American readers can best approach e’s works through his fascination with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. e first read the book when he was fifteen, and he was keenly affected by Huck’s pilgrimage down the Mississippi River. It was Huck’s moral courage that captured e’s imagination. With the fearless determination to turn his back on the constraints of a rule-bound and racist society, Huckleberry Finn became the model for e’s own heroes, who bravely assume responsibility for carving out their own destinies. As he read more American fiction, e found kindred spirits in such other Americans writers as James Baldwin, J. D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer, all of whom were rebellious in their own ways. These writers’ young heroes possessed the independence and resolution that e’s heroes realize they must acquire if they are to survive in a world caught between the collapse of the old order and the creation of the new.
e’s early heroes find themselves banished from the security of childhood and thrust into a world that bears no relation to their past. The values that regulated life when they were growing up vanish in the aftermath of the atomic bomb. The postwar world they now face is a gaping hole, a blank, a terrifying nothingness. They know the penalty of surrendering to despair but are all too aware of the difficulty of solving the riddle of survival. They feel they need to cling to their anger and to employ their hostility as a weapon against bewilderment and apathy. Terrorism is a temptation. e’s protagonists fantasize about throwing hand grenades into the emperor’s limousine or joining the Foreign Legion, but they cannot bring themselves to act on their fantasies. Instead, they dabble in perversions that temporarily relieve the ache but never really fill the void that causes it.
e’s writing style has been the subject of much controversy in Japan. On one hand, it is refreshingly experimental, honestly brutal, and challenging; on the other hand, it can be merely undisciplined, trivial, and annoying. e tries hard to avoid the tendency toward vagueness, which is said to be inherent in the Japanese language. He deliberately ignores its natural rhythms and pushes the meanings of words beyond commonly acceptable limits. To many it seems clear that he is in the process of evolving a language and vocabulary all his own, a language that can express the vitality of his imagination. There are critics in Japan who are offended by his breaking with literary tradition. They say that e’s prose “reeks of butter,” meaning that he has corrupted the purity of Japanese with borrowings from European languages. To them, he offends traditional notions of what constitutes the spirit of Japanese language. This is hardly surprising, however, considering that it has always been e’s intention to attack traditional values. Like Huck Finn, his heroes are searching for their identity in a perilous wilderness. It is only fitting, then, that their language is graphic and untamed.
In addition to objecting to his style, critics have expressed disenchantment with e’s subject matter. While his early works were received enthusiastically, critics expressed disappointment with what followed. His stories between 1958 and 1964 are generally about the life of a college student in Tokyo, unable to fit in, aimless, politically ambiguous, morally unrestrained, and with very little hope. Critics and readers alike objected to the sordid world he portrayed, as well as to his use of explicit language. It was clear that he was far ahead of his times.
Depressed by this response but unrepentant, e chose not to tone down his language but to continue to write graphically about troubled young men who wander aimlessly in dangerous territory, rootless and dispossessed, no longer innocent boys but not quite adults. The student unrest of the 1960’s had a tremendous influence on e’s narratives. Suspicion of the adult world became a major theme in his works.
When A Personal Matter appeared in 1968, American reviewers responded enthusiastically to this English translation of Kojinteki na taiken. It marked the debut, in English, of a major Japanese writer whose treatment of postwar youth was rendered with uncompromising realism. In 1977, when Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness was published in the United States, e was described as a brilliantly obsessive writer.
Although e is not a joiner, he has deep political convictions. That he feels strongly about his role as a writer in society is apparent both in his essays and his speeches. In his speeches, he has discussed many of the sociopolitical issues, such as nuclear disarmament and Japan’s need to take a leading role on the world stage, that many people would rather politely avoid. Critics have objected to the lack of romantic love in his fiction and to the relegating of female characters to secondary roles. Defenders argue that all e’s characters are more symbolic than real, and that the men stand for characteristics common to all people. While it is true that he may view the world from a masculine perspective, he does not excuse the often insensitive treatment of female characters by male ones. He uses such behavior to illustrate human failings in the larger sense.
Ultimately, e’s works read like diaries of the modern soul, rudderless and adrift, stumbling about in a darkening world.
A Personal Matter
First published: Kojinteki na taiken, 1964 (English translation, 1968)
Type of work: Novel
The father of a deformed child is at first devastated but ultimately redeemed as he becomes devoted to his brain-damaged son.
A Personal Matter was the first of a series of novels whose main character is the young father of a brain-damaged child. Called Bird because of his birdlike appearance, the young father is a frustrated intellectual and unhappy husband who dreams of flying off to Africa. When Bird’s wife gives birth to a baby with a hideously misshapen head, Bird sees the baby as a threat to his dream. Convinced that the baby will not live long, Bird arranges with one of the doctors to dilute the baby’s milk, but miraculously the baby thrives on this potentially lethal diet. Overwhelmed by the infant’s instinctive power to survive, Bird resolves to devote his life to his son regardless of the cost.
The baby is not only the cause of the father’s personal anguish but also the symbol of the anguish of humanity faced with calamity. The connection between personal and universal tragedy is made at the moment when Bird, as he is about to murder the baby, hears a news broadcast announcing the Soviet resumption of nuclear testing. In a flash Bird sees the world’s destiny mirrored in his own. Whether it is one life or a million lives, the act of murder is equally evil.
The moment he perceives the connection between the baby’s fate and the fate of humanity, Bird decides he must take care of the baby. He knows the odds are against him, that he will be creating misery for himself while sustaining a life that means absolutely nothing to the world. Accepting these odds, he says to himself: “It’s for my own good. It’s so I can stop being a man who’s always running away. . ....
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