by Natsume Soseki
First published in Japanese in 1910
Translated by William F. Sibley
With an introduction
by Pico Iyer
Literary fiction/Japanese literature
In the introduction to my edition, Pico Iyer highlights that “Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too.” So I was expecting The Gate (the last book of the trilogy after Sanshiro and And Then, illustrating what “then” might have happened) to be on a quieter side than the previous two books, but actually, I thought there was a lot happening!
There are also a lot of words exchanged between the main middle-aged couple, Sosuke and Oyone (after the youth in Sanshiro and the troubled adulthood in And Then). I was expecting more silence. The introduction gave me wrong expectations. But still, there are moments of silence, and of quiet observing of “the small print of life.”
However, there are crises and even some sense of mystery going on, with the Saekis, with Sosuke’s landlord and neighbor, and with the latter’s unexpected guest.
And I disagree with Iyer. For me, if Soseki’s characters seem to abhor action and decision, it’s actually because there’s so much drama happening in themselves. At one point, something happened (arriving in a big city for Sanshiro, or some type of problematic affair here), and they are stuck. Sosuke “was a prisoner of circumstances he could not control”, he also “felt ineluctably swept forward by a force beyond his control”, and the victim of fate. Hence all the indecision, until they can finally try to follow one direction.
There’s a long flashback, where we see how Sosuke and Oyone met in the first place. Though what happened then remains a bit blurred, it puts the quietness of this couple’s life in a very different light! It’s less the quiet of peace than the quiet after a major storm, and the fear of another one!
Still, there are really beautiful passages on the life of this quiet couple.
Every night after dinner the couple sat in the same place, facing each other across the brazier, and talked for about an hour. The topics of their conversation were tailored to the mundane circumstances of their lives.
The couple lived in seclusion, each utterly dependent on the other in their daily life, clinging together for warmth in a cold, sunless world.
They contented themselves instead with making their way together hand in hand.
In the light that shone from the lamp Sōsuke was conscious only of Oyone, Oyone only of Sōsuke. They forgot the dark world of human affairs, which lay beyond the lamp’s power to illuminate. It was through spending each evening this way that as time passed they had found their own life together.
They began developing more deeply within themselves. What their life together had lost in breadth it gained in depth. For these six years, instead of engaging in casual interactions with the outside world, they had explored the recesses of each other’s hearts.
And I really enjoy these lines, when Sosuke awakes after a nightmare:
It was a dream orchestrated by demons. He awoke from it with a start, at seven in the morning. There was Oyone bending over him with her usual smile. The bright sun had immediately banished that dark world to some faraway place.
They may experience some type of happiness, but it’s nothing exuberant. It’s anchored in the awareness that they have lost everything except their mutual love. It’s more a resigned type of contentment, actually maybe not far from zen teachings.
And there are a lot of zen teachings in this novel, including Sosuke spending some time in a zen temple. Chapters 18-21 on his experience there are my favorite chapters.
His overwhelming priorities were the present in which he was now engaged and the future that was in the process of unfolding; the receding past was but an illusion, of as little value to him as a vanished dream.
He was struck by the temple’s apartness from the everyday world.
However, Sosuke leaves the temple unable to find the answer to the koan he was offered, not having much grown in self-knowledge.
As the last book in this trilogy, and to use Norma Moore Field’s words in her Afterword to And Then, in The Gate the characters “are stray sheep lost not only to society but to their own souls”.
And I believe it to be also a message on Japan’s evolution as Soseki was experiencing it in the Meiji Restoration.
As in Soseki’s other books, there is a lot of attention given to the sky.
Clouds looking like splotches of thin black ink moved ceaselessly across the sky.
Though I feel I only touched the surface of Soseki’s message in this trilogy and there are so many connections between the three books, that it would be great to reread them!
In this trilogy, I also found references to famous Haiku masters, which I’m now in the process of reading. More on that later on then.
VERDICT: Very satisfying conclusion to Soseki’s reflection on life’s journey and social evolution in Japan through these three novels.
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
What did you think of Soseki’s main message?
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