he thought). But then again, he is keen to stress that he’s reflecting on all this after the fact, that the account he can give that way is better than any attempt he might have been able to make in the moment of living through these experiences. Most of all, he wants us to know that what he’s presenting to us here is not a novel:

In fact, there is no such thing as character, something fixed and final. The real thing is something that novelists don’t know how to write about. Or, if they tried, the end result would never be a novel. Real people are strangely difficult to make sense out of. Even a god would have his hands full trying.

There’s a certain amount of dramatic irony here, of course, because whatever he says, this narrator will always be a character in a novel (and what is Natsume if not the ‘god’ of his book’s world?). But he has a point, because The Miner doesn’t come together into the seamless unity of a highly crafted novel; and the texture of Rubin’s translation is dense and discursive, but not necessarily ‘refined’. In his introduction, Murakami imagines Natsume writing The Miner quickly and spontaneously (because he was committed to serialising a novel at that time, and the material he had to hand was a conversation with a young man who had worked at Ashio Copper Mine). Whether or not that was the case, Natsume’s text gives the impression of having been written down by his protagonist in a way that was shaped but not tidied. We get what the narrator wants us to read about him, but with the ragged edges left in.

When our young man arrives at the copper mine, he finds that the miners have been quite literally transformed by their labours:

Their cheekbones soared up and up, their chins thrust out, their jaws spread sideways, their eye sockets collapsed inward like caverns, sucking their eyeballs still deeper into their heads, and the wings of their noses dropped down. I suppose I could just say that every trace of flesh had gone into full retreat while every piece of bone had charged outward with victorious shouts.

His time in the mine is essentially a journey through the underworld, a rite of passage that could make or break him… But you’ll have to find the rest out for yourself. What you end up with in The Miner is a study of a character who remains intriguingly elusive no matter how closely you travel with him.

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David blogs at David’s Book World

Natsume Sōseki, The Miner (tr. Jay Rubin) (Aardvark Bureau: London, 2015). 978-1910709023, 208pp., paperback

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