sad thoughtful Asian man

I loved the little 1914 novel Kokoro, by the Japanese writer Natsume Sōseki, which I plucked off the shelf at my local bookstore, completely unaware of what I was getting into. As it turned out, I got myself into a beautiful, sad, and wonderfully written story.

The word Kokoro means “heart” or “feeling” in Japanese. This is an interesting title because at the center of the novel is an older man who acts gruff, but who is actually hiding the true feelings of his heart. The novel becomes a search for understanding the story behind the pain that the older man tries to hide.

In a bit of foreshadowing at the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, a young man who is drawn to the older man, makes statements from the perspective of the end of the novel, statements that the reader does not and cannot fully comprehend until getting to the end. Here is what the young man thinks about the older man:

“Now, when he is dead, I understand at last. He had never disliked me, and the occasional curt greetings and aloofness were not expressions of displeasure intended to keep me at bay. I pity him now, for I realize that he was in fact sending a warning, to someone who was attempting to grow close to him, signaling that he was unworthy of such intimacy. For all his unresponsiveness to others’ affection, I now see, it was not them he despised but himself.”

The older man had so much kokoro, in the form of self-hatred, that it poisoned his entire life. This is a novel about the mistakes people make and the unfortunate circumstances that sometimes arise out of nowhere, and how this can poison someone’s “feeling heart.”

Do you have dark secrets?