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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Miner

Natsume Sōseki

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To purchase The Miner

Title: The Miner
Author: Natsume Sōseki
Genre: Novel
Written: 1908 (Eng. 1988, rev. 2015)
Length: 260 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Miner - US
The Miner - UK
The Miner - Canada
The Miner - India
Le Mineur - France
Der Bergmann - Deutschland
El minero - España
  • Japanese title: 坑夫
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Jay Rubin
  • With an Introduction by Murakami Haruki

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a very fine piece of writing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 24/10/2015 Damian Flanagan
TLS . 9/3/2016 J.Keith Vincent

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)nalytical and darkly humorous (.....) Far from being an experimental oddity -- all of Sosekiís novels are experimental -- The Miner is actually a work central to Sosekiís evolving analysis of what "hell" in a modern context means. This is a handsome and welcome new edition." - Damian Flanagan, The Japan Times

  • "The mine flickers into allegory and The Miner becomes a hybrid of realism and existential parable, somewhere between Zola and Kafka. For this new edition the translator Jay Rubin (who also translates Murakami) has given his original version from 1988 a thorough scrubbing and a new immediacy -- sticking closer to Sōsekiís striking use of present-tense narration. Rubinís superb afterword remains unchanged" - J.Keith Vincent, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Miner is among Sōseki's lesser-known (and lesser-loved) novels, and both Murakami Haruki in his Introduction and translator Jay Rubin in his Afterword make excuses for the book, in the hopes of winning readers over. "It is one of my favourites", Murakami even writes, even as he admits to, and lists, what he perceives as the novel's flaws -- "Perhaps the first thing to mention is the frustration it gives the reader", he rather unpromisingly suggests, and later mentions, among much else: "its unsatisfying ending, its weak catharsis, its stubborn detachment"; he is also sympathetic to early reader disappointment, given that: "The book has nothing that might be called a plot". It's all rather awkwardly well-meaning, no doubt, and both pieces are informative -- yet there's something (everything ...) to be said for letting fiction stand or fall on its own merits alone.
       In the Introduction and Afterword there's also mention of -- or, indeed, harping on -- the fact that Sōseki based his story on an account by a "young informant", a young man who recounted his tragic love story and subsequent descent into mining, which Sōseki then, with his permission, refashioned (minus, for the most part, the personal love story) into this novel. This is background information that is appropriate to mention in the supporting apparatus, yet also proves to be a distraction (and of course gives parts of the story away, in that the young man obviously did not remain in the mines). It also changes expectations: the novel's narrator-protagonist no longer stands entirely on his own, the novelist's creation -- instead, unseen but casting a long shadow, is the actual person he is based on.
       One can understand the temptation to be able to boast: 'With an Introduction by Haruki Murakami' on the cover, and it no doubt brings the book to the attention of many more readers, but this is the sort of book that likely would have stood much better all on its own, without so much distracting and compromising information and opinion leading into it.
       The narrator of the novel is an unnamed nineteen year-old youth who has just run away from his privileged Tokyo home. He'd come to be fed up with life at home (though there's a little more to this, which he doesn't go into in great depth) and sought escape; suicide was one alternative but:

I tried it once or twice. But every time I was on the verge of killing myself, I'd be too frightened to go through with it. Finally I realized that suicide is not something you become better at with practice.
       (This sort of dark humor is typical of the novel.)
       So he runs away from home, taking essentially no money or possessions with him:
I would run because I couldn't simply die right away, but running would be a step in the right direction. The thing to do was to give it a try and if it looked as though I was going to be pursued and tortured by the past, then it was still not too late to begin making plans to let myself die naturally. And if, after that, it became clear that nothing was going to work, hen at last the time would have come for me to perform my act of suicide.
       The novel begins with him walking, and he remains more or less on the move for most of the novel. Though the novel is called The Miner, it is, for the most part, a novel of rambling, of almost constant movement, to an unfamiliar destination; the narrator only begins his first descent into an actual mine some two-thirds of the way into his account (though even here he still keeps moving, albeit now in a rather different direction).
       The narrator quickly lets himself be sold on the offer a procurer, Chōzō, makes him, to get him a job. He has never worked a day in his life, but this most extreme physical labor sounds like just the thing for him, in his condition. So he sets out with Chōzō, travelling in a world new to him, away from safe and comfortable Tokyo; along the way, Chōzō picks up another two candidates.
       The narrator admits he has: "resigned myself to the ego-submerging business of becoming a miner". Yet submerging it can't entirely deaden his self. The artifice of the exercise, of the re-creation of what happened to him is also repeatedly alluded to. There's great immediacy to much of the account, giving the reader the feeling of being by the narrator's side -- and yet he pulls away at times, too, acknowledging that he writes from years later. Amusingly, too, he notes at one point, for example: "At this rate my book will never turn into a novel" -- insisting that: "All I'm recording here is facts that don't fit together", i.e. reality (even as, of course, it is very much a work fiction).
       That this is Sōseki's basic struggle in this work is clear from early on, when the narrator observes:
The real thing is something that novelists don't know how to write about. Or, if they tried, the end result would never be a novel. Real people are strangely difficult to make sense of.
       'Real' figures come and go in the novel, types that the sheltered narrator has never really encountered and that are, in every respect, foreign to him. Even as they play significant roles, they are fleeting figures: as soon as Chōzō has dumped him at the appropriate place at the mine, he disappears entirely from the narrator's view, and life. And while Sōseki can't entirely allow events to simply unfold, occasionally noting the artificiality of the whole set-up ("For me to have met Yasu at a time like this was something right out of a novel"), the portrayal of the narrator's interactions is largely entirely convincing.
       The narrator leaves a pampered life and comfortable if rigid world and begins a descent that leads him ultimately almost literally down into hell. It's an impressively-recounted journey, and Sōseki convincingly inhabits the tortured yet fairly clearly-thinking mind of his educated protagonist.
       Of course, there is the question of what to do with the protagonist once he's reached the lowest depths. In his Introduction Murakami disappointingly announced that there would be an "unsatisfying ending" to the novel, so readers perhaps aren't expecting much -- and yet it's a fine ending. Anti-climactic ? Perhaps -- but The Miner isn't a novel of climax (and it doesn't need a careful reading to have noticed that Sōseki has tempered expectations for things to 'happen' at basically every turn).
       This is a very good novel, of a young man's struggles with himself and his personal demons. It is perhaps regrettable that Sōseki sidesteps the issue(s) that led the narrator down this road -- though interestingly he can't completely let it go, and obliquely suggests some of the failed romances that led to the turning-(away-)point -- but it's also fitting that his struggles are so very much in the here and now. More significantly, this would certainly seem to be a story that stands much stronger outside all its contexts (painstakingly explained by both Murakami and Rubin ...), rather than tied down so limitingly within them.
       The Miner turns out to be a very good novel -- with what is, regardless of Murakami's claims, a strong (if admittedly relatively simple) plot. This is not some lesser Sōseki-novel -- it offers all the rewards (and, yes, shares some of the weaknesses) of his best work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 August 2016

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The Miner: Reviews: Natsume Sōseki: Other books by Natsume Sōseki under review: Books about Natsume Sōseki under review:
  • John Nathan's Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石; actually: Natsume Kinnosuke) lived 1867 to 1916 and was the leading Japanese author of the Meiji era.

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