Natsume Soseki’s 1908 novel “The Miner” has often been regarded as an oddity. It stands aloof both in subject matter and style from the two great “trilogies” Soseki penned between 1908 and 1914.
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Both analytical and darkly humorous, “The Miner” describes how a young student, in flight from his home in Tokyo, is picked up by a recruiter to work in a mine, and his experience of the grim working conditions there.
Uniquely for Soseki, the story was based on notes he took while listening to a young man’s actual experiences: In late November 1907, a student called Arai visited Soseki at his home and recounted the story of his unhappy love affair and how he had run away in despair to a mine. The student believed that Soseki — the newly established star novelist of the Asahi Shimbun — might wish to write a novel based on his story, thinking he would concentrate on the love story. In fact, when Soseki began serializing his novel a little more than a month later, the author excised the love story and concentrated entirely on the journey to the mine.
The novel doesn’t fit neatly into either the tradition of “proletarian literature” or social realism in the style of Emile Zola, neither of which appealed to Soseki. Critics have tended to regard the novel as slightly disappointing, attributing its relative failure to Soseki prematurely publishing the story using whatever notes he had on hand when he was asked to fill in for another famous writer of the day, Toson Shimazaki, who canceled the Asahi’s scheduled serialization of his own novel.
Not fully appreciated by Japanese critics, “The Miner” did not fare better when it was finally translated into English in 1988 by Jay Rubin, despite the publishers proclaiming that the novel “anticipates the work of Joyce and Beckett.” Rubin has subsequently had great success translating several of Haruki Murakami’s works. In the last 10 years there has been a second wave of Soseki re-translations, with “The Miner” — in Rubin’s revised translation — once more bringing up the rear.
To the rescue comes Murakami himself, providing the critical introduction to this new edition. The novel is one of the popular author’s favourites — his characters even discuss it in “Kafka on the Shore.” Murakami starts brightly, by providing useful background information about the real-life mine Soseki envisioned when he penned the novel: Ashio Copper Mine in Tochigi Prefecture.
Murakami recounts how the vast mine — with nearly 900 km of tunnels and at its peak a working community of almost 40,000 people — was notorious for its cruel labour conditions. A violent mass protest by workers broke out there in February 1907, attracting national interest. The local area also suffered devastating mineral pollution from the mine’s smelting process, which released powerful toxins into the surrounding rivers, soil and forests.
Where Murakami’s introduction starts to go astray, however, is in his assumption that Soseki’s chief ambition is to describe the mine as an entity in and of itself. Indeed Murakami believes Soseki pretended to be uninterested in the young man’s personal experiences to avoid confronting “a major social problem head-on.”
Murakami has the equation backward: Soseki’s main objective was not to describe a mine but to present a modern-day vision of hell, and the mine was a convenient way of doing so. Soseki is always interested in universal themes that transcend the here and now, and certainly the intensely personal, in order to work on a deeper level. In “The Miner” he digs deep down into human psychology itself.
The descent into hell is a recurrent Soseki theme. In his first piece of fiction, the 1905 story “Rondon To” (“The Tower of London”), his protagonist crosses the river Thames — recast as the River Styx — and passes under a portal, imagining he can find there Dante’s famous words from Inferno, as translated Henry Francis Cary, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” Soseki’s first vision of hell was achieved by summoning up the ghosts of those who had been murdered or executed in the Tower of London. Soseki explicitly links “The Miner” with “The Tower of London” in numerous subtle ways, describing the young protagonist of “The Miner” as undergoing “degeneration” as he descends into the mine in reference to Max Nordau’s 1892 theory of degeneration, highlighted at the beginning of “The Tower of London.”
In the translator’s afterword to “The Miner,” Jay Rubin remarks that the absurdist style of the novel was produced in reaction to the heavily ornate, didactic style of Soseki’s previous work, “The Poppy.” That’s true, but “The Miner” may also be thought of as the final work in a different trilogy. Together with “Botchan” and “Kusamakura” (“The Three-Cornered World”) the novel is part of a set of narratives in which first person narrators, each with their own unique perspectives, head out on a journey to “other worlds.” Breaking through the limitations of our “everyday world” we are made to see the nature of existence with fresh eyes.
Not content with an exterior depiction of hell in a modern Japanese setting, Soseki’s pursuit of the subject would continue in purely psychological depictions, such as the disturbing British boarding house family described as trapped in a “dark hell” in an episode of “Short Pieces for Long Days” (1909) or the tormented husband Ichiro consumed with doubt about his wife in “The Wayfarer” (1912).
Far from being an experimental oddity — all of Soseki’s novels are experimental — “The Miner” is actually a work central to Soseki’s evolving analysis of what “hell” in a modern context means. This is a handsome and welcome new edition.
Damian Flanagan is the author of “The Tower of London: Tales of Victorian London” and “Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature,” published in Japanese by Kodansha International.