The central character is a nameless young artist and poet who escapes the rapidly urbanising Tokyo to embark on a journey through rural Japan. He has set himself the task of viewing whatever he sees with dispassion, to observe the world simply as it is. He believes this requires him to be 'nonemotional', which is not the same as 'unemotional'. Though he tries to be this dispassionate calm observer he is unable to find a subject matter he wants to paint, or be satisfied he can capture the mood of a moment in a haiku.
Then he starts to hear about a woman through local gossip, and then encounters that woman, Nami, a name meaning beauty in Japanese. She appears as a uniquely independent free spirit, whom the artist becomes increasingly intrigued by. There is something about her that he's looking for, something in the way she chooses to live that he also wants. What he seeks is not sex or her love, but the solution to an existential longing. He frequently encounters her by accident, such as one time where they end up discussing what the best way to read a book is. The artist thinks its following the storyline, to connect with the characters triumphs and dilemmas from the start of the book in sequence through to the end. Nami, however, reads novels by opening them at random in a different place everyday, entering into the scene in the book and responding cleanly to whatever is happening. Being able to make something of it that's not completely bound by an author's narrative diktat.
Few books capture your attention right from their first few paragraphs. Once I read the first page I immediately planned to set aside time for reading it, I didn't want to skimp and risk missing something. Soseki writes with such precision and insight he holds you simply through the eloquence of his ( abeit translated ) sentences. So just as a taster to wet your appetite, here are the first two opening paragraphs.
' As I climb the mountain path, I ponder ~
If you work by reason, you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment's stream, it will sweep you away. Demanding your own way only serves to constrain you. However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.
And when its difficulties intensify, you find yourself longing to leave that world and dwell in some easier one - and then, when you understand at last that difficulties will dog you wherever you may live, this is when poetry and art are born.'