(坊っちゃん) is Natsume Soseki
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more outdated cultural references (Kabuki, haiku and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