Botchan (坊っちゃん) is Natsume Soseki's best-known novel and a classic of Japanese literature.

The story is at heart a simple one. Botchan, our eponymous hero -- the name means something along the lines of Young Master and is a cross between an insult and an endearment depending on the context -- is a graduate just out of school, who is sent from his hometown Tokyo all the way to the boonies near Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku to be a math teacher. The book tells of his troubles there, with unruly students and plotting teachers, and his eventual/inevitable comeuppance... if with an unexpected twist. The story is, not surprisingly, largely autobiographical and many of the characters in the novel have been traced back to real people Soseki encountered while teaching English in Matsuyama.

The heart of the story lies in these characters, not the least of whom is Botchan himself. There's Tanuki (狸, "raccoon dog"), the school principal who only speaks in impenetable keigo; Red Shirt, the dapper geisha-loving hypocrite; Madonna, the geisha in question; Yamaarashi (山嵐, "mountain storm"), a rare paragon of virtue; and a host of minor characters, perhaps my favorite being Baasan (婆ちゃん, "granny"), the keeper of the little inn Botchan stays in, who speaks a hilarious version of Shikoku dialect zo na moshi. For the Japanese, however, it is Botchan who steals the show: his straightforward (and most "un-Japanese") tendency to say what he thinks and do what he means has made him a bit of a hero in the vein of Huckleberry Finn, a young man with his heart in the right place even when things don't quite work out... although it must be said that Botchan isn't quite as simple a character and his contempt for country life makes him an insufferable prig at times.

Unfortunately, Soseki's mastery of Japanese makes Botchan a tough read for the non-native speaker, as the dialect used is painfully authentic and even the narrative (in the protagonist's voice) is colloquial Japanese... from 1906, that is. Kanji usage is correspondingly bizarre, my edition has 10 pages of 7-pt footnotes explaining the more outdated cultural references (Kabuki, haiku and pre-war Imperial Japan all abound), and some of the dialogues leave even Botchan himself scratching his head in puzzlement. Botchan has also been faulted for, basically, having very little in the way of a plot, it just involves our protagonist stumbling from one silly situation to another with very little element of suspense.

But for good or bad, Botchan is ingrained in the national consciousness, and especially in the environs of Matsuyama you'll be hard pressed to escape from his presence. In particular, Soseki's and Botchan's favorite hideout (and about the only place Botchan confesses to liking), the spa town of Dogo Onsen, is full of references to the novel, with even the dango rice dumplings that feature in one substory now being known as Botchan dango.

The novel has been translated several times, with lackluster results -- whether due to the translation or subject matter, not having read any I know not -- but it may well be that the book is just a bit too Japanese for foreign barbarians to fully appreciate. You may wish to try something else for starters.



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