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Review: Botchan
February 28, 2010

After reading (and writing) so much postmodern fiction lately, it was a nice break to read a new translation of the humorous and straightforward plot of Botchan by Natsume Soseki. The popular original was published in Japan 1904 and has never been out of print. I first read an English translation by Umeji Sasaki more than twenty years ago, a translation that was first published in 1922. As one might expect, the prose in that translation sounds stilted today.

For example, the first line in the Sasaki translation is: “A great loser have I been ever since a child, having a rash daring spirit I inherited from my ancestors.” In the new J. Cohn translation, the line reads: “From the time I was a boy the reckless streak that runs in my family has brought me nothing but trouble.” The recent translation makes the enjoyable story of a young teacher from Tokyo hired to teach math in a backwater, rural middle school even more readable.

Botchan is the nickname for the main character, the narrator of the story. The name can be translated roughly as “young man,” which can be used in both a positive and negative context. (“You’re such a mature young man.” vs. “Come here, young man, you’ve got some explaining to do.”) The botchan in the story is used primarily in the latter sense, as he is at times a rascal, a snob, a shirker, and a coward. Recently an orphan, with an estranged and distant older brother, he is most affectionately attached to his old nanny and family housekeeper. She refers to him as Botchan in the positive sense.

Admittedly not a great student, he takes the first job that comes his way – the teaching position. When he finds the town and the people beneath his urbane upbringing, although at the same times he finds them intimidating. His students, most of whom are taller and heavier, and sometimes smarter, get under his skin from the first day. He finds nothing good to say about his colleagues, whom he provides disparaging nicknames like “Badger” and “Squash” and “Hanger On.”

His only enjoyment in his life is eating noodles at a small tempura restaurant. Unfortunately, he is spotted by his students and given the satirical name “Mr. Tempura,” which leads to a breakdown of discipline. He is chastised by the principal of the school and ordered to stay away from such establishments. The order irks him and he begins a plot to bring down his perceived enemies. Along the way, he finds an unlikely ally who helps him.

The narrative rides on Botchan’s irreverent attitude toward those in positions of authority, sycophants, and bullies. Even in today’s Japan, this is still a popular theme, played out usually only in fiction. And for readers who know nothing about Japan, the newly translated story will be as enjoyable as it is for lovers of Japanese literature.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 2
click here to add a comment

Lee Witte
Thanks for the review. I also read the Sasaki translation many years ago, and now am excited to read the new translation.

Gail Jolley
Yes, thanks for this review. This will be my next interlibrary loan. Right now I'm reading a biography of Sakamoto Ryoma as a supplement to watching NHK's taiga drama on cable.

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