Tuesday, November 2, 2010

2,597: the Heredity of Taste by Soseki Natsume

On 8 February 1904, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the Imperial Russian Far East Fleet at Port Arthur in South East Manchuria.  In a foreshadowing of the events of December 1941, the Japanese government failed formally to declare war on Russia until several hours after the commencement of hostilities.  By the time the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in September 1905, ending the war, two of the three main Russian naval fleets had been destroyed and the Imperial Japanese Army, led by General Nogi, had captured Port Arthur.  80,000 Japanese and 43,000 Russians lost their lives during the war, which saw the use of the mass human wave attack tactics that became the hallmark of the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War.

The conclusion of the war gave rise to mixed feelings in Japan.  There was pride that one of the great European powers had been defeated and that Japan was now recognised as a Great Power.  However, there was also anger at the number of casualties, which was compounded by the belief that Japan’s negotiators had failed to secure adequate concessions in the Treaty of Portsmouth.  In particular, Japan had not been granted territory and had been refused the payment of financial reparations when President Roosevelt had supported the Tsar’s objections to this.  These feelings of mixed pride, anger and humiliation were to colour the country’s foreign policy for decades to come and were significant factors in Japanese expansionism in East Asia in the 1930s and the subsequent War in the Pacific during the Second World War.

This is the background against which the Heredity of Taste is set.  Described as Soseki’s only anti-war novel, it tells the story of the narrator’s reactions to the death of his friend Ko-san, a junior officer in the Japanese Army, who is killed during a human wave attack on a Russian fort in Manchuria.  The story divides into two halves.  The first sets the scene, describing the death of Ko-san and witnessing the triumphal return of Japanese soldiers by train to Tokyo.  The second part changes gear and tells of how the narrator visits Ko-san’s tomb, sees a beautiful young woman laying a white chrysanthemum on it and determines to find out the identity of the young woman.

The story addresses the savagery of war and the waste of lives it causes.  The narrator has a vision at the beginning of the book where he envisages war as a pack of dogs, let loose by the gods to tear men limb of limb and to devour their flesh.  Soseki had spent two years in London, studying English literature and there is something Shakespearean about this – “Cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war”.  In fact, later in the Heredity of Taste, Soseki makes explicit reference to Macbeth.

He also focuses on the sheer numbers who failed to return, using a repeated image of Ko-san being unable to climb out of the ditch in which he had died throughout the story to give a sense of more and more young men who would not return.  Another recurring image is that of Soseki’s mother who, lacking even a daughter-in-law to comfort her, will be lonely and bereft for the rest of her life.

For Soseki, the pity of war is not only the obvious one of the waste of lives but also the loss of individuality.  The body of troops of which Ko-san is a part is described as a long mass of black creatures and Ko-san can only be identified by the fact that he is carrying a standard.

The Heredity of Taste is held up as an anti-war piece but I think the truth may be a little more complex than this.  It is true that the book draws attention to the consequences of war on individuals and their families and how Ko-san’s death kills the budding love between him and the young woman the narrator sees at the tomb but even someone who believes that war is acceptable can have these views.  The book really needs to be seen in its historical context.  As I have mentioned above, the failure of Japan to gain territory or financial indemnity from Russia at the end of the Russo-Japanese War caused unrest in Japan and a deep sense of anger at the sacrifice of so many lives for so little tangible gain.  I believe that the Heredity of Taste can be read as a rebuke to the Japanese government for its failure.  Look at the pain you have caused, look at the waste and the sacrifice and what did we get for it?  This is not a repudiation of war, it is an indictment of political failure to exploit the war.  Now I need to caveat this – I am not a Soseki expert and I have no idea whether he wrote elsewhere about war or whether there is other evidence of his anti-war views.  I can only go on this book, which does not, to me, support an unequivocal statement that Soseki is anti-war.

The book itself is nicely written.  Amongst the sadness, there are occasional witty flourishes that lighten it as well as some very moving passages, especially the final paragraph.  Although I have read a few Japanese novels, I have never read anything from the Meiji period before but would be happy to read more.  One side-note:  Soseki, apparently, did not like mystery stories as a literary form, which is quite amusing as the second half of the story turns into what is, basically, a detective story.

This post is part of the the Classics Circuit's Meiji era Japanese literature tour. 


Pamela said...

Thank you for this review. This sounds like a book that my father would really enjoy reading. I will add it to the Christmas shopping list!

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

Sounds... deep. And sad. Any ray of hope for humanity in there? :)

Rebecca Reid said...

How interesting. thanks for the historical context, as it sounds very necessary. And how odd that it turns into a mystery in the end?

I love books that are much deeper than they seem at first. Sounds like one of them.

Mel u said...

Thanks for this brilliant post-for sure I will add this book to my TBR list

Anne Iverson said...

Sounds... deep. And sad. Any ray of hope for humanity in there? :)