People anywhere in the world these days would not want to be told what is right and what is wrong, or to have some literary works showing the moral standards they deem old-fashioned pushed under their nose. But just in case you forget how this world somehow works and how to be true to yourselves, the Japanese classic Botchan by the prominent, highly praised author Natsume Sōseki might be the tool to remind you of the way. First published in 1906, this Indonesian edition firstly appeared in 2009 with the same title, the humorous book is one of Sōseki’s notable works that brings to the reader not only a good (though not strong enough) story, but also a character that is so honest and appealing.
Botchan, actually a term of endearment for the son of an employer in Japanese, is our leading character and narrator. The story begins with him telling the reader of his grim childhood as an unwanted child: deemed useless by his father, unloved by his mother, cheated constantly by his older brother. But lucky him, his devoted servant Kiyo loves him so much and often spoils him. As the story moves forward, we’ll see Botchan loses both of his parents and his brother sells everything they have, giving him his share of 600 yen which he then uses to enroll in a school of physics and study mathematics. After graduation, he accepts an offer to teach math in a small town’s middle school in Shikoku Island. It is there, subsequently, that he gets to see a wider world than he ever saw before and experience the unpleasant life of a rural area. Aside from a bunch of naughty, troublesome students—which is not unpredictable for a teacher to handle—Botchan has to face a failed education system which is so far away from educative, and an unwise principal who always seems to humiliate him. Worse still, he has to deal with two deceitful teachers, whom he calls the Red Shirt and the Clown, trying always to discredit him and play him off against another teacher.
“Kalau orang jujur tidak bisa menang
di dunia ini, siapa lagi yang bisa?”
(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)
Botchan gets through it all with his steadfast honesty, outspokenness, and unwavering stand on justice. It is this character which is the main attraction of the book, not really the story. Throughout the narrative, Sōseki looks like he wants to make Botchan’s characterization stick out above any other aspect so that the reader can see what he means to show us: that a good character, no matter what we think about right or wrong, is all that we have to navigate this rotten world. Botchan is not an embodiment of high moral principles or an angel, since he has some flaws—impatient, emotional, hot-blooded—which shows that he is just a human being like any other. But his keeping a tight grip on honesty and justice at least teaches us how having integrity is something worthwhile and that’s what we should do, not littering this old, tired world with our evil deed.
“Kalau dipikir-pikir, sebagian besar masyarakat malah
mendorongmu bertindak jahat. Mereka seolah percaya
tanpanya, kau tidak akan bisa sukses dalam kehidupan.
Pada kesempatan-kesempatan yang langka, ketika me-
reka melihat seseorang yang berbicara terus terang &
jujur, mereka meremehkannya dan menyebutnya hijau,
tidak lebih daripada anak-anak.”
(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)
Botchan is an engrossing story, such a page-turner. From the beginning to the end, the book appears to intend to drown the reader without mercy into its depth of narrative. It really has something about it that drags you along so that you’ll forget everything but everything in it, particularly the character aspect. The thing that I found lacking is its untidy storyline from which Sōseki often brings out sudden conflicts, of which solutions seem unclear until much later, and out-of-the-blue statements about the characters—for example, when Botchan suddenly says he has huge respect for Koga, the English teacher. But these few flaws are made up for by the humor scattered in many places. You’d think a novel about honesty and justice would feel or at least sound so serious, but this one is not. You’d either giggle or laugh, no less. Some of you will perhaps even read it as a satire criticizing the world and how rotten it is, especially looking at the way Botchan innocently narrates his story and speaks out his mind. This feature is helped very much by the fast pace and the nice flow of the plot. I have to admit the mess of it is pretty annoying, but during my reading I couldn’t help but feel like I was lost in the flow, reading on and on without wanting to stop, even though I knew my eyes had already been weary and watery.
All things considered, Botchan by Natsume Sōseki is one of my best reads so far this year, and definitely one of the best Japanese literary works I’ve read to this day. And thanks to Indah Santi Pratidina for translating it from whatever language it is so I could have fun reading it. It’s a recommended fiction work for you who have forgotten how to say the truth.
Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.