Friday, 23 January 2015
(Translated by William F. Sibley)
"They walked along through life together on the path toward death, lashed by fate each step of the way. Yet the lash's tip, they realised, had been dipped in a honey-like balm that healed all wounds."
Although it dates from 1910 there is something very modern about The Gate. It deals with the death of ambition under the pressure of financial strain, conformity and the wearying monotony of commuter life. At times I found myself thinking that it sat somewhere between Dostoevsky and Revolutionary Road.
The main characters are Sōsuke and his wife Oyone. Right from the start there is a sense that the are just pawns in a bigger game, or perhaps prawns: "She saw that at some inner prompting he had brought his knees up to his chest, prawn-like, as if he were occupying a cramped space." They cling to middle class respectability but we are constantly being made aware that there is something shameful in their past, or at least in Sōsuke's past. For some reason he failed to finish university which has hampered his career progression. Work seems little more than an exhausting chore that leaves Sōsuke worn out: "when he gets home he's exhausted - even the walk to the bathhouse is a chore."
He seems disconnected from the world around him: "he was a man who had for years not only lived in and breathed the air of Tokyo but who also commuted by streetcar to the office and back every day, passing twice, to and fro, through the city's bustling quarters. Neither physically relaxed nor mentally at ease, he was in the habit of simply passing through these places in a daze and had not recently experienced even a moments awareness that he lived in a thriving metropolis." The younger Sōsuke was more alive to the world around him, and hungry for experience. He seems to have lived life to the full, been full of energy and ambition, if unfocussed.
Even reading has lost its attraction: "That time in his life when he could not pass a bookstore without wanting to go in, and once inside buy something, now belonged to the distant past." It seems that Sōsuke only really lives on a Sunday, but Sundays pass all too quick: "Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that had accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity."
Sōsuke's parents are dead and he bears responsibility for the education of his younger brother. It has been the case that his uncle and aunt took care of his brother Koruku, and he had handed over part of his inheritance to cover the expense. However, now his uncle has died and the unanswered questions about how much he realised from Sōsuke's fathers estate will never be answered. On top of this his aunt is saying that she can no longer fund Koruku's education. In order to sort this situation out Sōsuke need to call to see his aunt but he keeps putting it on the long finger: "he'd skip it today and go next Sunday - a pattern that repeated itself again and again through force of inertia."
Inertia hangs over all Sōsuke's activities. Sōseki captures the sense of being buried under your own to-do list, when the end seems so far away there's no point trying to get there: "There was always too much that Sōsuke wanted to do on this one day, and he could never accomplish even two or three out of the ten things he had proposed for himself. On the contrary, whenever he set out to follow through on just those two or three, he quickly came to begrudge the expenditure of time required and, hesitating to act, would just sit there until before he knew it the day drew to a close."
All this seems to make Sōsuke a very modern hero, the monotony of life seems to be wearing him down and erasing his humanity: "When Sōsuke compared his own life - the dreary lot he dragged along with him from the past and the destiny likely to unfold before him in the years to come - to the life of Kitchener, the two hardly seemed to belong to members of the same human race."
His marriage to Oyone doesn't appear to offer much support either, They are childless and have clearly suffered tragedy and reverses in their life together. It's hard to tell if this has wiped away whatever it was that brought them together, or even if there was anything there in the first place: "One might even assume them to have been the sort who, lacklustre and thoroughly ordinary to begin with, had gravitated toward each other simply for the sake of conforming to the custom of marriage." However, as the novel excavates their past we begin to see that they are bonded closely, and look out for and support each other, offering a haven form the difficulties life presents: "In the light that shone from the lamp Sōsuke was conscious only of Oyone, Oyone only of Sōsuke. They forgot the dark world of human affairs, which lay beyond the lamp's power to illuminate."
The past at first appears to pertain to a wildness in Sōsuke's character which is no longer there. He had plenty of money to spend and enjoyed a life much different to his current modest, monochrome one: "During the ensuing two years, roughly corresponding to their stay in Fukuoka, it was a struggle living from day to day. Sōsuke often thought back to his student days in Kyoto, to those distant times when he would find various pretexts, for instance "special supplemental tuition fees," for extracting from his father large sums that he would then spend freely on whatever he wanted."
When confronted by difficulties now he remains calm, almost indifferent. We are told that this is not how he was: "He showed no signs of erupting into a rage and racing off to give his aunt a talking-to, as he might formerly have done.." Indeed, it is as if he needs the world to be calm and unchanging: "The brain beneath his thatch of hair could not withstand such perturbation."
The difference between them and others who are better off is highlighted. Sōsuke's aunt is "of sufficient prosperity to have conferred on her a double chin." He notes that their landlord, Sakai, is very easygoing and supposes "that kind of leisure comes with money." But despite his desire for more leisure it seems that "he had become totally indifferent to the distinction between himself and others", and has no great desire for wealth beyond what will solve the immediate dilemma about his brother's education. The only remaining sign of ambition that we see is his hope that he won't be sacked in the cutbacks that are being implemented at his workplace.
He also cannot find consolation in religion:"This "religion" was an ephemeral word: It left no more trace than would smoke cupped in his hands once he had spread them open." So when the past rears it's head and looks likely to totally disrupt whatever continuity and security there is in his life, we fear for Sōsuke. Will he survive?
This is a wonderful novel, which, despite it's sense of anomie and impending doom, still casts a gentle light over its characters and, despite his flaws, presents Sōsuke as much more than an antihero, even if he seems to lack the drive to be a classical hero figure: "He was a man without roots, he reflected, someone who resembled a manikin being jerked this way and that."
This was read as part of Tony Malone's January in Japan, which has become a tradition around here and in many other places. Visit the link for much more on Japanese literature from all around the web or follow on Twitter - #JanuaryinJapan