Review: The Miner

Natsume Sōseki played a major part in establishing the modern Japanese novel with works such as Botchan and I Am Cat, published in the early 20th century. This new edition of The Miner reintroduces English-speaking audiences to one of the great Japanese novelist's least-appreciated novels. Published serially starting in 1908, The Miner received almost universal pans from Japanese critics. For years afterward, that initial appraisal was rarely reconsidered.

The Miner is prickly and difficult. Thankfully, the fantastic introduction by celebrated novelist Haruki Murakami and the lengthy afterword by translator Jay Rubin provide context and analysis to help the reader appreciate the stylistic and intellectual daring that make The Miner an engrossing read. Murakami observes how the frustration that its readers may experience could lead many to wonder why Sōseki even wrote it at all, adding, "The author himself seems to be trying to sweep away such doubt and frustration when he undertakes the daring and tricky task of negating the very premise that this book is a novel at all." 

That might be read as criticism, but it's actually more of an admission that The Miner's particular pleasures are born out of a concerted effort to reject almost every convention. The protagonist is a disaffected young man of middle- to upper-class provenance who meets a procurer--a man who earns a fee convincing desperate souls to work in the mine--and follows him to "the hole." There, he makes a hellish descent into the bowels of the mine and an equally treacherous trip back to the surface. That, essentially, is the entire plot.

What Sōseki hangs upon that skeleton of a plot, however, is astonishing. Mirroring the protagonist's journey into the mine, Sōseki burrows into every thought that runs through the character's head, documenting the perambulations of each in exhausting detail. The level of psychological insight is so precise that The Miner could almost double as a textbook on cognitive functioning. For example, Sōseki writes:

"I hate to think that this world of clouds is going to be out there, blocking the path ahead, for the rest of my allotted span. Because what that means is that every time anxiety makes me take a step, I walk one step deeper into anxiety. Pursued by anxiety from behind, drawn on by anxiety ahead, I have to keep moving, but I can walk and walk, and nothing is going to be solved. I'll go on walking through an anxiety that will stay unsettled as long as I live."

While there is not much in The Miner that might be described as entertaining in the classical, novelistic sense, the story nevertheless possesses great value for the fantastic advances it makes in describing human consciousness. A must for Sōseki fans and those fascinated by the complexities of the mind. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

Shelf Talker: This revised translation of The Miner presents an underappreciated gem from one of Japan's greatest novelists.
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