Kenzaburo Ōe Nobel Prize in Literature
Born in 1935, Ōe is a Japanese novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
For further information on Ōe's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 10 and 36.
One of the foremost figures in contemporary Japanese literature, Ōe is highly regarded for intensely imagined and formally innovative novels examining the sense of alienation and anxiety among members of the post-World War II generation in Japan. Ōe's fiction is both profoundly intellectual and emotionally raw. Utilizing ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of existentialism, Ōe portrays the unique agonies and dilemmas of his characters with concrete precision in ways that point to the more universal significance of their suffering. Characterizing life as profoundly absurd, Ōe's works are deeply concerned with the implications of nuclear power, particularly in light of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Born in a small village on the western Japanese island of Shikoku, Ōe was raised in a prominent Samurai family in accordance with traditional Japanese beliefs. Like most Japanese children of his generation, Ōe was taught to believe that the Emperor was a living god. When Emperor Hirohito personally announced in a radio broadcast Japan's surrender to the Allied military forces, Ōe and his schoolmates experienced a sense of devastation and disorientation which forever changed their perception of the world. Ōe described his emotions at this point in his life in his memoir Genshuku na tsunawatari (1974; Solemnly Walking the Tightrope): "the strange and disappointing fact was that the Emperor spoke in a human voice like any ordinary man." While Ōe lamented the sense of humiliation and guilt which Japan's defeat and occupation by American troops imposed on his generation, he also embraced the values of democracy which were instilled through the educational system of the occupation forces. While a student at Tokyo University, Ōe read widely in both traditional Japanese and modern Western literature. He was particularly influenced by such existentialist philosophers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and by the American tradition of the "anti-hero," as represented in the works of such authors as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. Reflecting his ambitious and erudite reading habits, Ōe's early stories were awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes. In 1964 Ōe's first son was born with brain damage. While still concerned with the survival of heroic consciousness in an age of nuclear terror, Ōe subsequently incorporated the figure of his handicapped son into his fiction. According to the critic and translator John Nathan, Ōe began to write of heroes who "turn away from the lure of peril and adventure and seek instead, with the same urgency," a life of "certainty and consonance." A vocal antiestablishment, pro-democracy activist throughout his career, Ōe created a minor controversy in Japan when he rejected Japan's highest cultural honor—The Imperial Order of Culture, awarded days after he received the Nobel Prize—because he considered it a symbolic relic of the Imperial system and "would not recognize any authority, any value, higher than democracy."
While still a university student, Ōe established his literary reputation with his first novella, Shiiku (1958; The Catch), which tells the story of a Japanese boy and a black American prisoner-of-war whose friendship is destroyed by the brutality of war. Ōe's first novel to gain international recognition, however, was Kojinteki na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter ). The story of a twenty-seven-year-old man nicknamed "Bird" whose wife gives birth to a physically deformed and brain-damaged son, the novel ends on an apparently hopeful note with Bird's decision to keep his son...
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alive. However, most critics emphasize that the style and overall thematic structure ofA Personal Matter are more closely aligned with the pessimistic worldview of existentialism than with traditional narratives of tribulation and triumph. Ōe's concern with sickness and sexual perversion, as expressions of a deeper spiritual malaise, undercut the "happy" ending and signal Ōe's commitment to honestly portraying the darkest neuroses of contemporary humanity. Ōe's most universally acclaimed novel, Man'en gannen no futtoboru (1967; The Silent Cry), is a formally innovative and densely poetic portrayal of Takashi and Mitsusaburo, two brothers who clash over their differing interpretations of their tumultuous family history. Utilizing a method of temporal displacement and unity, Ōe constructs the narrative as the surreal juxtaposition of a political uprising in 1860 (the year Japan was forced to ratify a treaty opening up commerce with the United States) and the brothers' struggle a hundred years later. Violent to the point of psychosis, Takashi commits a brutal rape and murder, and betrays his elder brother in a secret land deal. To retaliate, Mitsusaburo conceals a crucial piece of knowledge about the Manengannen uprising, which has been Takashi's consuming obsession. Takashi's eventual suicide bears an ironic correspondence to the story Mitsusaburo has concealed, and the novel ends with his guilty resignation to a life of passivity and regret. In addition to its complex narrative structure, The Silent Cry exhibits a preoccupation with violence and physical deformity which some critics have linked with the methods of "grotesque realism," a brand of exaggerated satire which was pioneered by the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais. In subsequent works, Ōe continued to employ complex methods of narrative displacement and juxtaposition, notably in Dojidai gemu (1979).
Critical reaction to Ōe's works has been mostly adulatory. Despite the minor reservations of some critics with regard to its "happy" ending, A Personal Matter was internationally recognized as a masterpiece and a triumph of personal expression—a novel clearly autobiographical in content, but which transcends its literal narrative to symbolize the entire postwar spirit of malaise among Japanese intellectuals. The Silent Cry was lauded by the Nobel committee as "Ōe's major mature work," and its complex narrative framework has been compared with the "magic realism" of Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. Many critics argue that Ōe's deliberate coalescence of modern Western and traditional Japanese forms has made him difficult to interpret and translate in either Japanese or English, and the fact that few of his works have been translated into English has limited the amount of criticism devoted to him outside of Japan. However, with the recognition attendant on his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, scholars foresee an influx of English translations and criticism in years to come.
∗Shiiku [The Catch] (novella) 1958Memushiri kouchi (novel) 1958Warera no jidai (novel) 1959Sakebigoe (novel) 1962Hiroshimo nōto [Hiroshima Notes] (essays) 1963Kojinteki na taiken [A Personal Matter] (novel) 1964Man'en gannen no futtoboru [The Silent Cry] (novel) 1967Nichijo seikatsu no boken (novel) 1971Kozui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi (novel) 1973Genshuku na tsunawatari [Solemnly Walking the Tightrope] (essays) 1974Seinen no omei (novel) 1974Pinchiranaa chosho [The Pinchrunner Memorandum] (novel) 1976 †Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (novellas) 1977Dojidai gemu (novel) 1979The Crazy Iris, and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath [editor] (short stories) 1984Natsukashii toshi e no tegami (novel) 1987Yureugoku (novel) 1994
∗This novella was translated and published as The Catch in The Shadow of Sunrise, edited by Saeki Shoichi.
†This English-language collection contains the translated novellas The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, Prize Stock, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, and Aghwee the Sky Monster.
Michiko N. Wilson (essay date Winter 1981)
SOURCE: "Ōe's Obsessive Metaphor, Mori, the Idiot Son: Toward the Imagination of Satire, Regeneration, and Grotesque Realism," in The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 23-52.
[Wilson is a critic and educator specializing in Japanese and comparative literature. In the following essay, she analyzes Ōe's variations on his most recurrent themes in five of his works and elucidates its relation to the genres of satire and "grotesque realism" as defined by structuralist theory.]
Ōe Kenzaburo (1935–) is regarded in Japan and the United States as a leading postwar novelist. Deeply involved in contemporary issues, he makes a clean break from the literary traditions that nurtured such writers as the Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972), Shiga Naoya (1883–1972), and Mishima Yukio (1925–1970).
What is most innovative about Ōe's works is that he cultivates the techniques of Cervantes and Rabelais and follows in their footsteps. From 1964 on, by employing farce, travesty, satire, and "grotesque realism," which has debasement and laughter at its core, Ōe has challenged and turned upside down the notion of what Japanese literature should be. [In a footnote, Wilson notes that the term "grotesque realism" was coined by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin in his Rabelais and His World, 1968.] In contrast to Meiji-Taishō Realism, which is often characterized by a spirit of Confucian solemnity, Ōe tries to offer an alternative worldview by synthesizing in his artistic world the long-neglected elements of gesaku-like humor, the satiric, and especially the earthy qualities of folklore such as Konjaku monogatari (Tales of Modern and Ancient Times).
Ōe's originality also lies in the intensity of his message aimed at both the individual and the entire human race. Despite the extremely personal lyricism that runs through his works, his private universe, directed by what he calls "the Cosmic Will," offers immediacy and relevance to contemporary problems. Ōe believes that social, political, and environmental issues are as much "situations" created by man as man is the victim of his own "situations." For him "to outgrow" this insane world [Wilson is echoing and alluding here to the title of Ōe's collection, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, 1977], grappling with the world's problems is the only way to survive. As much as the landing on the moon is a reality to contemporary man, the annihilation of mankind by nuclear war is a most immediate concern and reality to Ōe. [Wilson continues in a footnote: "In Hiroshima Nōto [Hiroshima Notes], Ōe talks about the journey he made to Hiroshima immediately after the birth of his first baby boy who was on the verge of dying in the incubator, and how he witnessed the enduring volition of the Hiroshima victims. 'I know very little about the Bible, but the gods who deluged the earth must have calculated on Noah's capability of restoring the human world before they sent the flood. Had Noah turned out to be a sluggard, a hysterical Jeremiah with no ability to restore the world, and had the postdeluvian world continued to be a wasteland, it would have certainly caused consternation among the gods in the heavens…. The atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima was the worst deluge in the twentieth century. Amidst the great flood the people of Hiroshima immediately began to restore their world. By saving themselves, they also saved the souls of those who dropped the A-bomb. In the current deluge that we are faced with, the universal deluge frozen at this moment, yet ready to melt and engulf us at any time, the souls which the people of Hiroshima have saved include all the souls of humanity in the twentieth century seized with the cancer called "the possession of nuclear armaments."'"]
Four Western literary figures—Auden, Sartre, Mailer, and Rabelais—stand out among those whose philosophy and literary techniques have had profound influences upon Ōe's consciousness. He reminisces in the notes to Part III in Solemn Tightrope Walking (1965), the first of three collections of essays: "My literary background was shaped like a triangle, the three points of which were Sartre, Norman Mailer, and postwar Japanese literature." Also, W. H. Auden often dominated Ōe's early discussions on literature in general:
The things I learned from Auden are numerous, even though I had read Sartre before I came to know Auden. Auden especially taught me what a literary "image" is. I fantasized that, if I were to create an image as a novelist or a poet, I must grasp, as simply and accurately as possible, the nuance of a tiny wrinkle in the human heart, of the dark forest that conceals both a lion and a war. Also, the image must have a sense of shimmering specificity. I wanted to create an image in such a way that everything that exists in the world would go through a tunnel … penetrating straight into the human heart. [Solemn Tightrope Walking]
This statement contains three important points which Ōe has continuously insisted on: to promote social awareness, to demystify human behavior, and to liberate the human mind. With these issues in mind, Ōe struck upon another mentor whose intent and undaunting spirit of continuity (jizokusei) became his own.
He wrote in an essay called "The Continuity of Norman Mailer," "one particular quality that grips the lifelong reader of Mailer is the sincerity of his continuity…. For example, in Advertisement for Myself, at the crossroads of his life, he edited his numerous essays and published them with his own comments. The consistent emotional impact his writings have upon the reader bespeaks not so much the superb journalistic talent inherent in Mailer as the continuity of purpose that is built into his individual works" [Kujira no shimetsu suru hi (The Day the Whales Shall be Annihilated)].
Ōe shares Mailer's radical views on sex and politics. Politics interests Mailer so long as it is an integral part of man as a social being, that is to say, "politics as a part of everything else in life." While Ōe is encouraged by Sartre's statement that "one of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world," he is also inspired by Mailer who believes that the purpose of art is "to intensify, even if necessary, to exacerbate, the moral consciousness of people." Mailer continues: "In particular, I think the novel is at its best the most moral of the art forms because it's the most immediate, the most overbearing, if you will. It is the most inescapable. One could argue much more easily about the meaning of a nonobjective painting or of music, or whatever. But in the novel, the meaning is there. It's much closer; one could argue about ambiguities, but, because one is using words, it's much closer to the sense of moral commandments, moral strictures" [Advertisement For Myself]. Parallel to this is the role of the artist, which, according to Mailer, is "to be as disturbing, as adventurous, as penetrating, as his energy and courage make possible."
One particular poem by Auden eventually came to represent the lifestyle of the prototype of Ōe's hero. It is entitled "Leap Before You Look"; its first stanza sums up the young hero's sentiments and action.
The sense of danger must not disappear: The way is certainly both short and steep, However gradual it looks from here; Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
[In a footnote Wilson adds: "In 1958 Ōe wrote a short story with the same title about a 21-year-old college youth who is unable to 'leap' and gives in to the stagnant surroundings around him. His lifestyle and sentiments serve to represent the debilitation of Japanese people in general in postwar society. Later, Ōe borrowed a line, 'Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness,' for the title of his story from Auden's long poem called 'Commentary' which appeared in Journey to a War (1939)…."]
For Ōe's hero, this sense of danger stimulates the need to act, the need to "intensify and exacerbate the moral consciousness of people." It is in this light that we are able to come to terms with the militant nature of Ōe's statement on the use of sex, which has often invited annoyance and dissatisfaction from Japanese critics. For example, he deplored the fact that his ambitious work, Warera no jidai (Our Times, 1959), was dismissed as a novel of sexual perversion. "Almost every critic detested Our Times as if it were an ostracized slut" [Solemn Tightrope Walking]. In Ōe's narratives sexual terms and descriptions are meant to provoke the reader, to generate in his mind, as Ōe puts it, "an exaltation of an ideology"; by stimulating the mind and agitating the psyche, he hopes to dig "a vertical mine shaft" straight into the heart of the darkness of both the individual and of mankind. After all, sexuality is inseparably tied to what is at the root of human existence. What Ōe is aiming at is sobriety of mind with sex as a stimulant to one's consciousness, never sexual stupor.
Another Western literary mentor who has been a constant inspiration to Ōe is Rabelais. Paraphrasing the question an interviewer once put to Mailer, Ōe asks himself in one of his essays: "If I were to be exiled to a desert island and could take only a limited number of books with me, what would they be?" His immediate choice of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais foretells the direction he would take a decade later in creating The Pinchrunner Memorandum (1976), a novel of satire, laughter, and regeneration.
His admiration for Rabelais' work is restated in his 1976 article, "Toward the Imagination of Buffoonery and Regeneration" ["Dōke to saisei e no sōzōryoku"], which supplies us with sufficient data to understand the intent and the range of the ambitious novel, The Pinchrunner Memorandum. The novel is in many ways antithetical to post-Meiji realism and its succeeding literary traditions. It is in a way a violation of a taboo, in the sense that the combination of socio-political issues with Rabelaisian laughter, slapstick farce, satire, and "grotesque realism" has often been regarded as extraneous to the realm of "serious" literature, or belles lettres. Ōe also brings into the novel an element of the fantastic, which enjoyed considerable popularity among nineteenth-century Western writers. The result is that his work is remarkably free of cynicism, sentimentality, and pessimism.
In his early works written between 1957 and 1963, Ōe focuses on the degradation, humiliation, and chaos brought forth by the unconditional surrender of Japan in World War II. He relies heavily on explicit sexual terms in an attempt to portray the "adversities and the plight of the stagnant Japanese youth in the postwar society" [Solemn Tightrope Walking]. Unable to commit themselves to the making of history, these youth are in a state of "moratorium" (which later becomes Ōe's favorite word) in solitary confinement awaiting the moment of execution. Elsewhere, the humiliation of Occupied Japan is symbolized by an unemployed young man under the sway of a prostitute who caters only to foreigners. College youths and delinquent juveniles share the dream of an adventurous life which must exist somewhere outside Japan. Both groups are abandoned by adults, who are repulsed by their violence, obscene language, and aberrant sexual behavior. Out of these groups emerge the misfits who form a collective body to protect themselves from a hostile society, and a young intellectual who eventually settles down and brings up an idiot son.
With the appearance in 1964 of Aghwee the Sky Monster, Ōe's dominant theme shifts from an obsession with the lost war to the theme of madness. This second theme is deeply bound up with his personal experience: in June 1963 he became the father of a baby boy born with brain damage. In his five works written between 1964–1976, Ōe consistently employs the image of a corpulent father and his idiot son, and the theme of madness. These five works are Aghwee the Sky Monster (Sora no kaibutsu Aguwee), A Personal Matter (Kojinteki na taiken, 1964), Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo, 1969), The Waters Are Come in unto My Soul (Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi, 1973), and The Pinchrunner Memorandum (Pinchirannaa chōsho, 1976). The presence of this "obsessive metaphor" of the father and the idiot son should not be dismissed merely as a repetition of an old theme, but rather we must consider the five works as one large narrative in progress. The repetition in Ōe's works is the key to the understanding of his literary universe and its structure, more essentially, of literature itself, and its tool, language. The pertinence of reciprocity of one work to another is well asserted by Todorov. "Just as the meaning of a part of the work is not exhausted in itself, but is revealed in its relation with other parts, a work in its entirety can never be read in a satisfactory and enlightening fashion if we do not put it in relation with other works, previous and contemporary" [The Poetics of Prose].
To apply Todorov's notion of reciprocity within the works of a single author, Ōe's five works under discussion can be categorized into what modern linguists refer to as a "syntagmatic" type, in which the second text reacts actively to the first, rather than a "paradigmatic" type which indicates the absence of the other text and does not function reciprocally. The first two works, Aghwee the Sky Monster and A Personal Matter, play off one another, creating the "syntagmatic" or "combinatory" relation between the two represented in the formula of the question/answer pair, or what Todorov calls, "a concealed polemic." The main polemic is: "Should I kill the monster baby or live with the monster?" The narrative movement in Aghwee is based on the following answer to the above question, "Yes, I should kill the baby (and I have murdered the baby)." A Personal Matter presents the other choice, "No, I should not kill the baby; I will live with the baby." By combining the first text with the second, the reader gains a clearer view of the conflict that the father must have experienced.
Once the resolution is made and the father carries out the decision, there emerges another question/answer: "Am I really the passive victim quietly enduring a bondage imposed by my idiot son who never rejects my words?" This polemic is the basis of the verbal structure of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.
Freedom from this artificially created bondage, the father's obsessive desire, means the establishment of a balanced relationship between the father and the son. It also means the exclusion of a mother or a wife, whose original role loses its impetus. In order to make their life a meaningful one, the pair must have contacts with the external world. Thus, in a way, The Waters Are Come in unto My Soul and The Pinchrunner Memorandum are adventure stories of the undaunted pair, the former story about the father who assumes the active role in the adventure, the latter about the idiot son who carries out the vision of the father and the son. Both stories end with a death: the father dies in The Waters, the son Mori in The Pinchrunner. The function of the pair is such that Ōe must end his story when the idiot son dies, because Ōe's works are ultimately about Mori the idiot son. In the following pages we shall closely examine the first four works about Mori, and their "syntagmatic," i.e., "combinatory," relations which unveil the intertextual figure of the father and the idiot son in a sequence.
A young father, the main character of Aghwee, kills his newborn baby by giving him only sugar water. When the autopsy reveals that the baby had a benign tumor, the father goes into self-confinement and becomes obsessed with the illusion (that is what the narrator and the reader are led to believe) of his baby flying down from the sky. The phantom baby, the size of a kangaroo in a white cotton nightgown, dwells in the sky. In other words, the murdered baby is transformed into a celestial being which is a part of the cosmic force. According to his ex-wife, however, the father's self-confinement is escapism.
The baby comes down from the sky to remind the father of his crime and taunt him. The illusion/reality is perhaps the father's insane desire to communicate and join with the baby whose only utterance in his brief life was "Aghwee!" In the end the baby fulfills the father's desire, or perhaps the baby tricks the father: "Suddenly D [the father] cried out and thrust both arms in front of him as if he were trying to rescue something; then he leaped in among those trucks and was struck to the ground." In other words, the father lets himself go for the first time in his life and decides to follow the baby. Already in this story are mythological elements or elements of the fantastic, which Ōe incorporates into The Pinchrunner Memorandum. The kangaroo baby is not a passive victim eliminated by his own father, but a trickster-like character; he returns to haunt his murderer. The baby character does not exist in reality, but he does exist in the father's psyche. However, to the narrator who is hired to be the father's companion, the question persists to the end: Does it exist or not?
Seven months after [Aghwee] appeared, Ōe published A Personal Matter, which again centers around the father and his idiot son. Antithetical to the previous story, here the newborn baby escapes death by clinging stubbornly to life. Overwhelmed by the infant's physical and instinctive power to survive, the father resolves to live with his idiot son. This yet-to-be-named baby serves a double function: it is the father's personal tragedy as well as a symbol of the tragedy of mankind. For, prior to his decision to take care of the monster baby, in the midst of confusion, despair, and enervation, as he is about to carry out the murder of the baby, the father hears the news broadcast of the Soviet resumption of nuclear testing. At this moment the monster baby that governs his personal destiny seems to represent the fate of mankind in the face of nuclear war. "In a world shared by all those others, time was passing, a [sic] mankind's one and only time, and a destiny apprehended the world over as one and the same destiny was taking evil shape."
Bird, the baby's father, challenges the odds that are stacked up against him, that is to say, "the creation of misery for himself and the nurturing of a life that meant absolutely nothing to this world." Against these odds he repeats himself: "It's for my own good. It's so I can stop being a man who's always running away…. All I want is to stop being a man who continually runs away from responsibility." Here, Ōe's hero realizes the reversal of his relation to reality and to the world. The question, "Who am I?" is replaced by that of "What is my relation to the world?" or "What am I in relation to the world?" Ōe shares the Dostoevskian view that the most important thing is "not how the hero appears to the world, but … how the world appears to the hero and how the hero appears to himself" [Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics].
Thus the baby is the beginning of the father's new life, a life of commitment to the world. We see in the following three stories, Teach Us [to Outgrow Our Madness], The Waters, and The Pinchrunner, how the odds are turned around, how the existence of an idiot son becomes part and parcel of the father's entire being. The identification of the father with the infant son gradually takes place at the end of A Personal Matter: "A week after the operation the baby had looked almost human; the following week it had begun to resemble Bird." Also, the final paragraph implies that the father is slowly emerging from an amorphous, suspended existence (chūburarinko), about to embark upon a risky adventure in the world where idiocy is an anomaly, digression from the norms set up by the intolerant society. The baby's presence will eventually liberate the father from the self-image he has indulged himself in. Ōe's works seek to explore "the sum total" of the hero's (later the pair's—the father and the idiot son) "consciousness and self-consciousness … the hero's final word about himself and about his world" [Bakhtin, Dostoevsky's Poetics].
In Teach Us Ōe strikes upon a name most appropriate for the idiot son who allegorically unites Ōe to the environment he himself grew up in, a valley in the deep forest of Shikoku Island (the background of The Catch, 1957). Mori, "forest" in Japanese and "death or idiocy" in Latin, becomes the axis upon which Ōe's literary universe spins and expands. At the same time Mori is also the destination to which Ōe returns. Throughout the story the reader is familiarized with the fat son, not by his real name Mori, but by his nickname Eeyore (which, according to the Japanese pronunciation, sounds like "iiyō," meaning "It's O.K."!). Why so? We are told that the father initially meant to mock his son whose alternative was to die or be an idiot. "Could such existence be given a name?" "Every time he called the child by name [Mori] it seemed to him that he could hear, in the profound darkness in his head, his own lewd and repentent laughter mocking the entirety of his life." His cynicism turns against him, and he is the one to be mocked.
The corpulent father identifies with the moon-faced four-year-old son, and tries to live in his son's twilight world filled with pain, fear, and numbness. He believes or wants to believe that he is the only one who can function as a window to his son's murky mind, as "a pipeline of vision connecting his son's brain" with the outside world through the "conduit of their clasped hands." However, an incident occurs that forces the father to realize his son's adaptability: "My son can get along without me, as an idiot in an idiot's way…. The situation reverses: the fat man, believing that he has brought order, peace, and harmony to his son's fragile existence, must accept the truth. It is the father who depends upon his idiot son for assurance, comfort, and equilibrium.
Thus, Teach Us tells of the initiation of a young father into the outside world filled with terror, pain, and numbness. It is also a story of a father yearning to go back to his childhood and to speak to his own father who continually ignored him. To the fat man, his own father's strange self-confinement in the darkness of the storehouse, his corpulence, silence, and sudden death is as much a mystery as the idiocy of his infant son. The desire to establish an intimacy, "the heavy bond of restraints," between himself and Mori betrays a chokingly painful question he dares not utter, "Why was my son born an idiot? Is this monster my creation?" In trying to answer this question, the fat man digs a mine in order to reach the core of the problem, of primeval existence, at the center of which stands Mori.
The father's quest must continue as he experiences Mori's growth. The Mori character is named Jin in The Waters Are Come in unto My Soul, a two-volume novel published in 1973. [In a footnote Wilson adds: "Watanabe Hiroshi speculates that the name Jin possibly comes from the German word, Sinn, meaning 'sense' and is probably used synonymously with the word, 'subconscious.'"] As if to make up for the poor eyesight the four-year-old Mori had to put up with, Jin, at the age of five, exhibits an extremely keen sense of sound. All day long, he listens to and identifies the songs of wild birds and whales recorded on tapes by his father. In flashbacks we learn about Jin's self-destructive impulses and the self-inflicted pain from which he was never free. Just as Mori's father began to feel the pains his son received from a scalding or an eye examination (which terrified Mori), Jin's father develops sudden fainting spells or experiences a scorching pain. Out of desperation, his wife agrees to let the pair of misfits start a new life on their own, a life of tranquillity in a refurbished nuclear bomb shelter, totally secluded from the humdrum of the external world.
I must comment briefly on the name, Ōki Isana, which the father took for himself upon venturing into a new life with Jin. Literally, the father's new name means Mr. Big-Tree Brave-Fish. Judging from this, what is evident is a sense of humor and the comical function assigned to the role of the father and the son as a pair. The father, claiming to be the agent for the souls of trees and whales, which he believes are the legitimate owners of the earth, exchanges telepathic communications with their spirits. When the entire human population is wiped out by nuclear war, he believes that he is to emerge out of the bomb shelter with Jin and return the earth to the trees and whales.
Jin seems to be a voiceless Jonah, a prophet, a representative of mankind about to be annihilated by nuclear war. Always calm and innocent, he repeats softly to himself the wild birds' names as he listens to the tapes. Here Ōe seems to be satirizing the sanctity of words and of human communication via words, i.e., the function of parole ("actual speech"). Incommunicability between the father and the idiot son, represented by the absence of speech, or of the reciprocity of words and ideas, transforms itself into comical Rabelaisian dialogues which dominate the narrative flow in both The Waters and The Pinchrunner. Divested of human deception, false seriousness, and manipulation, the father and his "parroting" son perform something beyond what verbal communication can achieve under normal circumstances.
In The Waters Ōe again takes up the image of misfits, which dominated his early works. It is significant that dropout characters calling themselves "Freedom Voyagers" form a comradeship with the father and Jin. The nonconformist groups consist of high school dropouts, ex-college students, a middle-aged Hiroshima survivor, "The Shrinking Man," and one female member, Inako, who in turn persuades a Self-Defense Corps member to join the crew. Ōe for the first time unites social outcasts, who heretofore struggled separately, to form a collective body to resist those who simply stigmatize them as "social cancer."
An ex-employee of a big corporation and son-in-law of a powerful conservative politician, Ōki Isana shares the lot of the non-revolutionary "Freedom Voyagers" and dies fighting for a vision, for the "goodness" of the earth, that is to say, the souls of trees and whales. What is amiss in the farcical repartee between the voyagers awaiting the final assault in the bomb shelter and a police riot squad surrounding the shelter, is the voice of Jin the idiot son, who has already been removed from the battle scene by the protective hands of Inako. What the reader and the father want to hear is Jin's soft-spoken voice intoning the words, "The end of the world is here," the Day of Judgment.
Ōe's fifth work under discussion, The Pinchrunner Memorandum, is symptomatic of everything he has so far written and insistently talked about in the past two decades. He has combined three dominant themes in the work: the embattlement of misfits, idiocy and averbalization, and the annihilation of the human race by nuclear war.
The Pinchrunner Memorandum is the story of a former nuclear engineer, a thirty-eight-year-old father who has an eight-year-old idiot son, Mori. This undaunted pair goes through a "miraculous transformation," with the father losing twenty years and Mori gaining twenty years. The grown-up Mori "speaks" in the voice of the Cosmic Will and transmits the message to the teenage father through the conduit of their clasped hands. Together they go out, aided by their faithful comrades and the Yamame Army, to eliminate the Patron ("The Big Shot A") of the underworld, who secretly plans to control Japan by financing the manufacturing of atomic bombs by two radical groups.
There are two central themes posited in the novel which need to be scrutinized carefully for us to grasp Ōe's semantic universe as a totality and a dynamic unity. The first is the theme of the "transformation" (ten'kan) or "metamorphosis," an essential element of fantastic literature. The second is concerned with the function of language and the speech art (verbalization) in relation to Mori, the idiot son.
The two themes are not as incompatible or incongruous as they seem. According to Todorov, the fantastic universe, being the exclusion of words "luck" or "chance," is based on a principle of a "pan-determinism." "It signifies that the limit between the physical and the mental, between matter and spirit, between word and thing, ceases to be impervious." In this sense, the notion of metamorphosis or transformation "constitutes a transgression of the separation between matter and mind as it is generally conceived" [Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 1975].
Identical with the fantastic universe is the world of drugs, the mystic, the psychotic, and, what is most relevant to our discussion, the primordial world of infancy. What characterizes the being of an infant is the effacement of the limit between subject and object, of the normal barrier between the self and the world (the other). To go a step further, his universe is a world without language. Such is the cosmic fusion which the transformed pair, Mori and his father, continuously approaches.
Like madness, Mori's idiocy is in effect a deviation from the norms set up by society or the "natural" world in which ordinary events occur; it is also a transgression of the laws of nature. Therefore, the only way Mori is allowed to exist is to become a part of the universe of the fantastic. The reader accepts Mori to the extent that he experiences a "hesitation" in the face of an apparently supernatural event, Mori's (the father's) miraculous transformation, which occurs in the context of natural, everyday life.
The central trait of the fantastic is ambiguity. "The fantastic confronts us with a dilemma: to believe or not to believe" [Todorov]. This element of ambiguity is maintained throughout The Pinchrunner Memorandum. First, the separation of the narrator (Mori's father) and his ghost writer (Hikaru's father), who receives the former's utterances through telephone calls, cassette tapes, and letters, and writes them down, is purposely weakened from the very beginning of the story. The concept of "double," the fusion of "I-Thou," is described in the first sentence of the novel:
Words, beyond dispute, uttered by the other party: despite my clear memory of the circumstance under which the other party made the utterance, I feel the words gushed out of the recesses of my own soul.
Ōe also stresses the fact that these two fathers have a lot in common, and form a complementary relationship. Mori's father and Hikaru's father are both of the same generation and are both graduates of Tokyo University, the former with a science degree (nuclear physics) and the latter with a philosophy degree (literature). They both have idiot sons of the same age. Their initial encounter takes place on the school lawn where they wait absentmindedly for "their children" to finish their special class while watching the "brainy children different from theirs" noiselessly play baseball. Reminiscing about the sandlot baseball era he was brought up in, Mori's father mumbles to himself: "Nothing was as petrifying and intoxicating as being selected as a pinchrunner!" Immediately something inexplicable unites the two men. "At that instant, a cumbersome hot pipeline of the parent-child-like bond ran through us."
By the end of the first chapter we are prepared for the supernatural event to come, or, to be more exact, for the supernatural event that has already occurred but has not yet been reported. Then, the first narrator of the novel (Hikaru's father) is replaced by Mori's father (referred to as "the other party") who recounts the supernatural event that has overtaken him and his idiot son.
From the second chapter on, the relation between Mori's father and Hikaru's father becomes that of "the person who emits the text and the person who receives" [Todorov]. Ōe's narrative complicates this verbal structure even more by making the receiver of codes a ghost writer whose main job is to record the utterances or the speech act of Mori's father, not to decode them. We read at the beginning of the story the ghost writer's feeble claim that he is an independent entity and deserves to be treated as such: "Although my job originates in the words of the other party, the words must go through my flesh and consciousness before they can be put down on paper. I am expected to enter the mind of Mori's father, learn in detail his secret, and even temporarily must grasp the entirety of his being. However, I refuse to accept the reversal of this; I resent his constant habitation in my world."
What sustains the narrative construction of the supernatural event is the tripartite bond that unites the narrator (Mori's father) and the chronicler (Hikaru's father), with the reader sandwiched between the two. (Ōe also employs this structure in The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Our Tears Away.) The narrator occasionally questions the ghost writer, "Do you doubt my words?" "I want you to write in such a way that your faltering voice would merge with my insistent voice of self-assertion and the two voices, one on top of the other, resonate together. The verbal account must be sustained by the tense opposition of my insistent words to your silent misgivings."
The adoption of a "ghost writer" intensifies the ambiguity of hesitation experienced by the reader and our "double" hero as the distinction between the narrator and the receiver of codes gradually ceases. The consciousness of the former begins to envelop the mental activities of the other. Also, as the word indicates, although a ghost writer physically exists, he has no claim to the work he is "writing." Conversely, since the real writer has nothing to do with the actual recording of his words, how can the reader really know that the utterance or the text is actually produced by the professed writer, and not by his ghost writer?
Mori's father gives the following reason why he is asking (actually imposing upon) Hikaru's father, whose profession is "writing," to become his scribe:
I need someone to recognize my actions and thoughts, to record them in a "memorandum." I am about to embark upon a new adventure with Mori. Without the existence of a chronicler, I feel the adventure-to-come, and myself will be merely a mad illusion. A premonition tells me that our adventure will be a fantastic event; if the police ever got hold of my "memorandum," they would simply dismiss it as balderdash.
On the syntactic level, the novel is a "game" about the narrator's gamble: on which side will the reader be? Will he believe the narrator's words or side with the faltering voice of the chronicler?
This hesitation, a dilemma whether to believe or not to believe, which is a verbal choice, is also directly linked with the father's fear and intense desire to be selected as a "pinchrunner." His main job is to steal a base and run: the crowd urges him to run. If he miscalculates in the situation, he loses and will be ordered back to sit on the bench. If he wins, he will become, even if temporarily, a hero. His choice is, "Should I stay or run?" The grown-up Mori says once via telepathy: "If the transformation means that we have to run, as a pinchrunner, for those who cannot run, or for those who do not know they must run, then we have to start running any minute now." The father/narrator must face this verbal choice, "Should I stay or run?" again and again. "I heard the voices of the spectator urging me to run, after an unexpected hit-and-run came about." In the end this verbal choice becomes the message of the story, the purpose of the adventure of the transformed pair, Mori and the father:
I was resolved to assert my conviction that we are the chosen ones to run as a pinchrunner for mankind … We have already been selected and sent to the base with the instructions given to us by the coach of the Cosmic Will; we must concentrate our minds whether we should stand by cautiously or run. However, we must rely on our intuition in the end and must run on our own accord.
What the narrator anticipates eagerly from the fantastic event, i.e., the transformation, is to see his and Mori's consciousness expand and their flesh renewed and rejuvenated, which he believes is the fundamental hope cherished by the whole of humanity. In order to renew one's consciousness and flesh, old tissue and the entire past must die, because "renewal" must replace "death." The reversal of time is the key in fantastic literature. That is why the eight-year-old Mori, whose mental universe is that of an infant or a madman, sheds his old infant self, and becomes an "adult simulacrum of infancy" in a world without language. On the other hand, Mori's father steadily regresses and becomes "Mori's son," with the possibility of reverting back to infancy!
In recounting this supernatural event, Mori's father suffers from a terrible suspicion that gnaws at him. Isn't our transformation a terrible mistake? What is it that we are entrusted with by the Cosmic Will? Do we really have a mission to carry out? At one point, he begins to doubt the existence of the Cosmic Will, and instead begins to believe that the political domination of the Patron might be the very cause of their transformation. What pulls him out of this deep skepticism is Mori: at the age of twenty-eight, with his quiet smile, animated eyes and silence, he communicates with his teenage father. The narrator tells the chronicler: "This transformed Mori is the real Mori, the ultimate Mori, the beginning of Mori. So long as this Mori exists in reality, I will live through the life of 'transformation' with him, and carry out the job entrusted to us by the Cosmic Will."
The dreams and the imaginary/the illusory scattered throughout the verbal account indicate "the ambiguous vision" of the narrator that relies on the use of a stylistic device, modalization. Thus, the narrator talks of a possibility (and a hope) of one day decoding what must be stored in Mori's dark, murky brain:
Like in a sealed cell, where dust must eventually accumulate over a long period of time, my words, the fine particles of dust, might one day form a heap and by natural ignition start into flame. At least Mori never rejects my words. Who knows, deep in the dim cell of Mori's twilight brain, the words transmitted to him through the eardrum might have been stored away like the sand in an hourglass.
At one point, the father imagines that Mori is a Socrates: "Listening quietly with genuine interest to whatever I tell him, Mori must be a man like Socrates who awakens you to your ignorance and raises you to a new level of knowledge." In the mind of the narrator, dream and reality, or the imaginary and the real, do not form separate and impermeable blocks. Time and again, Mori's father sees a dream of an extraordinary event that foretells their future: one such dream is about the Patron whom the pair helps gain total political power in Japan, power that extends to Korea, and the pageant they direct to celebrate his victory. However, the festival immediately turns itself into a celebration of the death of the Patron. The pair has rebelled against him and succeeds in the elimination of the evil force.
In the dream of the "Long March," Mori and the father are members of the Yamame Army which has in reality rescued the pair from the violent mob who refused to listen to Mori's message transmitted from the Cosmic Will. The pair is now a part of the collective body of "ideal people." The father recognizes among the Yamame soldiers those friends he encountered in his life. These are the people who have given him "a sense of fullness, stability, and finally the liberation of his soul." Passing right before him is a dear friend of his who strangled himself in Paris, accompanied by his lovely French wife. In reality he was the Yamame Army agent based in Europe. (This "friend" figure also appears in The Silent Cry.) Gijin, the leader of the anti-nuclear movement from Shikoku, is also in the march "walking stiffly like a toy soldier with his hands clasped tight on his chest" as if he had been resurrected from death. The father's idol, Ōno Sakurao, walks right beside him. The sight of Hikaru and his father completes the list of comrades who join the Long March. The narrator tells the scribe: "After all, I have been telling a dream-like dream all along, ha ha!"
Dreams or the imaginary in the novel have a double-function. One is vaticinal in the sense that they are the harbingers of things to come; the other is to remove the boundaries between matter and spirit, the physical and the mental. What happens throughout the story is the materialization of the imaginary and the perceived. It also means that the entire verbal account, based on the sender of codes (narrator) and the receiver of codes (ghost writer), is turned upside down. The reader is uncertain whether the narrator and the ghost writer are really two separate people, or whether the entire verbal act originates in the real, rather than in the imaginary/the illusory, or "a dream-like dream."
This ambiguity or hesitation is not cleared away at the end of the novel. The narrator's "alternate plan" in case of his or Mori's death/arrest, is revealed to the ghost writer who is to substitute as the sender of codes to recount the end of their adventurous journey. We must assume that that is exactly what happens, and that the obstacle between the person who produces the text and the person who receives it collapses.
The aesthetic concept governing The Pinchrunner Memorandum comes from what Bakhtin defines as "grotesque realism" in his discussions of Gargantua and Pantagruel. In grotesque realism the bodily elements always have a deeply positive character given in an all-popular, festive, utopian setting. The cosmic, social, and bodily elements are parts of an indivisible whole, and presented not in a private, egotistic form or isolated from the other aspects of life, but as something universal, representing all the people. "The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity" [Bakhtin, Rabelais].
As we know, Rabelais challenged the authority of the still-medieval Church which inculcated fear and blind obedience in the minds of individuals. For this "battle," the great French satirist armed himself with a panoply of pots, frying pans, chopping knives, and with the urine and excrement of Gargantua and Pantagruel, which destroy yet fertilize the earth. Rabelais also knew that his criticism of the authority of Catholicism was a deadly one because he was an insider who was constantly exposed to the hypocrisy of clerical power. What he attempted to do was to turn the world and the conventional worldview upside down by demystifying "upward is heaven, downward is earth." According to Bakhtin, "Earth is an element that devours, swallows up (the grave, the womb) and at the same time an element of birth, or renascence (maternal breasts). Such is the meaning of 'upward' and 'downward' in their cosmic aspect, while in their purely bodily aspect, which is not clearly distinct from the cosmic, the upper part is the face or the head and the lower part is the genital organs, the belly, the buttocks."
Bakhtin's analysis sheds light on Ōe's constant reference to the lower part of the human body or bodily elements and copulation. The eight-year-old Mori, whose entire being exists in the need to eat, urinate, defecate, and sleep, is no longer an imbecile in the world of grotesque realism but becomes a positive being. He is acceptable in this world because he embodies the principle of degradation and debasement, which draws upon the excessive, the ludicrous, exaggeration, and earthiness. For example, at night Mori must still wear a diaper no longer big enough to cover his growing buttocks and erect penis. When we read the passage that describes Mori splashing urine all over the restroom, unable to properly aim his penis into the toilet, we do not find him pathetic, but laughable. Laughter degrades and yet materializes, writes Bakhtin. Degradation "has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one." To degrade an object or a person implies hurling it or him down to "the zone in which conception of a new birth takes place" [Bakhtin].
Laughter in grotesque realism is shared by all people; it is a festive laughter which removes the barrier of human prejudice and deception, where "all men become conscious participants in that one world of laughter." It heals and regenerates. "Laughter must liberate the gay truth of the world from the veils of gloomy lies spun by the seriousness of fear, suffering, and violence."
Despite the fact that man is the only living creature endowed with laughter, when we think of laughter in the context of modern Japanese literature, we are struck by its poverty. It seems that laughter is "an ostracized slut" and has never been fully recognized as a proper ingredient for a novel. Watanabe Hiroshi offers one of the most satisfactory answers to the absence of laughter in modern Japanese literature. First, laughter is born out of the masses, the uneducated, common, ordinary people. It is the vulgar, simplistic, popular nature that is inherent in laughter. In other words, we can say that, by its very association with common folk, laughter has always occupied a "debased" position, and has been considered something frivolous and trivial. Secondly, Watanabe continues, it was extremely rare for laughter to become the source of inspiration and creativity in the days when Japanese intellectuals were busily engaged in "soul searching" or in carrying out their visionary mission.
In contrast to the vision pursued by the Meiji-Taishō intellectuals, Ōe's private quest and literary universe constantly draw upon the festiveness and universality of laughter. Farcical slapstick and travesty abound in The Pinchrunner Memorandum. Or, to put it another way, those incidents which we consider serious and earthshaking in the context of ordinary life, are debased and lowered down to the bodily elements of the earth. Nothing is vulgar in Ōe's universe: everything is told matter-of-factly in its utopian, all-popular organic whole.
For example, the novel describes a type of meeting (hanseikai) familiar to all Japanese. It is designed to "reflect upon" a past event in order to improve the situation, in the manner of a roundtable discussion. So the hanseikai is held to thank Mori's father for rescuing one of the children who gets caught in a malfunctioning automatic door of a supermarket where the whole "special class" has gone shopping. With the principal and the two embarrassed teachers in front of him, Mori's father goes into an eloquent tirade, trying to reevaluate and reform the entire system of the Special School and the function of the teachers who work under the system.
The real help you can give to our children is to tell them what the world is really like out there and how to fend for themselves in society. Are you really teaching them what they need? All you are doing is teaching them how to control their limbs, barely enough to survive as imbeciles…. In the future society, who knows, they might teach our children how to control not only their limbs but how to dispose of the whole body, ha ha, in other words, how to commit suicide?… In order to repel this authoritative power to weed out children like ours, we must teach them how to take up arms and defend themselves. As long as this world continues to be contaminated, the number of children like ours will increase rapidly. They will one day become scapegoats looked down upon as a loathsome minority.
The principal's reply to the radical alternative suggested by Mori's father takes the position that upholds the preservation of the status quo: "As a specialist in physical education, it has been my belief that education means to teach the unity of mind and spirit, and how to reconcile oneself with nature and society." This is a hackneyed statement repeated again and again to students in secondary education, and Mori's father is perfectly aware of the conventionality of the principal's response.
Mori's father immediately offers an alternative which is to teach their children music, that is, education through music. "Since our children have a keen sense of sound, we will make them specialists in music." He solemnly starts reading the memoirs on the record jacket written by a guru of Indian music. The reading session and meditation abruptly comes to an end when the prostitute mother of Saa-chan utters a loud protestation. The meeting deteriorates and turns into a shouting match between the mother and a woman teacher, the latter trying to restrain the verbal abuse the former directs against Mori's father:
What the hell are you talking about? WHAT, WHAT, WHAT? Our children majoring in music? How about a kid who is hard of hearing like Saa-chan? Is she going to be discriminated against even in the special class? Don't you dare!… Why don't you pray for the well-being of your guru, guru, so that you won't goof off! You might as well grab the T.V. celebrity, Ōno Sakurao's fat butt! You, sexual pervert!
The meeting aborts itself, as the parents busily take care of their children who need to urinate, or get rid of the urine and feces of those children who could not wait. In the midst of this commotion sits Mori, quietly wetting himself.
What is at work in the comical, farcical descriptions that abound in The Pinchrunner Memorandum is travesty combined with cartoonization, or cartoonized travesty. Ōe is an inveterate cartoonist; as a cartoonist he is also very much aware of the power of satire, which responds "to the world with a mixture of laughter and indignation" [Matthew Hodgart, Satire, 1973]. In this sense, festive laughter that destroys the clerical authority during the "feast of fools" and the "feast of the ass" in the Middle Ages and the way of satire which turns the real world upside down, share a lot in common. Both grotesque realism and satire involve "a cathartic release of social tension." Bakhtin's analysis of Rabelaisian laughter and what Matthew Hodgart defines as satire complement each other in aiding us to unveil the constituents of Ōe's semantic world. "True satire demands," Hodgart writes, "a high degree both of commitment to and involvement with the painful problems of the world, and simultaneously a high degree of abstraction from the world. The criticism of the world is abstracted from its ordinary setting, say, political oratory and journalism, and transformed into a high form of 'play'; which gives us both the recognition of our responsibilities and irresponsible joy of make-believe."
In the above episode of "practical education" followed by the self-abortive hanseikai, Ōe treats an extremely serious and delicate subject, which directly concerns his personal life and the lives of those parents who have retarded children. However, the more serious the subject matter, the more he intentionally relaxes concern by exhibiting its process as ludicrous, because, as Elder Olson writes [in his 1975 The Theory of Comedy], "it [comedy] is most effectively comic when it treats of things which do arouse our concern." According to Ōe, to paraphrase Olson, there is always a serious element in buffoonery and cartoonization, and the ludicrous is seen only in comparison with the conventional.
The whole episode relies on the principle that the reader's only natural physical response is laughter and that this laughter is directed neither at the handicapped children nor at their defensive parents. What is being laughed at is the overall action, or the process that reveals the inadequate system of the Special School and its incompetent servants (the principal and the two teachers), who adamantly adhere to the status quo. The principal, a physical education major whose philosophy lies in the unification of mind and spirit, the reconciliation of society and nature, becomes the object of laughter. His comment has absolutely no value for the education of retarded children. Furthermore, he is just a paper pusher and has no interest in Special Education. In the end he takes advantage of the unexpected turn of events and slips out of the room "like a monkey," while the prostitute mother continues to bark up the wrong tree.
This incident contains, as in the case of all good satire, "an element of aggressive attack and a fantastic vision of the world transformed" [Hodgart]; however, what sets this episode off from conventional satire is the absence of contemptuous laughter or a bitter aftertaste. The overall spirit of satire is taken over by festive laughter which degrades and regenerates.
Another socio-political incident, nuclear hijacking, becomes the object of satire and Rabelaisian laughter in The Pinchrunner Memorandum. It all happens when the father (I call him the father here, even though the incident occurs prior to the birth of Mori, because the narrator has given him no other name besides Mori-Chichi, i.e., "Mori's father") is working as an engineer for a nuclear power plant. At one point in the story the father accompanies a driver and his assistant in broad daylight, completely unarmed and unguarded, hauling enough nuclear material to produce twenty A-bombs. A small, old-fashioned truck with a tarpaulin forces the power plant truck to a halt. Jumping out from under the tarpaulin are five or six men garbed like the "Tin Man" in The Wizard of Oz, each carrying a long cudgel (sasumata). When the father recognizes that the Tin Men's small truck is used to deliver school luncheons, his mind is seized with the fear and excitement he experienced as a pinchrunner in a sandlot baseball game when he was a boy. "How intoxicating and petrifying it was to be selected as a pinchrunner!" And he continues, "Once they load the truck with the plutonic acid and reuse the vehicle for delivering school luncheons in Tokyo, contamination will spread among the school-children!" He makes up his mind to "run and steal the base," and jumps under the tarpaulin and squats down among barrels which contain the radiated green liquid. One of the barrels breaks open as the Tin Men prod the father with their cudgels, at which point, the father goes berserk and starts screaming wildly. "Everything is contaminated! Everything, the truck, the driveway, all of us! Alert! Alert!" He keeps on screaming until the Tin Men start fleeing from the scene, making terrible clink-clank noises in their cumbersome costumes.
In this episode the gravity of the situation—that is, the astronomical risk taken by handling plutonium and possessing nuclear power, and the possibility of radiation contamination—is debased to the level of comical combat between the hijackers and the hijacked. No Geiger counter, armed guards, or terrorism are involved. Things are turned around: the hijacked psychologically terrorizes the hijackers.
In another episode, the transformed pair, the teenage father and the grown-up Mori, attend an anti-nuclear meeting organized by Ōno Sakurao, a T.V. celebrity, and the Revolutionary Party. Above the stage set up by Ōno Sakurao is a banner "Nuclear Power in the Hands of Non-Authority," with Beethoven's string quartet "Serioso," Op. 95, playing in the background and intoxicating the whole audience. Mori's father, whose sexual prowess has been restored to that of an eighteen-year-old, is constantly aroused by the sight of his idol, Ōno Sakurao, on the stage. Attending the meeting with him and Mori are Mori's activist girl friend, Sayoko, the leader of the anti-nuclear forces in Shikoku Island, Gijin, and the Volunteer Mediator (Shigan Chūsainin) who constantly gets himself into trouble by trying to mediate the conflict between the two factions within the anti-nuclear forces, the Revolutionary Party and the Counter-Revolutionary Party.
The members of the Counter-Revolutionary Party who have infiltrated the audience start disrupting the meeting. The solemn political gathering, interrupted by a short-circuiting of the lighting system, degenerates into a commotion, and the commotion into a riot in which young activists of the Revolutionary Party start punching each other on the stage in the semi-darkness of disco-like flashing lights. The riot settles into a free-for-all, and the distinction between friend and foe is totally lost. Right below the stage Gijin bites the assailants back with his only weapon, his false teeth which have been knocked out of his mouth and which he uses as pincers. The Volunteer Mediator confronts the physical violence with his undaunted spirit, tenacity, and flexibility. On the stage, the mob, jostling, pushing, beating each other up, gleefully throws the T.V. celebrity into the air. What catches the eyes of the teenage father "in heat" is his beloved struggling helter-skelter, above the bobbing heads of the activists, trying to kick her way out. The valiant teenager rescues his "princess" and both retreat to a switchboard room backstage while the riot squad breaks into the meeting hall, "like tidal waves," and takes control. Mori's father assures Ōno Sakurao, "The riot squad won't dare come into this room with their metallic shields!" While he experiences "a fantastic orgasm" in making love to her, everything quiets down outside: the two take leave of the switchboard room with a flashlight which illuminates a big sign with a skull and crossbones, "KEEP OUT. HIGH VOLTAGE." Here we see the comical turn of events, copulation in the face of death, the anti-nuclear forces torn apart by factionalism.
All the various elements of grotesque realism are brought together in the eleventh chapter of The Pinchrunner Memorandum. The chapter, entitled, "The Arrival of the Buffoons," refers to the fifty people who come from the Patron's country to congregate outside the hospital to exorcise the evil spirits for their dying Patron. The country people throng around the building in pairs, disguised as yakuza, folk heroes, the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, A-bomb victims, Kamikaze pilots, etc.
The carnivalesque, all-popular, cosmic world is recreated in the gathering of these fifty buffoons. The father meditates upon sighting a pair of buffoons, a dwarf and his companion, an outlandishly corpulent woman: "Their very physical handicap satisfies the conditions of buffoonery, which is the degradation and debasement of the standard." Thus, for the first time, the idiot son Mori and the father have found a crowd in which they fit comfortably. The transformed pair joins the pressing throng in costumes which accentuate their transformation. Mori's father, in a rabbit-ear baby suit "as big as a kangaroo," moves steadily towards infancy, and Mori, in the costume of a Wizard, approaches senility.
The Patron, who is in reality a terrifying authority figure, becomes the clown to be mocked in this carnivalesque world: the buffoons are there to uncrown the dying "king," to let a new "king" reign. In other words, the only way the fifty country folk can overcome their fear of authority is to disguise themselves as buffoons, because only buffoonery, under the influence of a masquerade atmosphere, can summon the power of another world, a new world, a new ruler. We see here Ōe's attempt to indigenize buffoonery and the carnival, which have always existed as "little traditions" in the villages, but have been forgotten: "In an era in which the exterior of a city like Tokyo seems to have been buried under the debris of modernization, and where the idea of buffoonery seems virtually dead, subterranean society, like the world of the rain trout (iwana), can still offer us a place for the birth, growth, and death of buffoonery." [In a footnote Wilson explains: "Iwana (Salvelinus pluvius) belongs to the Charrs family, a kind of brook trout. Along with the fish called yamame (Onchorhynchus masou), this fish is used as a metaphor which embodies the ideal collectivity of the human race."]
As Ōe discusses in detail in "Toward the Imagination of Buffoonery and Regeneration," the image of a buffoon is closely related to the mythological figure of the Winnebago Indians, the trickster ("The Foolish One"). Paul Radin calls the trickster "a breaker of the holy taboos, a destroyer of the most sacred objects," yet, to the Winnebago Indians, he is "a positive force, a builder." What takes place in the figure of the trickster is the gradual evolution "from an amorphous, instinctual unintegrated being into one with the lineaments of man and one foreshadowing man's psychical traits" [Paul Radin, The Trickster, 1975]. Radin sums up:
Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being.
What we have in the trickster figure is an archetype of the jester and the buffoon, the ancestor of a Rabelaisian hero. One essential trait that characterizes the trickster, a creature still living in his unconscious, with the mentality of a child, is ambivalence. In this sense the idiot son Mori becomes Ōe's trickster. For example, as a small child, terrible misfortunes befall him. He falls into a hot bath, is bitten by a huge dog, and falls from a tree. Because of his self-destructive impulses, he beats himself up, and is beaten by his father, who accuses the son of abandoning him. Mori does not will anything and lives in the unconscious. Since he does not know the function of language, he is equated with desocialization, but, by his very presence and innocence, he regenerates those around him.
This notion of ambivalence, the simultaneous presence of the negative and the positive, is also the focal point of Bakhtin's discussions of grotesque realism. He notes that
the grotesque image reflects a phenomenon in transformation, an as yet unfinished metamorphosis, of death and birth, growth and becoming. The relation to time is one determining trait of the grotesque image. The other indispensable trait is ambivalence. For in this image we find both poles of transformation, the old and the new, the dying and the procreating, the beginning and the end of the metamorphosis. [Rabelais]
Another element of ambivalence, i.e., the notion of a double, permeates many of the characters which appear in the novel. For example, there is the case of the driver and his assistant, who exchange manzai-like verbal repartee during the nuclear hijacking; also the pair of policemen, one "conciliatory," the other, "a threatening type," who keep the father's house under 24-hour surveillance. This antithetical pairing also extends to the two members of the Yamame Army whom the father nicknames Nōrifū (the Able Official) and Inutsura (Dog Face). Similarly the existence of the Revolutionary Party is not quite complete without the presence of the Counter-Revolutionary Party. Finally Ōno Sakurao, the woman counterpart of Gijin, represents along with the Yamame Army, an ideal collectivity of civilian power.
Throughout The Pinchrunner Memorandum, the transformed pair, Mori and the father, embodies this trait of ambivalence. The odd pair is portrayed as a double: "One a normal brother, the other a dwarf!" the father once tells the ghost writer. Their transformation reinforces the ambivalent nature of the grotesque imagery by each taking the other's place. In the gathering of fifty buffoons, the pair disguised as a kangaroo baby and a Wizard, becomes the very embodiment of ambivalence: both poles of trans-formation, the old and the new, the dying and procreating, the beginning and the end of the metamorphosis. Ōe's Gargantua and Pantagruel continue a spiral journey into the world of the fantastic and grotesque realism, exploring potentials and providing us at the same time with an entirely new outlook on the world.
Emiko Sakurai (essay date Summer 1984)
SOURCE: "Kenzaburō Ōe: The Early Years," in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 370-73.
[In the following essay, Sakurai discusses the major influences on Ōe's early literary career, such as Japan's military defeat in 1945 and the works of such authors as Jean-Paul Sartre and traditional Haiku poets.]
A highly regarded Japanese novelist, Shòhei Òoka, commented in 1977 that to discuss Kenzaburō Ōe would be to discuss one-quarter of a century of Japanese literature beginning in 1957. Few critics familiar with the development of that literature would disagree. Since becoming established as a writer in 1957 at age twenty-two, Ōe has produced an astonishing body of work that ranks at the forefront of contemporary Japanese fiction. He came on the literary scene a decade after a younger generation of writers referred to as sengoha (Postwar School) had launched a movement to discard outmoded traditions and achieve contemporaneity with world literature by exploring new ideas and techniques. Although the momentum created by the sengoha had already waned or changed direction by the time Ōe began to publish, he nonetheless succeeded in realizing the ideals of the movement and brought postwar literature to new heights.
Kenzaburō Ōe was born on 31 January 1935 in a village called Ōse on the island of Shikoku, the third son of a prominent samurai family. At the end of World War II he was a ten-year-old "village patriot" accustomed to being asked in school, "What would you do if the Emperor commanded you to die?" His knees trembling, he would reply: "I would die, Sir. I would cut open my belly and die." Because he had been taught that Emperor Hirohito was a living god, he was astounded on 15 August 1945 to hear the Emperor go on the radio and announce Japan's surrender. [As he wrote in Genshuku natsunawatari (Solemnly Walking the Tightrope)]:
The strange and disappointing fact was that the Emperor spoke in a human voice like any ordinary man. Though we couldn't understand the speech, we heard his voice. One of my friends could even imitate it cleverly. We surrounded him, a boy in soiled shorts who spoke in the Emperor's voice, and laughed.
Our laughter echoed in the summer morning stillness and disappeared into the clear, high sky. An instant later, anxiety tumbled out of the heavens and seized us impious children. We stared at one another in silence.
Ōe later wrote that the trauma left him squint-eyed for a time. Explaining twenty years later what turned him to fiction writing, Ōe said that the defeat, the feeling of being brought to his knees, "took seed" in August 1945 and grew into a lasting obsession in him and that only through literature could he cope with this obsession and manage to survive.
The defeat in World War II was a source of humiliation and guilt that the Japanese collectively suffered for a decade or more, a shame renewed daily by the presence of the Occupation forces, by the war trials, by the deprivation of daily necessities and by bombed-out city blocks. Powerful machinery was at work in General Douglas MacArthur's general headquarters [GHQ] to erase militarism from Japan forever, and the Japanese went through a long period of self-flagellation over the guilt of their militant past and of self-loathing for their new fifth-rate status. A boy of Ōe's sensitivity and precocity was bound to be deeply affected. The antiheroes of his early works—who resemble the author in many aspects—reflect the psychological ravages of that era. In one short story, "Human Sheep" (1958), Ōe describes a humiliating incident that a student of French like himself suffered on a bus at the hands of some American GI's.
Shortly after August 1945, a more encompassing censorship than the wartime publications code was clamped on the Japanese, and textbooks were probed with particular care for traces of militarism and emperor worship. The national education system was also revised, and when Ōe entered high school twenty months after the war, he was one of the first students to be educated under the new plan modeled after the American public school system.
The curriculum had been changed and he was no longer taught morality—a reading in anecdotes illustrative of traditional virtues such as filial piety and loyalty. The hour was devoted instead to the study of the new constitution speedily prepared by the order of the GHQ in the mold of the American constitution. Ōe's class, in addition, was given books on democracy and taught the subject by teachers recently returned from the war.
The details of Ōe's education have historical relevance. In a country never before vanquished, he is the only major writer ever to receive a secondary education under what was actually American occupation, following curricula devised by education specialists at the American GHQ and accumulating knowledge from books censored by them. The aim of that education was the rejection of traditional Japanese values in favor of the American value system. Receiving that education, Ōe became a strong proponent of democracy and a supporter of the new constitution, advocating them in writing and lectures. He became the spokesman for his generation in the new age and has been active in anti-establishment, human rights and humanitarian movements, demonstrating in the streets and staging hunger strikes.
By comparison, Yukio Mishima, born ten years before Ōe, received his secondary school education at the height of Japan's militarism. In the late fifties and sixties he glorified militarism and the emperor cult in such fictional works as the powerful short story "Patriotism" (1960). With revenues from his writing, he formed a private army of his own, outfitting the hundred members with stylish uniforms designed by a Parisian haut couturier. Mishima then demanded a revision of the constitution that outlawed war and called for a return to the imperial system. To achieve this end, he tried to incite an insurrection in 1970; on failing this, he committed ritual suicide. Subsequently Ōe parodied Mishima in a brilliant short novel, The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away (1972). The protagonist is a seemingly deranged patient in a hospital who tries to relive an event that occurred on 15 August 1945, when his father led a band of army deserters on a suicide mission to rescue Japan from defeat and was shot down by the army. The father had been convinced of being consecrated in death because he was dying for the emperor, who is a living god, and the son spends the rest of his life reliving that glorious moment of consecration revealed to him by a colossal gold chrysanthemum in the sky.
In the village high school, Ōe's ambition had been to become a scientist, not a writer. But his teachers told him: "A scientist? You could never become a scientist." The basis for that opinion has never been discovered. Their student was clearly a genius. At the Scientific Invention Fair he submitted a "continous-type" mousetrap he invented that could conceivably catch, continuously, all the mice on the island of Shikoku. Ōe learned astronomy by reading on his own, and he also had a passion for geometry, solving geometric problems for pleasure. The teachers' cruel pronouncement threw him into a pit of despair, anger and shame and turned him into a lonely, morose, eccentric boy. He quit playing baseball and contracted intercostal neuralgia; unable to get along with others around him any longer, he turned to books for comfort.
Ōe's earliest reading was in tanka and haiku. He had been drawn since early childhood to Shiki Masaoka (1867–1902), a leading Meiji Era poet born in that same region (Ōe later attended the high school in Matsue City where Shiki had been educated). For years he also read Mokichi Saito (1882–1953), a tanka poet strongly influenced by Shiki. Because of his oldest brother's interest in haiku and tanka as a writer and collector, Ōe has admitted, he read most of the postwar publications in these genres. The poems he read should number close to 100,000, since Shiki's 1925 collection alone contained 12,700 haiku and Mokichi was also prolific.
After 1949, Ōe discovered the free-verse poets Tarō Tominaga (1901–25) and Chūya Nakahara (1907–37), to both of whom he acknowledges his indebtedness. The debt was partly owed to French poetry; Tominaga translated Baudelaire and, immensely affected by his poetry, wrote verse in the manner of the French symbolists. Nakahara started writing dadaist aphorisms at age fifteen, produced symbolist poems under the influence of Rimbaud and Verlaine and translated the collected poems of Rimbaud. During the same period, Ōe also became attracted to Poe, Eliot and Auden and later quoted them in his fiction. The titles for his short novels Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness and Leap Before You Look come from Auden. "Although I have been periodically engrossed in French poetry, I keep coming back to Auden," Ōe says.
The poets of Ōe's boyhood were all men of extremely refined sensibility with added capacity to feel deeply because of their tragedies or illnesses. Shiki, for instance, suffered from tuberculosis all his adult life and wrote many of his poems while bedridden; Tominaga died of consumption at age twenty-four. They were lonely and melancholy men easily moved to tears. Their poems were subjective, self-absorbed and emotional, abounding in images from the natural world. Gifted in language and sensitive and withdrawn, especially after his father's sudden death when he was nine, Ōe shared several personal traits with these poets. After reading thousands of their poems annually and with great empathy during his formative years, Ōe naturally developed a literary personality like the personae in the poetry. Ōe's protagonists feel threatened by silence in the woods and sense the breathing of a small animal stirring in the dark. They are frequently fear-stricken, frustrated, humiliated, crushed, chagrined, mortified and ashamed, and are often on the verge of tears. When betrayed, cheated, humiliated, abused and cuckolded, they are too passive, too forgiving, devoid of the will and strength to fight back. Vengeance is unusual in Ōe's world. His characters tend to be self-destructive, sometimes out of a subconscious desire for self-punishment, which is a favorite theme of his in such works as Homo Sexualis (1963) and Man'en gannen no futtobōru (1967; The Silent Cry). Some critics view Ōe's unusual sensibilities as evidence of his essentially childlike nature. One critic even professes that he thinks of Ōe as an overgrown baby. There is undeniably a feeling of childlike innocence and purity about him; but Ōe's habit of overstatement and the influence of his favorite poets also have to be taken into account. In a 1905 tanka, for example, Mokichi described shedding tears while watching some wrestlers. When he was asked the reason for his tears, he explained that it moved him to see the wrestlers working so hard at their trade!
Poetry appears in abundance in Ōe's fiction. Critics called his early short story "The Catch" (1958) [which has also been published as a novella] a prose poem; in other stories some of his sentences resemble avant-garde verses. His writing is dense with natural images, particularly those of the birds and animals he grew up with in his mountain village, and no one can match Ōe's skill in the use of these images. The figures of speech that decorate his prose are occasionally too elaborate in fiction: "Hauling up my flabby, waterlogged body on the hook of consciousness much as one might reel in a dead sea toad, I clattered wildly down the staircase" [The Silent Cry].
In prose, Ōe's favorite book since childhood has been The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a copy of which was given to him during the war. Despite the emperor worship and wartime anti-Americanism, Huck Finn immediately became Ōe's hero. What won Ōe's lasting admiration was the agonizing decision Huck makes not to reveal the whereabouts of a runaway slave and to "go to Hell" instead. To a boy accustomed to being asked, "What would you do if the Emperor commanded you to die?" and not totally convinced of the sincerity of his answer, "I would cut open my belly and die, Sir," this was a supreme act of courage. In a 1966 article titled "Huckleberry Finn and the Hero" Ōe juxtaposed Charles Lindbergh, President John F. Kennedy and Huck Finn as heroes and praised Huck as the "representative American hero of all time." The admiration apparently inspired Ōe's teen-age adventure story Pluck the Flowers, Gun the Kids (1958).
The writings of several postwar Japanese writers riveted Ōe's interest from about 1949. He read all the slick boy's adventure stories written by Jun Ishikawa (b. 1899) after the war, and he was entranced by Postwar School critic Kiyoteru Hanada's "Spirit of the Revival" (1947), an erudite book of literary theory based on Marxism. Deeply affected by Hanada's doctrines, Ōe later used Hanadian dialectics and heeded the critic's urging to writers not to neglect native traditions such as folklore in their pursuit of Western inspirations for their work. In his fiction he employed motifs from folklore such as festivals, sacrifices and burial rites and wrote two major novels based on the myths of his village and the history of his ancestors at a time when other writers were "foreignizing" characters and locales to make their work cosmopolitan. The Silent Cry and The Contemporaneity Game [Dojidai Gemu, also published as A Game of Simultaneity, 1979] both won coveted prizes. When the eight-volume collection of literary and art criticism by the father of modern Japanese criticism, Hideo Kobayashi, started appearing in 1951, Ōe reverently read every page. He could not have had a better preparation for his writing career. When he began writing short stories four years later, they were masterfully plotted and proportioned.
In his fourteenth year Ōe was mesmerized by Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. He was to write later that almost every year since that time he has spent one to several "holy weeks" reading only Dostoevsky.
While reading Dostoevsky, I was free from anxiety, feeling myself stable, able to maintain an order, not committing suicide or becoming insane or starting an antisocial act. Even when I was unable to sleep, because I could curl up like a fetus and lie hidden in Dostoevsky's womb, I did not fear the shadows of night or death. [Solemnly Walking the Tightrope]
Sometime in late 1949 or early 1950, Ōe read a collection of short stories by Sartre in translation and found his description of the captives terrified of their approaching death in Le mur false. Ōe himself was being stricken nightly by fear of death, and he thought the portrayal could be more effectively handled. Dropping Sartre, he went on to Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Flaubert and did not return to Sartre until three years later, when he read L'âge de raison.
Admitted to Tokyo University in 1954, Ōe enrolled in the Literature Department and moved on two years later to the Department of French Literature. He was introduced to Rabelais by his principal professor, Kazuo Watanabe, an expert on Rabelaisian lore, but in 1956–57 Ōe was too absorbed in Sartre to become attracted to anyone else. Although he was studying classical French grammar and Balzac in the classroom, once he was back in his rooming house he would read absolutely nothing but Sartre. Particularly during vacations, he would devote all day to him—except for the last week, when he would try to write a one-act play or a short story for a prize offered on campus. Ōe's short story "An Odd Job" won the 1957 May Festival Prize and was published in the May issue of the university literary journal. The story attracted attention when Ken Hirano, a highly respected critic of the Postwar School and literary critic of the Mainichi Shimbun, praised it in the newspaper as a modernistic and artful work. Four more pieces by Ōe appeared in the following months in leading literary magazines and established his reputation as a student writer of extraordinary talent: "Proud Are the Dead," "Other People's Legs," "The Plaster Mask" and "Time for Perjury." In January 1958 Ōe won fame by narrowly losing the coveted Akutagawa Prize for 1957 to writer Kōken Kai, his "Proud Are the Dead" vying against Kai's "Naked Emperor." So high was the critics' regard for Ōe's work that he received as many accolades as did Kai. Six months later he was awarded the 1958 prize for "The Catch."
"The Catch" was followed in February and March 1958 by "Human Sheep," "Transportation" and "The Pigeon," and these and the previous five pieces—excepting "Plaster Mask" and "Transportation"—were collected in March 1958 under the title Proud Are the Dead. Regarding these efforts, Ōe, with his usual self-deprecation, credits Sartre:
I thought I was singing with my own voice, but because of my daily habit of bogging down in the Sartrean mire, like a ventriloquist's grotesque, red-cheeked dummy, I was only miming Sartre's voice in a raw shriek. [Solemnly Walking the Tightrope]
Clearly there was no attempt at imitation; but there was much affinity and inspiration. Having survived war, defeat and occupation and being bewildered by the emptiness and enervation of a postwar wasteland similar to Sartre's, Ōe could easily identify with Sartre and his antiheroes. He saw himself and others of his generation as ensnared and incarcerated, devoid of real human solidarity and vitiated by incarceration, and he tried to depict that existence in a group of short stories that became Proud Are the Dead. In "An Odd Job" a student goes to work at a compound where dogs are tethered and beaten to death one by one. The student muses: "And who could say the same thing wouldn't happen to us? Helplessly leashed together, looking alike, hostility lost and individuality with it—us ambiguous Japanese students."
In "Proud Are the Dead" cadavers jostling one another in a tank in the cellar of a university hospital symbolize human existence within walls. The story recalls Le mur, in which the captives await their execution in a similar cellar. "Other People's Legs" describes the world of teenagers confined to wheelchairs for spinal tuberculosis in a sanatorium completely shut off from the outside world. In "Time for Perjury" a youth is tied to a chair and held under guard; in "The Catch" a downed black American airman is "raised" in the cellar by a ten-year-old boy in a wartime mountain village. Readers sensed in these works a certain foreignness; they were like translations from the writings of Camus, Sartre or Kafka. Ken Hirano lauded "The Catch" but commented that it did not describe an authentic Japanese village. With its rich images of animals, tribal chieftain and hunters, it is European in temper. The sanatorium in "Other People's Legs," similarly, is nothing like those found in Japan. But Ōe was interested in philosophy, not authenticity. The critics, many of them specialists in some Western literature, were highly pleased with Ōe's "modernity"—by which they meant Western influence.
In June 1958 Ōe's first full-length novel, Pluck the Flowers, Gun the Kids, appeared to great acclaim. Also based on the theme of confinement, it treats the adventures of a group of teen-agers from a reformatory who occupy a deserted village. This was followed in October by Leap Before You Look, a collection of five novellas and short stories depicting the interrelations of foreigners and Japanese under occupation. In 1958 Ōe was also laboring on his thesis for graduation the following spring, a study of imagery in Sartre's fiction. (Incidentally, when Ōe met Sartre in Paris in 1961 and was asked which French author he read most in college, he was too shy to tell Sartre the truth. He finally whispered, "Racine.")
Ōe's early success as a writer has been the source of his enduring regret that he did not continue with his studies and accumulate experience first. He hears an inner voice that he should have heard in 1957: "What's the hurry, you're still young." Despite his enormous influence, he is not likely to get a sympathetic ear; because of that success, he has been invited abroad many times, starting in 1960 with a visit to China, where he met Mao, and he has become acquainted with several writers whom he admires: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Gabriel García Márquez, for example, in addition to Sartre. He has gone on to publish eleven more bestselling novels, numerous critiques, reportages and essays, many of the latter on the art of writing. He must be the only author ever to write a bestseller titled The Technique of Fiction [Shosetsu no Hoho, also published as Methods of the Novel, 1978], a book which only the initiated could comprehend. Clearly there is no need for apology. At age forty-nine, Kenzaburō Ōe has decades ahead of him in which to experiment and learn and present more masterpieces to his eager public.
Sanroku Yoshida (essay date Spring 1985)
SOURCE: "Kenzaburo Ōe: A New World of Imagination," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 80-95.
[In the following essay, Yoshida argues for the universality of Ōe's fiction, citing its strong affinities with the "grotesque realism" of the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais.]
In the modern history of Japan the most significant event was the defeat of Japan in the Second World War. It totally undermined the social and value system developed since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The experience in Hiroshima and Nagasaki makes clear that one single bomb may mean instantaneous and simultaneous death for everybody on earth. And the real meaning of the nuclear age and its imminent danger is fully examined for the first time in the works of Kenzaburo Ōe. Even though the situations, characters, and incidents in his fiction are clearly Japanese, his unparalleled literary imagination makes his provocative and disturbing message universal. The problems he deals with are not only Japanese, but global. Ōe writes for the sake of the world's future.
While majoring in French literature at Tokyo University, Ōe avidly read Pascal, Camus, Sartre, Mailer, Faulkner, and Bellow. Like Shōyō Tsubouchi (1859–1935), who modernized Japanese literature, Ōe became familiar with contemporary trends of world literature, also influenced by wartime experiences and the postwar disorientation. With this background, Ōe has started to reform Japanese literature—to make it more committed and relevant to the human problems peculiar to the twentieth century. Ōe assigns a more active role to literature than that which Tsubouchi had given it nearly one hundred years ago—to "move the heart and stimulate the imagination." For Ōe, literature is not to "stimulate the imagination," but is a product of the imagination which should provide readers with a clear picture of the situation, physical or metaphysical, in which humans exist. Literature may also help the reader deal with the disillusionment that results from a realization of the meaninglessness of life. Furthermore, literature is to provide an individual or personal viewpoint, often antithetical to the ready-made and dominant one; thereby the novel functions as an antidote for such group psychology as exhibited in war.
According to Ōe's concept, therefore, political ideology has a legitimate place in literature; this again directly violates his predecessor's dictum. In his Shosetsu Shinzui (Essence of the Novel, 1885) Tsubouchi declared the independence of literature from what was called the "Political Novel," once fashionable in the pre- and early Meiji Period. The tradition of divorcing literature from political ideology has since been upheld in Japan. In other words, if literature is to remain serious it ought not deal with political issues. Ōe has violated that tradition by bringing into literature such political issues as disputes over nuclear energy, international treaties involving the use of nuclear weaponry, and the possible dangers of maintaining monarchy, even a symbolic monarchy.
In one of his earlier novels, The Young Man Who Arrived Late (Okurete Kita Seinen, 1962), Ōe deals with a young man who is helplessly disoriented after Japan's surrender by the Emperor's declaration of his change of status from divine to human, for the declaration cancels out the responsibilities for the war fought under his name. In a novella entitled The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away (Mizu kara Waga Mamida o Nugui Tamau Hi, 1971) [contained in Ōe's Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, 1977], Ōe symbolically presents the relationship between the Emperor and his Imperial Army on the eve of World War II and its result manifested in present-day Japan. His latest novel, A Game of Simultaneity (Dōjidai Gēmu, 1979), explores the monarch's influence as a force in centralizing or controlling Japan's diversified folkloric culture.
Ōe's understanding of the world situation and its relationship to Japan makes him believe that political neutrality in literature is unacceptable, for the question involves human annihilation. Ōe's messages in The Flood unto my Soul (Kozui wa Waga Tamashii ni Oyobi, 1973) and The Pinchrunner (Pinchiran'na Chosho, 1976) are clearly antinuclear. [In Ōe Kenzaburo Dojidai Ronshu (Essays on Contemporary Issues), 1981] Ōe asks, "What can literature do when confronted with starving children?" His own answer to this question is that literature ought to be written from the viewpoint of starving people, because they are the majority of the world population. If literature is to be universal, it ought to be written from the perspective of the majority. And this is the only thing that literature can do for starving children. Ōe's message here is that literature should not exist for literature's sake, but should be actively involved in the issues vital to the existence of the majority, that is, the poor and the oppressed.
In an essay entitled "Why Do Human Beings Create Literature?" Ōe contends that the role of literature is as follows:
Literature is a verbal endeavor made in order to recognize the meaning of one's being human at one's very root, with an overall understanding of one's relation to society, the world and the cosmos. Therefore, when a giant corporation, disrupting the natural cycle of life and death, exercises its large-scale violence over human beings—so large that it destroys the fundamental harmony between human beings and their society, the world and the cosmos—literature, standing on a human ground, will continue to protest against such violence.
It is true that the human problems of Tsubouchi's time were of a considerably different nature, but the philosophy of literature in the nineteenth century was to pursue truth in human life and to appreciate life. Basically life was precious and meaningful, and therefore death was tragic. However, toward the end of this century when, in the face of possible obliteration of humanity, death has lost its tragic quality, such political issues as nuclear weaponry and deterioration of the natural environment are not merely political but human issues. Ōe has departed far from the traditional literary tenets laid out by Tsubouchi; he allows wider latitude and gives new energy to literature, thus making it a vital activity of the human mind.
Sex is another element Ōe has been treating in a totally new fashion. In Japanese literary tradition, both before and after Tsubouchi, sex had never been so deeply and extensively explored. Ōe's predecessors always dealt with matters ancillary to human sexuality; therefore, sex was suggested more or less metaphorically or symbolically. This allusive and subtle treatment of sex is completely eliminated in Ōe, and sex is presented directly by depicting characters' sexual organs and acts with anatomical accuracy.
Ōe's treatment of sex seems to present images far removed from those of romantic literature, such as D. H. Lawrence's. In Ōe sex is brutal, repulsive, grossly distorted; therefore it presents a negative image. The sex described is often abnormal in form and in the relationships between the characters involved—abnormal also in the sense that it does not lead to healthy procreation.
The negative image of sex is presented in contrast to the positive image of politics in Ōe's imaginative world. Political human beings are always alert to possible dangers, ready to fight, and therefore tend to differentiate themselves as individuals from the whole of society. Sexual human beings, by contrast, miss the danger signals in their sexual comfort, are satisfied in their stagnant state of mind, and tend to assimilate with society. Ōe, in other words, sees young people in modern Japan in such a stagnant state, and, in order to provoke them, repeatedly uses the motif of depraved sex and its negativity.
Ōe classifies sex in literature into two categories: one involves romantic and erotic treatment of sex; the other is a direct approach toward sex as the human core. Writers choosing the former try to identify themselves with the shadow of the past. The romantic-erotic treatment of sex may create a beautiful metaphorical world of emotion, but the more beautiful that world is, the farther removed it is from the actual state of being human. Ōe posits that literary examination of modern human beings can be done most effectively by the use of explicit sexual terminology:
In the age of Stendhal, a clear mind [of the author] was efficient enough for analyzing the naked human being. In this century, with its two World Wars, a weapon called psychoanalysis was brought into literature. And today sexual terminology, sexual images are effective new weapons. In other words, in modern literature, only sexual images and terminology are shocking enough to break through [the outward protection of human beings]. ["Modern Literature and Sex," in Essays on Contemporary Issues]
Ōe's hyperbolic magnification of depravity in sex in his works seems to suggest a possible apocalypse. It recalls the visual presentation of the theme by Hieronymus Bosch, entitled the Garden of Earthly Delights, or The Last Judgement. The negativity of sex and pessimism concerning the future of mankind in Ōe's world are discussed in a later section of this essay.
Ōe emphasizes "imagination" time after time in his various essays. He certainly sets a higher value on "imagination" than on "realism" in its traditional sense. His incidents, situations, and characters are highly improbable, and yet they are often described with an air of matter-of-factness. Improbability is one of the major reasons why Japanese traditionalist critics review Ōe's works unfavorably. However, improbability in the light of everyday life, Ōe argues [in Methods of the Novel], is an application of the technical theory called "defamiliarization." Victor Shklovsky, a Russian formalist critic, explains why and how a writer defamiliarizes familiar objects.
Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. "If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been." And art exists so that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. [Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, 1965]
Thus, increasingly, Ōe's imagination defamiliarizes and dehumanizes his characters: they do not have any ordinary names—ordinary names may induce "habitualization"—but often are referred to by an animal name or a general designation such as the "Righteous Man" or the "Man Who Would Not Come Down From Trees."
The major source of Ōe's literary technique is Rabelaisian grotesque realism, another form of defamiliarization. The images in grotesque realism are often of the human body, especially the lower part of it, and its natural material activities such as eating, drinking, defecation, and copulation. These bodily elements are definitely positive in the theory of the grotesque, since bodily activity is closely related to the soil, that is, nature. Nature, in turn, suggests rebirth and revitalization of life. Feces and urine function as intermediaries between human beings and soil; they embody the cycle of life. Ōe contends that in the nuclear age, with its everyday danger of annihilation and nuclear-related pollution, a deep understanding of the unity of human beings and nature in the context of a cosmic order is of vital importance and that the image system of grotesque realism is the most effective literary method to achieve the goal. Ōe concludes:
Literature is a verbal structure that stops any movement directed toward one's inner self—movements that are separated from the material, bodily root of the entire world. Our literature should adopt the image system of grotesque realism as its integral part and, in so doing, should bring about a real regeneration of human life—in this way I intend to formulate the future of Japanese literature. ["The Image System of Grotesque Realism," in Methods of the Novel]
Ōe's literary technique of "defamiliarization" is, of course, directly in tune with Western modernism. This is only natural since he has been under heavy influence from Western literature. In addition, his mentor at the university was a scholar expert on Gargantua and Pantagruel. What is more important about Ōe's new world, however, is that he, as Shimei Futabatei (1864–1909) had a century earlier, has invented a new style—a style more efficient for his new motifs, images, and techniques. To the great dismay of traditionalists, he violates the natural flow of rhythm, natural syntax, elegance, suggestiveness, and sometimes even grammar of the language. Time will tell whether or not his style will influence Japanese culture in general, as was the case with Futabatei.
With all these revolutionary literary tenets, Ōe is an incredibly prolific and serious writer. He started his literary career at the age of twenty-three by winning the Akutagawa Prize for a short story, and since then [up to 1985] he has written eleven novels, about fifty short stories and novellas, and more than two hundred essays. His fiction deals with such human problems as estrangement, madness, and fear of nuclear annihilation; his essays are studies of other writers' works (East and West, present and past), analyses of literary theory, and of social and political criticism. He is popular among young readers but looked at askance by more traditional readers.
Until 1964, Ōe's works were based upon his experiences in, and observations of, society during the chaotic period immediately after Japan's defeat in World War II. (Ōe was ten years old when the war ended.) Specific incidents and episodes used in his fiction are probably pure products of his imagination, but the narrative situations are often identifiable with his own biographical data. His first novel, Plucking Buds and Shooting Lambs (Me-mushiri Kouchi, 1958), is set in a mountain village, perhaps identifiable as his native village; Our Age (Warera no Jidai, 1959), his second, is a story of a university student who, like Ōe himself, majors in French. The Young Man Who Arrived Late seems to reflect both his childhood experience and his university student life, especially the life of student political activists; street demonstrations and other activities by students in protest against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty became more and more violent during the first half of the sixties.
In 1964 Ōe's attention was directed to the possible danger of human annihilation by a nuclear holocaust when his newly born child had to undergo operations because of defective bone structure in the head. Ōe viewed the personal ordeal as overlapping the hardships of the atomic bomb survivors he met in Hiroshima. Between 1964 and 1976 Ōe wrote three major novels whose central motif is the main characters' mentally retarded son; A Personal Matter (Kojinteki na Taiken, 1964), The Flood unto my Soul, and The Pinchrunner. The last two clearly present Ōe's pessimistic view of the likelihood of a nuclear apocalypse. Simultaneously Ōe explores his grim world view based on a notion of the ultimate cosmic confinement of human beings in The Silent Cry (Manen Gan'nen no Futtoboru, 1967) and in A Game of Simultaneity.
We shall discuss in the next two sections of this essay the obvious contradiction between theory and practice. The positive role of literature in society has been emphasized and the techniques of "defamiliarization" including grotesque realism were presented as the regenerating elements in literature and in life as well. The works of Ōe, however, do not convey such overtones, but rather present a pessimistic view of the future. This essay will first examine the relationship between sexual depravity and the nuclear apocalypse and then analyze Ōe's cosmic view and use of subterranean images as negative elements.
Ōe's world of sex is full of images apparently derived from the visual presentation of "the nightmarish humanity" of Hieronymus Bosch in such masterpieces as the Garden of Earthly Delights or The Last Judgement. In return, what Charles De Tolnay writes about Bosch seems to be readily applicable to Ōe:
Whereas Hieronymus Bosch's contemporaries were content to solve formal problems within the frame work of the old religious themes, Bosch from the beginning set himself new tasks; to him art was a language which he used to express a view of the world, and his pictures are open books that address themselves to all the viewer's spiritual faculties. [Hieronymus Bosch, 1966]
Sex becomes a major concern for Ōe, as something deeply rooted in humanity, in his second novel, Our Age. Sex is never shown in a positive light, but always as something nightmarish and obsessive, as in Bosch's pictures. Because of the bold directness with which Ōe treats sex, it tends to create a repulsive effect and to suggest the apocalyptic end of mankind. The main character in Our Age is a decadent student who lives with a prostitute. He happens to find a chance to escape from his girl friend and to go to France in order to start a new life. Later, however, the hero becomes involved in underground revolutionary movements which deprive him of the chance to escape. In this novel, both politics and sex have negative images, and politics actually does ruin this young man's positive effort to get out of his stagnant life. This, of course, contradicts what Ōe formulates about politics and sex in his essays, and, in turn, it deepens the sense of confinement which leads only to despair and madness.
Sexual obsession remains the major motif in the novel Adventures in Everyday Life (Nichijōseikatsu no Boken, 1964). The hero, Saikichi, leads an absurd life centering around various sexual adventures. The elements of absurdity and sex-related slapstick exist already in this novel in germinal form, which Ōe later develops fully in The Pinchrunner. The theme of nuclear apocalypse combined with sexual depravity gradually comes to the forefront of Ōe's imaginative world. Saikichi's suicide is triggered by the realization of his own inability to save the A-bomb victim from the pain of leukemia except by performing euthanasia. The motif of sex, as Ōe asserts, certainly creates negativity in Adventures in Everyday Life, but the negativity does not regenerate or revitalize human existence.
Bird, the protagonist in A Personal Matter, is confronted by a concrete problem—a problem threatening his future freedom in life—a deformed baby. Bird is devastated by a sense of shame since he has just fathered a monster baby and may now be trapped in a cage called "parental responsibilities." He takes shelter in the sexual world of his girl friend, Himiko, and in alcoholism as well, wishing death for the baby. Himiko resembles a nocturnal animal, a typical image of the classic grotesque—active only in the ominous atmosphere of night—and is presented as a sex expert who cures Bird's impotence by offering anal intercourse. The negative image of sex drives the dispirited Bird to a state of enervation. At this moment, Bird suddenly realizes that he cannot keep running away from his responsibilities forever, and decides to take care of the baby with his wife and parents-in-law.
If the perverted sexual acts with Himiko have brought this almost miraculous metamorphosis to Bird—an animal turns into a human being—then Bird's returning to his wife and baby ought to present a positive and vital image. The situation, however, is almost the same as before except that the baby's brain hernia has turned out to be a benign tumor, and the father now conforms to the social norm called "parental responsibilities." Furthermore, if Bird's return to his wife suggests a return to normalcy from the world of perverted sex, then the novel presents a grim prophecy concerning the future of mankind, since that normalcy had produced a deformed child.
In Ōe's world of imagination, deformity, possibly caused by nuclear contamination, is closely related to the obsession with perverted sex. In addition, these two elements combined seem to lead to the notion of an apocalyptic ending of the world. The discovery of nuclear fission serves both as cause and effect. Therefore, deformity is a literary expression, as is the perverted sexual obsession, of the loss of faith in God in an age of crematoria and nuclear extermination; it epitomizes man's inability to reproduce himself. Thus, it becomes the major source of images for Ōe, who upholds the merits of the grotesque as literary expression. Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a Swiss author, who considers the grotesque as the only legitimate contemporary genre, contends that:
… Our world led us inevitably to the grotesque as it did to the atom bomb, just as Hieronymus Bosch's apocalyptic paintings are grotesque in nature. The grotesque, however, is only a sensuous paradox, the shape of a shapelessness, the face of a faceless world; and just as our thinking seems unable to do without the concept of paradox, so is art, our world, which survives only because there is an atom bomb: in fear of it. [Quoted in Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, 1963]
The fear of nuclear holocaust is the main theme of the next novel in our discussion, The Flood unto my Soul. As the title suggests, it is a parody of the Biblical episode of Jonah, who is swallowed by a whale as the consequence of his disobedience to the word of God. The hero, Isana Ōki (Whale-Big Tree), lives in a nuclear shelter with his idiot son, Jin, but becomes involved with a group of social dropouts called the "Free Navigators." Their purpose is to prepare themselves for a seaborne escape, in the event of a nation-wide disaster, by stealing firearms, learning how to operate a schooner, and practicing combat drills. This escape plan is directly associated with another deluge. The novel concludes with Isana's death by drowning in the whale-like shelter in the midst of a shootout with the police.
The first grotesque motif of sex is presented in a character called the "Shrinking Man" and in his fate. The "Shrinking Man" is also a symbolic manifestation of the process of inevitable deformation in Ōe's "Garden of Earthly Delights." The shrinking starts on this man's thirty-second birthday; he feels as if a small metal ball is rolling up and down on his backbone, which makes him restless and leads him to the scales and the measuring tape.
The sensation of shrinking in his body had been confirmed by his decreased measurements. It was a horrible confirmation, indeed. Seeing a picture of himself shrinking faster and faster, finally his inner organs crushed in a body as small as that of a monkey, and dying after a weak hiccup or two, he wept silently and hopelessly. He felt as if all of his emotional faculties had wilted. But at the same time, the shrinking dissolved immediately the sense of complication between body and consciousness, a knotty feeling which had been nagging him for several years. It was an extremely lonely but soothing sensation for him to be liberated from the hangup. [The Flood unto my Soul]
This sense of unity—or oneness—between flesh and consciousness is attained by diminishing all the mental faculties stored in his body except for sex; as his body shrinks, his phallus grows bigger in return. Actually he is gradually turning into one enormous phallus, and thereby becoming an entity whose body and consciousness are nothing but sex.
The ending of The Flood unto my Soul clearly suggests the fate of human beings who have violated the will of God. Furthermore, the fact that Isana is never saved, unlike Jonah, from the stomach of the whale, that is, the nuclear shelter, seems to indicate that the water in which Isana is drowned is actually a global deluge to annihilate mankind. Depraved sex has been a major reason for God's wrath in Biblical episodes, but now the invention of nuclear fission provides another reason since it disrupts the cosmic order; the punishment for this sin is obliteration of mankind by that same nuclear fission.
Suppose in an hour the world's last war broke out, he [Isana] must walk back to his shelter with his son, Jin, before the heat and the shock waves of nuclear explosions hit this city, threading their way through the panicked crowd, with the aplomb and persistence of those who had lived only to prepare themselves for such a day. Until he could officially return the right to use the globe to the trees and the whales, he and his infant son must wait in the shelter calm and relaxed as if they themselves chose to be annihilated. The concrete wall of the shelter would glow with the intense heat and then the shock waves would reach the infant child's ears. Isana's wish, at that instant, would be to hear Jin whisper gently, "The end of the world, this is." [The Flood unto my Soul]
Isana's wish to wait for the last moment "calm and relaxed as if they themselves chose to be annihilated" is probably the manifestation of the Sartrean existential idea that man is doomed but not damned and should remain free to choose his fate. This may sound like nothing but a sophism, since on the eve of Doomsday it is the only option there is, but even so it is quintessential to be the master of one's existence.
The main character in The Pinchrunner, Mori (meaning "forest" in Japanese and "death" in Latin), is the one who chooses his fate, activated and vitalized by the "Will of the Universe." By contrast, his father does not choose but is pushed around by the dominating power, called "Mr. A, the boss." The father, who is referred to only by the name "Mori/father," believes he was contaminated with plutonium when his wife became pregnant with Mori, and that, therefore, Mori is an idiot.
The novel is a fantasy-farce with full use of grotesque techniques and folkloric images. The central idea in the plot is transformation, a switch of identities between the father and son. This supernatural switch is made to take place by the "Will of the Universe." The thirty-eight-year-old father loses twenty years to his son, regaining the eighteen-year-old boy's sexual energy; his eight-year-old idiot son becomes a twenty-eight-year-old mature man and turns out to be a politically oriented assassin.
Ōe seems to be presenting a contrast between the sexually oriented and the politically oriented. The father, sexually oriented, used to work for Mr. A collecting information from foreign-language journals concerning the use of nuclear energy, which obviously helped Mr. A to establish nuclear generating plants. Mori/father later worked in one of these plants and was contaminated by highly toxic nuclear waste. As a result he was retired at full pay. Thus, Ōe creates a character whose situation is seemingly totally free from economic anxieties in the midst of physical dangers. Of course, this is also symbolic of Japan, economically booming, yet highly contaminated. The father is incapable of doing anything effective to save his son from idiocy or to secure his future well-being. Then, the switch takes place. Mori, the son, immediately attacks Mr. A, guided by the "Will of the Universe," while his father, now younger than the son, gets involved in the power struggle between factions of student activists over the issue of which student group should manufacture a nuclear bomb.
In spite of the author's conscious effort to create a ludicrous atmosphere, the characters' laughter, abundant and ringing literally all over the pages, sounds artificial and vacant. The vitality and regeneration expressed by folkloric images are overshadowed by deep pessimism about the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, which seems even more pessimistic in a work filled with loud laughter.
The Silent Cry was published five years before The Flood unto my Soul, but it contains some strong thematic and technical similarities to the most recent Ōe novel, A Game of Simultaneity. The Silent Cry deals with the repeated experience of a historic incident by its posterity over several generations; in A Game of Simultaneity, the mythical and historical view of Japan in a cosmic context is presented. Increasingly Ōe is trying to grasp the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of human existence in his fatalistic view of life, using images from myth and history. The matter of sex, especially that of incest, is brought to the forefront for literary examination. And the notion that man is doomed and that the only destination for him is Hell, where he will be burned as a punishment for incest, seems to be pervasive. A picture entitled Hell, a family heirloom of the narrators in both novels, like Bosch's Hell, is a visual presentation of the fate of mankind.
The symbolic presentation of the space where human existence is rooted is indispensable for the development of the plot—the experiencing of incidents in the past by characters beyond the chronological sequence of time. Events, characters, narrative situations, all extremely symbolic and metaphorical, are oriented to space but not to temporal sequence. Thus, human experiences in various units of time and space can be analyzed and conceptualized in a systematic way as in a microcosmos, or as in myth, which synthesizes the cosmic picture in its totality.
The Nedokoro brothers (their name means "root-place") in The Silent Cry experience what their great-grandfather and his younger brother had experienced about a hundred years before. The great-granduncle, who escaped from the village in the legend, is the figure representing the antithesis of confinement for the Nedokoro brothers. The truth, however, confirms their fear; the great-granduncle had been kept secretly in the basement of the Nedokoro Mansion for the rest of his life. The confined view of life is also omnipresent in the incestuous relations between the brother and sister. Takashi, the younger brother, confesses:
… I made up a tale about us [Takashi and his sister] being a couple of aristocrats whose family had come down in the world, and took an exaggerated pride in our descent from the great-grandfather and his brother…. I told her we were a special elite of two, and we wouldn't and mustn't get interested in anybody apart from each other…. [The Silent Cry]
This close tie between the brother and sister not only evolves into an obsession with incest, but also points to a primordial sexual unity, that is, hermaphroditism.
The narrator and his twin sister in A Game of Simultaneity present this sexual obsession in a more metaphorical and yet clearer way. They do not commit incest per se, but the brother cannot satisfy himself in sexual intercourse unless he imagines his sister's naked body. They are also a parody of the beginning part of the Japanese creation myth. The narrator of the novel, or the "one who records the myth and history of their village-nation-microcosmos," is named Tsuyuki: his sister, Tsuyumi. This slight difference in the last syllables in their names undoubtedly alludes to the incestuous brother and sister, Izanagi and Izanami, in the creation myth. Furthermore, the brother and sister in the novel are recorded as one person in the census bureau in order to cut down the heavy poll tax. The actual image of a hermaphrodite conceived by the narrator is a girl with a well-shaped penis and large testicles.
Another mythical aspect of the novel is the narrative situation. It suggests the process in which the Kojiki (The Chronicles of Ancient Matters) was compiled in the eighth century. The narrator's father, a Shinto priest, orders the son to keep a record of what he relates as the myth and history of the "village-nation-microcosmos." Unlike Hieda no Are, who told one authoritative version of the myth, the "Father/priest" provides many versions in plural points of view and the narrator tells them to his sister, not to the Emperor.
Events are told from plural viewpoints, and the chronological sequence of the events is intentionally rearranged, which makes it hard to pin down what actually happens in what order. It is safe, however, to assume that this much is clear: the village-nation-microcosmos was founded some time in the middle of the feudal period (around 1700) on the island of Shikoku by a number of expatriated samurai. These founding fathers live to be more than two hundred years old and become legendary giants. The leader of this group, named the "Destroyer," has been killed several times but always revives; his existence is ubiquitous, especially for the villagers. Ōe's nomenclature is always highly symbolic, but in this case, since the "Destroyer" is actually the "creator," it is paradoxical as well. This paradoxical nomenclature gives rise to several possible interpretations, which we shall discuss later. After the village-nation-microcosmos loses the "Fifty-Day War" against the Imperial Army, it is merged into a nation called Japan. The work is a satire of the modern world with its worship of science-technology, an attempt to examine human existence in relation to cosmology, and, above all, a dream-like, unreal story, lacking orientation to any everyday actuality, but told with stunning reality.
The fifty-day war is perhaps a caricature of the history of wars. It is basically jungle guerrilla warfare at the beginning, depending on the maze-like forest, bows and poison arrows (made out of bicycle spokes), knives, and a huge pond of human bodily waste. Then they start to use guns—guns converted from imported toy guns. The Imperial Army's field artillery shakes up the village, and it finally surrenders when the enemy threatens to burn down the forest.
The dehumanization and indiscriminate massacre of modern war, the cold bloodedness armed with insane logic reveals a grotesque picture; the villagers not recorded in the census paper are sentenced to death because they "do not exist."
Other aspects of history re-created in the novel are the agricultural land reform, disintegration of the multi-generation family and its replacement by the nuclear family, and liberation from sexual taboos—all of which took place in postwar Japan under the control of the American Occupation Army. The overwhelming power of Washington over Japan is presented as an inexplicable great noise, a supernatural phenomenon, filling the entire basin, afflicting everyone in the village. The quality and amount of the noise vary, depending on an individual as well as on the area in the basin, and, therefore, people start to leave their homes and property for a place where the damage to their eardrums and brains is minimal. This is a well-made parable; the sarcasm is the invention of earplugs—a character identifiable as the Emperor is the one who escapes all the postwar reforms by plugging up his ears.
The episode is not set in the postwar period, of course, in the history of the village-nation-microcosmos, which leaves ample room for ambiguity; and ambiguity in turn allows many other interpretations. One prime example of ambiguity is the "Destroyer." The "Destroyer" is an explosives expert and herbalist as well. Ironically he dies once while working at a dam construction site, by the accidental explosion of his own dynamite. But somehow he revives and returns. As an herbalist, he has a large herb garden and he is respected as a healer. Later, however, he is killed with the poison that his herb garden produced. In these episodes, the "Destroyer" seems to represent science-technology in which the ambivalence of construction-destruction, healer-killer, and life-death is an attribute.
The myth and history of the village-nation-microcosmos, told by the Father/priest to the narrator, is also listened to by the twin brothers, Apogii (apogee) and Perigii (perigee), specialists in celestial mechanics, as their names suggest. They try to find cosmological significance in the myth and history of the village and to locate its rightful unit of time and space in the universe. It is possible that the "Destroyer" is the embodiment of "entropy," the theory that the amount of disorder in the cosmos only increases as time passes. This is paradoxical in that one cannot keep creating without destroying what one has just created; in the final analysis, the figure of the "Destroyer" is a metaphorical composite both abstract and concrete, provoking a sense of ambiguity and ambivalence.
Ambiguity in the turn of events, as in the case of the "Destroyer," is often achieved by presenting more than one narrative, not exactly overlapping one another. This means Ōe consciously tries to minimize the effects of actuality in order to create a dream-like world with its own reality. The less actuality the novel attains, the more elusive and complex the structure of the novel becomes. The Father/priest begins his myth and history with the same repetitive phrase, "Some are not true stories, but you must listen as if they tell what actually happened. Understand?" This folkloric technique used extensively tends to resist the reader's effort to draw a clear picture of what is actually happening in the novel. Even though each incident is described clearly, the resulting picture is blurred since so many layers of images are superimposed.
Another ambiguity is the matter of time. There are six chapters in the novel, each being a letter from the narrator to his sister. The subject matter in each chapter has its own unity, with barely recognizable chronology. However, it is extremely difficult to establish the chronological relationship among the incidents in different chapters. Again, each incident is often presented with detailed realism, but if one tried to place the incident, judging from the metaphorically suggested meaning, in an actual historical period, one would find himself in a chronological maze with no outlet. Furthermore, in the last chapter, the narrator, wandering in the forest, with his naked body painted red, picks up pieces of the "Destroyer's" body, still unspoiled (even though they have been there for some years), in an attempt to reconstruct the "Destroyer." He also sees behind the trees the people who will be involved in the events yet to take place in the future.
What Ōe is experimenting with in this novel is condensing the passage of time to bring mythical and historical incidents hazy in the background to the foreground, and thereby to examine what human existence is, not only at this present moment but in a historical perspective. The novel must embrace the universe. It is a kind of universality that can go beyond one unit of time and space. For that purpose Ōe is trying to minimize life-like actuality and the obvious link between cause and effect. Thus, we have a huge picture of a dream-like, unreal world in which a multitude of incidents is displayed with vivid reality, like the works of Hieronymus Bosch. The picture is able to express even a millennium of human history. The narrator meditates on time in the cosmic framework as follows:
… if one visits those planets in a spaceship, one will find each planet has its own time; in other words, there is another unit of time and space. If one can see an almost unlimited number of units of time and space on a huge expanse of spacescape, then one can see all the events in every branch of the global history of mankind taking place simultaneously. In that case, one can choose a single reality quite arbitrarily, as if playing a game, and rearrange the history of mankind as one wishes it to be…. [A Game of Simultaneity]
The timeless "Destroyer" in the timeless forest is the leitmotif of Ōe's cosmology, and the image system of grotesque realism ties his characters to the soil of the forest. However, the outcome of the novel still suggests a pessimistic view of life mainly plagued by depraved, incestuous sex. Politics destroys individuals; history buries people; and totalitarianism sends those who do not conform to the slaughterhouse.
The mythical element in this novel seems to suggest that human life is doomed in the endless cycle of incest, which invariably leads to insanity. If myth presents a clear picture of human existence in its totality in relationship to the world and the cosmos, we are becoming more and more insane as we continue to live generation after generation, since the poison is coming from the very act of reproduction. Like Mitsusaburo in The Silent Cry, one must accept the result of his insane brother's adultery; like Isana and his idiot son in The Flood unto my Soul, one must accept the result of nuclear science. There seems to be no opening in the womb-like or tomb-like village, and man in his claustrophobia is directed downward.
In the Western literary tradition that often inspired Ōe, the downward, subterranean human psyche, that is, the realm of grotesque realism, is associated with positive images, such as birth, revitalization, and regeneration. Mikhail Bakhtin argues in Rabelais and His World:
… Degradation here means coming down to earth, the contact with earth as an element that swallows up and gives birth at the same time. To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better…. [Rabelais and His World]
As we have discussed Ōe's works so far, however, it is hard to discover even an inkling of such positive connotation as to "bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better." Ōe certainly presents pictures grim enough to alarm readers, but, instead of suggesting the advent of new hope, he perpetuates an ominous possibility that the outcome of rebirth and regeneration will be worse yet, for example, as in the form of insanity or of physical deformity. This unerasable pessimism probably derives from his observations that the natural flow of birth-death-rebirth is already extensively disrupted by the nuclear bombing in Japan and ever-spreading radioactive contamination all over the world. It is his uncompromising, penetrating insight that enables him to see the world and human existence in it with its innate madness. This literary theme, deeply rooted in the conditions of Japan and the world as well, is treated in Western modernism, and thus, Ōe has created his own new world of imagination, universally relevant, in the age of nuclear anxiety.
James Sterngold (essay date 14 October 1994)
SOURCE: "Kenzaburo Oe of Japan Wins Nobel in Literature," in The New York Times, October 14, 1994, pp. B1, B10.
[In the following article, Sterngold reports on the Swedish Academy's decision to award Ōe the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature.]
The Swedish Academy announced today [October 14, 1994] in Stockholm that Kenzaburo Oe, a Japanese writer known for his powerful accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and his struggle to come to terms with a mentally handicapped son, had won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mr. Oe, 59, is just the second Japanese writer to capture the award. Yasunari Kawabata won it in 1968. But while Mr. Kawabata generally explored traditional Japanese themes with a delicate writing style, Mr. Oe has written politically charged tales filled with anger and a sense of betrayal, like the postwar generation he has come to represent.
Mr. Oe (pronounced OH-ay) came of age during the American occupation, after Japan's shattering defeat in World War II. He was recognized as a leading writer in the late 1950's when he was still a university student. While some authors found nothing but despair in those bleak years, Mr. Oe's left-wing political essays, short stories and lyrically written novels revolve around what critics generally describe as a core of hope and courage mixed with bitter humor. In perhaps his most famous novel, A Personal Matter first published in 1964, the protagonist plots the murder of his infant son, who has been born with severe brain damage, but finally realizes he must take responsibility for the child and embraces him.
The influences on Mr. Oe's complex art range from Jean-Paul Sartre to the Mark Twain of Huckleberry Finn. The Swedish Academy noted the "poetic force" of Mr. Oe's beautifully rendered works, saying he "creates an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today." It also cited the impact of Japan's defeat on Mr. Oe's development as a writer. "The humiliation took a firm grip on him and has colored much of his work," the academy said. "He himself describes his writing as a way of exorcising demons."
In a telephone interview from his Tokyo home tonight, Mr. Oe, a voluble if somewhat solemn man, said the call from Stockholm, at a little before 9 P.M. local time, had come as a thunderbolt.
"It was a total surprise," he said. "Completely. Total."
While he has often spoken of his ambiguous feelings about Japan, he said he was proud the Swedish Academy recognized the strength of modern Japanese literature and hoped the prize would encourage others here.
"I believe I am a very Japanese writer," he said. "I have always wanted to write about our country, our society and feelings about the contemporary scene. But there is a big difference between us and classic Japanese literature."
He said that ultimately his writing was focused on a single concern. "I am writing about the dignity of human beings," he said, as a throng of reporters gathered in front of his home in a festive mood.
Mr. Oe is the 91st recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was won last year  by Toni Morrison. The prize includes an award of $930,000.
Though he is one of Japan's most acclaimed authors, and had been mentioned in recent years as a potential Nobel winner, Mr. Oe is relatively unknown in the United States and much of his writing has never been translated into English. Several American publishers, including Kodansha America, Grove/Atlantic and M. E. Sharpe, have published his works in translation in the United States, and all said yesterday that they planned to make copies of the work more readily available.
Because the three previous winners—Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer and Ms. Morrison—write in English, speculation before today's announcement had centered on authors from Europe or Asia.
Among those considered in the running were the Belgian poet, playwright and novelist Hugo Claus, who writes in Flemish; the German novelist and playwright Peter Handke; the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom; the French writers Julien Gracq and Nathalie Sarraute; the Portuguese writers António Lobo Antunes and José Saramago, and the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. The Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo had also been considered a possible winner. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney was mentioned once again, and once again failed to take the prize.
The owlish, often detached-looking Mr. Oe grew up in a small village on the western island of Shikoku, a place steeped in Japan's rural traditions and wartime propaganda. The sense of wonder and security he seems to have felt in those innocent days, before the atomic bomb was dropped and an emperor he was taught to regard as divine announced that Japan had been defeated, appears again and again in his writing as a sort of Eden.
His early works, written while he was studying French literature at Tokyo University, are regarded as classics of the disillusionment his nation felt on seeing what Japan's leadership had done to the country. One of his first published stories, "An Odd Job," describes a young man whose job is to bring dogs to a laboratory where they will be used in experiments. Looking at the huddled animals, he compares them to Japan's university students.
"That was the beginning of his literary odyssey," said John Nathan, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who translated several of Mr. Oe's early books into English. "He was the first Japanese writer taken thunderously as a serious writer while he was still a student."
Mr. Oe supported leftist causes, particularly opposition to the United States-Japan security treaty, which permits the maintenance of a string of American military bases across Japan. His popularity was near its peak during anti-treaty riots in 1960.
The birth of his son in 1963 altered his life and career. Mr. Oe's wife, Yukari, the daughter of a well-known author, Mansaku Itami, gave birth to a boy with serious brain damage. Just two months later, Mr. Oe visited Hiroshima and spoke with survivors of the atomic bombing.
Out of those experiences he produced A Personal Matter and Hiroshima Notes, an account of the courage of some of the survivors of the bombing in the face of the dehumanizing horror of the event.
He was the youngest of a generation of authors who responded to the war experience by depicting a world knocked off its center and surrounded by dark, irrational forces.
In the telephone interview he compared himself to Kobo Abe, the author of the surrealistic and disorienting novel The Woman in the Dunes, and Masuji Ibuse, best known for Black Rain, a novel about the victims of the atomic bombing.
"They created the way to the Nobel Prize," Mr. Oe said. "I am the youngest one of that group. I received the prize in their place."
Mr. Abe and Mr. Ibuse died in 1993.
Mr. Oe also acknowledged that the seriousness of his generation and its political agenda made it seem old-fashioned compared with young Japanese writers today, who have tended to be more introspective and concerned with materialism than with war.
"I am the last author who practices the old, very heavy, or sincere way of writing," Mr. Oe said.
While Mr. Oe has a reputation as a dour and at times overly earnest man, Mr. Nathan, who has known him for 30 years, said that the writer could be spontaneous and impish with friends.
"He does maintain a very solemn pose," Mr. Nathan said, "but the other side is that the guy can be a wild man." He described long evenings of drinking and wandering around Tokyo with Mr. Oe, who he described as given to pulling practical jokes on his friends.
Mr. Oe is a voracious reader, particularly of English-language and French authors. Mr. Nathan said an evening's conversation could take in everything from the tense used in a John Updike novel to W. H. Auden's poetry.
Another old friend of Mr. Oe's, Masao Miyoshi, a professor of literature at the University of California at San Diego, praised the author for the dazzling array of literary references that suffuse his writing.
"You have to think about someone like James Joyce living in the 1990's," Mr. Miyoshi said. He recalled his friend's reciting William Blake's epic poem "Jerusalem" in the original. "He remembers everything," Mr. Miyoshi said.
More recently, the theme of redemption has become more prevalent in Mr. Oe's work. This, too, may be related to his personal life. His son, Hikari (Japanese for light or light beam), has overcome his disability enough to become a composer.
In a documentary shown on Japanese television recently, Mr. Oe was shown completing the final pages of the last novel in a trilogy. He ended the book by declaring that with his son's new career launched, he would not write any further novels. He then penned in English a closing phrase, "Rejoyce."
James Sterngold (essay date 6 November 1994)
SOURCE: "Japan Asks Why a Prophet Bothers," in The New York Times, November 6, 1994, Section 4, p. 5.
[In the following essay, Sterngold discusses Ōe's decision to reject Japan's Imperial Order of Culture—its highest cultural honor—and examines the Japanese public's reaction, which ranged from apathy to harsh opprobrium.]
Except for a brief period during the 1960's, Kenzaburo Oe has been the sort of intellectual, left-leaning author who was well known among brooding Japanese undergraduates and scholars, but was not particularly widely read. Still, when he became the surprise choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature last month, most Japanese, even if they could not name any of his books, took pride in this affirmation of the richness of their culture. And they left the matter at that.
But Mr. Oe has not let them off so lightly. This owlish, fidgety man, who loves to talk in excited bursts, toss out French phrases and explicate Moby Dick, caused outrage by doing something dangerously unfashionable here: He took a stand on principle.
Just days after his Nobel Prize was announced, his name was hastily added to a list of eminences being given Japan's highest cultural honor, the Imperial Order of Culture. When he received the call with that news, Mr. Oe said, he responded without hesitation—and rejected the award.
It was an almost unheard-of public affront in this polite country, particularly because the Emperor was involved. Worse, Mr. Oe did not bother with the elaborate ambiguities that accompany criticisms; he explained his thinking in plain terms. It seemed like the first shot in a potentially fiery public debate. In fact, it was not, and that may say more about Japan's current state of mind than Mr. Oe's politics.
For anyone familiar with his passionate, lyrical books—especially his morally charged analysis of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima—his reasoning could not have come as a surprise. At the peak of his popularity in the 1960's, he was a standard-bearer for an angry, disillusioned generation that welcomed the collapse of the authoritarian imperial system.
Mr. Oe says he regards the Emperor as an undemocratic relic and a reminder of the horrors of World War II, for which he holds the imperial system responsible.
"The reason I declined the cultural award was that I would not recognize any authority, any value, higher than democracy," Mr. Oe said in an interview, which was interrupted by the arrival of a police officer warning that rightists were planning a big demonstration in front of his house. "This is very simple, but very important."
He thought for a moment, and added, "I am in a very delicate situation."
That "situation" involves much more than the anger of the thuggish right-wing groups, which relish any opportunity to rev up their sound trucks and bellow tinny indignation. Mr. Oe's real problem is that he has found so little public sympathy for his stand, which seemed to leave most people angry or puzzled, but conspicuously unmoved. The thought that an ideal was worth fighting for struck people as quaint.
Indeed, the general reaction was like that of Kazuo Aichi, a former Defense Minister and a member of a reform movement in the parliament. "My own feeling was that he hadn't changed at all over the years," Mr. Aichi said in an interview. "I would have expected that he would have matured, so to speak, and accepted the award."
A man who had suddenly become the most famous author in the land had raised serious questions about the imperial system and Japan's odd, American-written constitution, and thus the more emotional issue of what it means to be Japanese. Japan is preparing for the 50th anniversary next summer of its surrender after World War II, a moment for reflection and debate. Also, with an odd coalition of Socialists and conservatives governing the country, Japan's basic political values are being questioned for the first time in four decades.
Still, Mr. Oe was greeted with what amounted to a scolding for pushing people to think so much. It was a revealing moment. Japan is admired for its competitive economy, the near absence of serious street crime and an unemployment rate of just 3 percent despite a severe recession. But what of its intellectual life?
"I think it's very interesting that the reaction in general to my tying my life to my principles was for people to say I'm old-fashioned," Mr. Oe said. "It says a lot about current attitudes in Japan."
Of course, the days when Washington bristled with impassioned protests about civil rights or Vietnam are long past, too—like the demonstrations and riots here opposing the American military presence.
But moral outrage lives on in the United States and elsewhere—just witness the debates over abortion or immigration. In Japan, rarely does any public debate stir such emotion. For example, there has been a long dispute over whether the military should participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations. But a contingent is now helping Rwandan refugees in Zaire, the third time the military has joined such an operation, and the public is quiescent.
Critics complain the lack of tension has taken a toll on the arts. The movie industry, which once turned out classics by artists like Akira Kurosawa, is now known for predictable formula dramas. The most popular movies come from Hollywood.
A number of experts look at literature as hollow and bloodless. "Oe's trying to do something no one else is trying to do: he's trying to do solid books," Donald Keene, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and the dean of Japanese literary experts in the West, said here. "If you go to a bookstore here, unless it is a very big bookstore, you won't find a real solid literary work. Authors today are writing for the passing tastes of a young audience. University students were the real market for serious books, but they don't really read them anymore. It's a very depressing period."
Mr. Keene added: "It is a statement on a prosperous country, a country that is very pleased with itself. People don't feel any sense of agitation."
That was evident this past summer, after the Socialists joined with their conservative foes, the Liberal Democrats, to form a government. During the cold war, the Socialists saw themselves as the nation's conscience, putting principle ahead of power as they fought for a pacifist foreign policy, a strong social welfare system and the closing of American bases here. The positions, however impractical, struck an emotional chord.
Last June, when the Socialists formed their awkward ruling coalition, they abandoned most of those principles. And the Socialist Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, saw his ratings rise.
"Japan has lost the power to connect the principle or theory and reality," Mr. Oe said. "I think literature's value is in making those connections. That's the mission of literature. Morals are significant."
He admitted his disappointment at the generally tepid level of discussion of all the problems: "I was hoping that the 50th anniversary of the war's end would be a time to reflect, especially on Hiroshima and the use of nuclear bombs. But that kind of attitude does not exist in Japan. Not now."
Kenzaburō Ōe with Sanroku Yoshida (interview date 7 June 1986)
SOURCE: An interview in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 369-74.
[In the following interview, which was conducted in 1986, Ōe discusses such topics as his literary and cultural influences and the style and techniques of his fiction.]
[Yoshida]: I met with Yōtarō Konaka yesterday. He said that recently Japanese society has created a peculiar mood in which it is rather difficult to discuss matters antinuclear, and that one may be considered childish or immature if one is antinuclear. The major theme of your Flood unto My Soul (1973), The Pinchrunner (1976), and other works is the deracination of mankind by nuclear holocaust. As the author of these novels, do you agree with such an assessment of the social climate?
[Ōe]: I published a book called Hiroshima Notes (1965; Eng. 1981) twenty-three years ago. So it has been about a quarter of a century since I started to think about "Hiroshima." During that time, I have participated in the activities of a group called the Japan Confederation of A-Bomb and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations; I have written and spoken in public in support of such movements as "Abolishment of Nuclear Weapons" and "Relief for Victims"; I have organized committees and councils for these movements as well; yet I do not think things are particularly difficult today. Twenty-four or twenty-five years ago, they were difficult—oh, well, not really difficult, but I was not supported by the majority of Japanese intellectuals. Many victims talked at those meetings, and they wrote about their ordeals. Nevertheless, Japanese scholars, whether they were scholars of English literature, sociologists, physicists, or well-known writers, seldom paid serious attention to such things—except for a handful of fine scholars such as Kazuo Watanabe, Masao Maruyama, and Professor Shūichi Katō. The situation now is about the same.
Four or five years ago, when American medium-range nuclear missiles put Europe in a very precarious position, an antinuclear movement spread from Europe to the United States. When there are such fervid antinuclear movements in Europe and the United States, Japanese intellectuals tend to follow their lead. Therefore, we had a large-scale antinuclear movement in Japan at that time. Now very little is going on. I have not been influenced by these ups and downs of the movements. I do what I have to do in writing my novels and critical essays.
If Japanese critics say it is childish and naïve to oppose nuclear weapons, let me tell you the following: the American political scientist George Kennan, whose judgment I trust, argues in his book The Nuclear Delusion that political figures and nuclear weapons experts always ridicule antinuclear movements as manifestations of naïveté or childishness. However, it is the naïveté of the expert, in both diplomacy and nuclear weapons, that makes the existence of the world precarious. This is what George Kennan says, and I think this is also true in Japan. So there is no need to keep silent when you are called "childish." To be frank, I have to admit that there is perhaps something indeed quite childish about Japanese antinuclear movements. Nonetheless, one must try to embody one's ideals in one's works. If you don't do this, and you are called "childish," it is in part your own fault.
In your works, Mr. Ōe, there are many themes that had not been treated in Japanese literature before. When you started writing fiction, some readers were shocked because of your unique style, new themes, and new attitudes. I have been reading your works from the earliest ones to the most recent, and I know that your style is gradually changing. For example, in one of your earliest short stories, "Pigeon"(1958), there is this sentence: "A sudden anger ravaged my chest." This is obviously written in the syntax of European languages. Did you create this new style because the traditional Japanese styles could not handle the kind of themes that you wished to treat in your fiction?
First of all, the theme of nuclear deracination is not exactly new. Landing on the moon in a rocket is new. Of course, Edmond Rostand had his character talk about "The Journey to the Moon," and Wells wrote about the moon; but when man actually landed on the moon, that was completely new, and if you use that incident in literature, then you have an entirely new theme. The theme of nuclear deracination, however, is only partly new. The invention of nuclear fission made possible the atomic bomb, which killed many people, and nuclear weapons tend to intensify international tension. True, that is a new turn of events. But at the same time, as far as the notion of human annihilation is concerned, the theme is not new—it is partly in harmony with literary tradition (if I may use the word tradition as you used it). What I mean is that the notion of apocalypse in Christian tradition, for instance, or the Indian tradition of eschatology, or our tradition of Buddhist eschatology has been there for a long time. Therefore, I treat in my works the theme of the nuclear apocalypse as something partially rooted in a sort of global human tradition. It's not only me. The American author Bernard Malamud once wrote a novel, God's Grace (1982), in which he examines the problems of nuclear apocalypse in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In the period before I started writing, it was not in the tradition of Japanese literature to write novels in a way similar to that in which a philosopher or historian thinks. After the end of the war in 1945, for about ten years, post-war writers, under the influence of Dostoevsky, Hegel, Heidegger, or Sartre, wrote as the historian writes or the philosopher thinks or the social scientist analyzes. This was a new trend. I was influenced by these writers. I needed to think—think about Japanese society, the world, or about the human being—and when I started to write, I wrote in order to give novelistic expression to my thoughts. I was also reading French philosophers such as Sartre and Camus, so my writing was affected by them too, I suppose. I had an antipathy toward such people as Yasunari Kawabata or Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. I felt antagonistic toward established Japanese authors in general. First of all, they do not think logically. Their thoughts almost always become vague halfway. Furthermore, their thoughts are extremely simplistic. That's the way I thought about them when I was young; I do not necessarily think in the same way now.
I've been reading Kathleen Raine, a British literary critic and poet, who says the following about William Blake: "Blake's thoughts are full of ambiguities, but they are not vague." I thought Tanizaki, Kawabata, and other established writers were not ambiguous but vague…. Well, that's what I thought when I was young, anyway. As a rebellion, I tried to write as accurately as possible—for example, without using ellipsis. I tried not to omit any pronouns. As you know, the Japanese language is very effective when ellipsis is applied, but I was determined not to use it. Then my style became similar to that of a translation. By the way, most translations actually do not have any style. For example, Northrop Frye has been translated into Japanese, but the style is neither Frye's nor the translator's. You have to polish it up until it turns into a new style. I thought that kind of product—that is, something still in the process of translation—was interesting. A draft in which the two languages fight each other is provocative and full of resonance. So, my intention was to destroy the Japanese language by using a kind of syntax that cannot fit into Japanese. I was ambitious. I was writing novels with an extremely destructive intention.
In order to eliminate vagueness….
Yes, in order to eliminate vagueness, I even defined certain words each time I used them in my works. But that was only in the early works. For the past ten years or so, I have been trying to create a new, exemplary Japanese style based on those earlier destructive activities of mine.
Especially in the more recent works, your style is in perfect accord with the rhythms of Japanese speech, isn't it?
That's because I used to compose Japanese waka poems.
Oh! That explains it….
My brother is a waka poet. And I myself am more versed in classical Japanese literature than critics in general suspect. I am pretty good at haiku or waka. I composed quite a few waka between the ages of fifteen or sixteen and twenty, or thereabout. Still, I respect contemporary poets more than anybody else. I read a lot of modern Japanese poems. American poets like Auden and other foreign poets such as T. S. Eliot, Yeats, and Blake are very important to me. As you see, I am an avid reader of poetry, and I am interested in the rhythm of the Japanese language. I wrote Contemporary Games (1979) when I was forty-two or so. It is a kind of conclusion to all of my experimental novels. After that novel, for the past ten years, I've been trying to create yet another new style, a more comfortable one for Japanese; I don't mean to go back to the traditional style but to grope for a more acceptable one.
The role of Shōyō Tsubouchi (1859–1935), for example, was important in that he created a new style for new thoughts….
Yes, but the ambitions of men of letters in regard to their style are always ambiguous. Take Shōyō's style, for instance. The capacity of Shōyō's style for conveying meaning or expressing thought was not as great as that of Enchō Sanyūtei (1839–1900), a popular storyteller and entertainer who was Shōyō's contemporary. Therefore, when Shimei Futabatei (1864–1909), Shōyō's disciple, tried to develop a new style for his Drifting Clouds (1889), he studied Enchō's style instead of his teacher's. A writer's thoughts about his style, as is obvious from Shōyō's case, are legitimate only half the time. No matter what the result may be, however, writers have to strive for new thoughts and new styles, especially at the start of a new age. Like Shōyō and Futabatei at the turning point of Japanese history after the Meiji Restoration (1868), I also tried to create a new style under the impact of Japan's surrender in the second world war.
Your use of Gothic or black letters first appeared, I believe, in Our Age (1959). Later, in The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away (1969; Eng. 1977), The Flood unto My Soul, The Pinchrunner, and Contemporary Games, you use that technique profusely. In recent stories, however, you put in Gothics only the dialogue of a character called Eeyore. What is your purpose in doing so? When I first encountered this, I wondered if there were any pictorial meaning on that particular page with the black letters.
Well, any writer in any period or country is interested in typography. For example, Laurence Sterne, who wrote A Sentimental Journey, used dashes extensively in his novels. In Japan too, in the Meiji period when typography was introduced, writers tried out various interesting techniques. For example, the critic Chogyū Takayama (1871–1902) put little circles, double circles, dots, and lines around his sentences in order to make these sentences stand out. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin puts uneven spaces between letters by way of emphasis. This is a kind of defamiliarization in typography. I am very much interested in this sort of contrivance. It is possible to use various kinds of type at one time in order to make the pages more expressive. The Japanese language has three scripts: katakana, hiragana [two kinds of syllabaries], and kanji [Chinese characters], which we usually combine.
In The Pinchrunner some parts are all in katakana.
Yes,… and there is this interesting thing called rubi [the pronunciation key in one of the syllabaries of hard-to-read characters, usually given in small print beside the characters]. For example, if you write the kanji for "defamiliarization" and follow it with either the Russian or French equivalent in Japanese syllabic form as a rubi, then you can show in one space both the Japanese word and the foreign term from which the Japanese has originated. You can do the same thing using parentheses. You know, we have so many imported words in Japanese, and it is sometimes important to indicate the source. Thanks to the nature of the writing system, Japanese typography is very diversified. I consciously take advantage of this factor….
In Inter Ice Age 4 (1959; Eng. 1970) Kōbō Abe (b. 1924) filled several pages using only katakana. The translator of this work solved the problem by using capitals. If those works of yours are to be translated, some similar kind of device also has to be developed. How about Gothics or italics?
Yes, I like italics. Those boldface types in my works can be considered as italics in English.
The Pinchrunner is unique in that the style is interesting and different from that of other works. You must have invented this particular style to express the atmosphere of farce or slapstick. The major plot device in this work is the identity switch between father and son. How did you come up with such an interesting idea? Is there any particular work that you took as an example?
There is no particular source. I live with my handicapped son. Sometimes our roles somehow get reversed in our conversations—jokingly, of course. The identity switch such as the one between sexes is in the tradition of European grotesque realism as a form of theater, like harlequinades. One example would be Ferdydurke by the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, in which an adult turns into a child. This is a novel that resembles mine, but it was not a source; I got the idea from my own life with my son. But, of course, I like this kind of novel.
I am also very much interested in slapstick. I like American slapstick movies. Among modern writers, Nathanael West, who wrote The Day of the Locust, is my favorite. Another example is A Cool Million. This is like an erotic gossip novel but is a slapstick. My interest in these works made me write The Pinchrunner.
The most important focal point in The Pinchrunner, however, is its narration by a half-crazed, eccentric man. The problem of narration is certainly very important in the modern novel.
You mean "The plural viewpoint," in which one narrator narrates and another person writes it down?
Yes, that's right. That was a major experiment for me.
You use that technique in various pieces. The most complicated one is….
The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away.
And"The Trial of Plucking Buds and Shooting Lambs"(1980). This one is very interesting and has an extremely intricate narrative structure.
Critics completely ignored it.
They did? Completely?
Hmm. I wrote about it for an American journal.
Then that must be the only critical commentary on it in the entire world. (Laughter)
Anyway, the purpose of the plural viewpoint is to present reality with all its ambiguities and ambivalences.
Yes, you're right.
In Contemporary Games a variety of viewpoints allow the author to present many different images of one reality, which overlap each other. The same episodes told many times by different characters, slightly different each time, create an image that is blurred, just like a picture out of focus. I think this blurred image is intentional and perhaps important. Could you elaborate on this point?
I wrote a book entitled The Methods of the Novel (1978) in which I explained that the concept of ambiguity was very important for me. In the same sense of the word as in Kathleen Raine's comment about Blake, I wanted to present ambiguity in Contemporary Games—that is to say, one reality conveying many meanings. Since regional folklore or regional myths contain this element of ambiguity, I clearly intended to delve into this matter in the regional myths. Now it's been ten years since I finished that book. I recently finished another novel on the same subject. The title is simply M/T, whose initials stand for "matriarch" and "trickster." This is another Contemporary Games told in a straightforward narrative by a reminiscing hero.
These days literary critics talk abut "intertexts," which means the study of the relationship between two or more texts. I intend this recent novel of mine, M/T, to be read with such an intertextual connection between it and Contemporary Games. If you read both of them, you will understand both very well, even if you don't make out each by itself.
Then, the relationship is similar to that between Plucking Buds and Shooting Lambs (1958) and"The Trial of Plucking Buds and Shooting Lambs,"isn't it?
Yes, except here it is the other way round.
Before Hiroshima Notes and A Personal Matter (1964; Eng. 1968), I find in many of your works a motif of escape that reminds me of the biblical episode of Noah's ark. Did you have this in mind as the model when you were writing, for example, "A Cry"(1963) or The Flood unto My Soul?
No, I didn't. Even though I read the Bible a lot, I have not thought of Noah's ark very much. I read the Bible through William Blake or Dante, and I don't think either of them has much interest in the Noah story.
But The Flood unto My Soul has something to do with Jonah, doesn't it?
Yes, I think Jonah is an interesting person. He is angry and prejudiced against God.
Because he is trapped. His situation is a metaphorical presentation of man's entrapment; man's struggle to get out of his confinement points to the leitmotiv of escape in your works.
I have been enchanted by existential philosophies, and naturally I am a very existential author. My main interest has been in examining man's existential situations. Recently, however, I have been more interested in preexistential philosophies—that is to say, my subject matter is not so directly related to existential philosophies any longer. More concrete elements in life, such as how to live with a handicapped child or how to think about the unclear age, are more important to me now. These days I choose motifs from actual life. I started out very existential, and I still am fundamentally, but to a lesser degree.
The image of Africa is recurrent in your works. To be exact, the heroes in A Personal Matter, "Adventures in Everyday Life"(1964), and The Silent Cry (1967; Eng. 1974) all try to go to Africa.
And in Our Age (1959) too.
In all these novels the image of Africa is ambiguous: sometimes it represents freedom, at other times danger or even death. Mr. Ōe, have you been to Africa?
Strangely enough, I haven't. Africa is a very romantic subject. Also, since I like Conrad, it is a Conradian image for me. A lot of difficulties, full of sufferings, and yet romantic—that is Africa for me. Another thing is that when I was a student, I was (and, still am) very much interested in the independence movements of the Third World. Africa has been, for me, a fantasized romantic haven from the real world rather than a place with ontological significance. To me Africa is what India or other Asian countries are to Western authors.
You have seriously treated the theme of sexuality in various novels. In one essay you divided all of humanity into two groups: sexual beings and political beings. Sexual beings live in the shadow of the past and are therefore romantic, whereas political beings are always alert to the changes of the world and look forward to the future. There seem to be two major assumptions about sex: first, humans are incessantly vulnerable to the entrapment of sex; second, the sexual depravity that you often treat is a means of defamiliarization.
Yes, I think you are right. I have used sexuality in my novels as a means of defamiliarization and have attempted to attach various meanings to it. I am different from D. H. Lawrence in that Lawrence at one time treated sex as the central theme of his novels; I have simply utilized sexual elements as the most concrete means to defamiliarize the mundane lives of human beings. I did this especially when I was in my twenties and thirties.
Speaking of defamiliarization, many characters in The Flood unto My Soul, for example, are maimed: their hands are cut off, say. Some of them are very strangely shaped.
They are like those human figures in Picasso's cubist paintings or like the grotesque people in Hieronymus Bosch's pictures. The prime example in The Flood is the Shrinking Man, quite an astonishing invention.
They may resemble Picasso or Bosch, but my interest was in dealing with the possibilities of living together with such strange objects as amputated parts of the human body or deformed persons. I am still writing about this, hoping to discover that it is comfortable to live with those bizarre creatures. At the beginning, I did not intentionally draw difficult and ugly elements into my world, but as I was groping for methods of defamiliarization, they were there. So, yes, you are right. They are a means to defamiliarize the familiar. The Shrinking Man, the example you mentioned, the model for him was Yukio Mishima. I based the character on Mishima. Every time I saw him, I thought of him as a shrinking man.
Could you elaborate on that?
If you realize that the Shrinking Man is a caricature of Mishima, then you will find some new ways to interpret that novel. For example, in things like homosexuality and the desire to punish himself….
I see: you painted Yukio Mishima by using the technique of grotesque realism. In your essay titled"Why Do Human Beings Produce Literature?"(1975) you argue that, if anybody disrupts the fundamental harmony between human beings and their society, the world and the cosmos, literature, based on a humanistic viewpoint, will continue to protest against such violence. When you say "the fundamental harmony," I don't think you mean simply being friendly to each other.
In simple terms, literature should deal with the theme of the ostracized in family and in society. I have extended the theme of ostracism to include the cosmos. The question is how we can change the situation so that nobody is ostracized. That is to say, literature should create a model of the human being and his environment wherein nobody is discriminated against. This is the basis of my literature. The human being conceived by William Blake is not ostracized. The reason I read Blake and Dante is that I wish to see an image of the human being accepted in society and to enlarge my vision further so that I will be able to conceive the model human environment in a cosmic context. At this point the image of nuclear disaster comes in as an extremely disturbing element.
In the essay entitled"The Image System of Grotesque Realism"in your book The Methods of the Novel you emphasize the importance of grotesque realism. You say, "Our literature should adopt the image system of grotesque realism as its integral part and, in so doing, should bring about a real regeneration of human life—in this way I intend to formulate the future of Japanese literature."
Yes, that is my fundamental philosophy.
Yes, but in the cosmic context Japan is, of course, a part of the world. As a Japanese author, Mr. Ōe, do you ever write your novels for the sake of world readers?
When one of my pieces was translated into German, the German translator interviewed me. His last question was, "Is the German translation important to you?" I infuriated him by saying "No." I am not very enthusiastic either when a foreign publisher invites me to give a lecture on the occasion of a new publication of my translated work. The reason is that I am not optimistic that my books will find readers in foreign countries. Of course, I grew up under the influence of foreign literature. I have a profound sense of respect for the literatures of Germany, France, America, England, and Latin America as well. I am convinced, however, that literature should be written for people who live in the same country and in the same age as the author. Therefore, I never intentionally write for foreign readers. I strongly feel that I am writing for intellectuals living in this small country with me. If foreign readers happen to find the Japanese model of the human being and society presented in my works interesting, then I would simply be very happy.
With Yukio Mishima, it is a different story, I think. Even though he was very popular and was actually the king of the Japanese literati, Mishima could not trust Japanese criticism and turned to foreign readers. His death was a performance for the foreign audience, a very spectacular performance. The relationship between Mishima and the emperor system was rather dubious; the Japanese knew that. But from foreigners' point of view—say, an American reader's point of view—the Japanese emperor system is something inexplicable. Therefore, that final act by Mishima, tied in with the emperor system, appeared to be a kind of mystical thing. In actuality, he did it in order to entertain foreign readers.
I am always thinking of contemporary Japanese readers. That's why I sometimes get involved in antinuclear movements. If writers of the world became interested in the human models presented in my fiction, I would be very flattered. When I write, however, I only think of the Japanese audience. I am a local writer from the world's point of view. I read worldwide, though. I read Japanese novels, of course; but during the daytime, for about three hours every day, I read whatever I choose to study at the time: for example, Malcolm Lowry, Dante, Yeats, or Bakhtin. When I go to bed, since I quit drinking some time ago, I read Dickens by way of a nightcap. Reading foreign authors is the source of my nourishment. Nevertheless, insofar as I am writing in Japanese, I think I am writing for Japanese readers.
Kenzaburo Ōe with Kazuo Ishiguro (interview date 1991)
SOURCE: "Stronger Than Stereotype: A Conversation with Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 30, 1994, p. 4.
[A Japanese-born English novelist and critic, Ishiguro received widespread critical acclaim for The Remains of the Day, which was awarded the 1989 Booker Prize for Fiction. In the following excerpt from an interview originally published in 1991, Ōe discusses the Western view of Japanese culture and his role as an international figure.]
[Ōe]: In my book The Silent Cry, I wrote about Shikoku. I was born and grew up in a mountain village on that island. When I was 18, I went to the University of Tokyo to study French literature. As a result, I found myself completely cut off from my village, both culturally and geographically. Around that time my grandmother died, and my mother was getting older. The legends and traditions and folklore of my village were being lost. Meanwhile, here I was in Tokyo, imagining and trying to remember those things. The act of trying to remember and the act of creating began to overlap. And that is the reason I began to write novels. I tried to write them using the methods of French literature that I had studied.
[Ishiguro]: One of the reasons I think The Silent Cry is such a special work is that it's often difficult for a writer to get a certain distance from very personal events in his life that have touched and disturbed him. This book seems to stem from such an event, but at the same time you seem to have kept control, to have maintained an artistic discipline, so that it actually becomes a work of art that has meaning for everybody. It's not simply about Mr. Oe. It strikes me that one of the ways in which you manage that is a certain kind of humor, a unique tone. It's very different from the kind of humor found in most of Western literature, which is mainly based on jokes. In your books, everything has a peculiar sense of humor that is always on the verge of tragedy—a very dark humor. This is one of the ways in which you seem to have been able to keep under control events that must be very close to you. But do you think this sort of humor is something unique to your own writing, or have you gotten it from a larger Japanese tradition?
I think that the problem of humor is a very important one. This is one of the points in which I differ from Yukio Mishima. Mishima was very strongly rooted in the traditions of Japanese literature, especially the traditions of the center—Tokyo or Kyoto—urban traditions. I come from a more peripheral tradition, that of a very provincial corner of the island of Shikoku. It's an extremely strange place, with a long history of maltreatment, out there beyond the reach of culture. I think my humor is the humor of the people who live in that place.
I would be quite interested to hear what you feel about Mishima. I'm often asked about Mishima in England—all the time, by journalists. They expect me to be an authority on Mishima because of my Japanese background. Mishima is very well known in England, and in the West generally, largely because of the way he died. But also I suspect that Mishima's image confirms certain stereotypical images of Japanese people for the West. Of course, committing seppuku [ritual suicide] is one of the clichés. He was politically very extreme. The problem is that the whole image of Mishima in the West hasn't helped people there form an intelligent approach to Japanese culture and Japanese people. It has perhaps helped people to remain locked in certain prejudices and very superficial, stereotypical images of what Japanese people are like. I wonder what you think about Mishima and the way he died, what that means for Japanese people, and what that means for a distinguished author such as yourself.
The observations you just made about the reception of Mishima in Europe are accurate. Mishima's entire life, certainly including his death by seppuku, was a kind of performance designed to present the image of an archetypal Japanese. Moreover, this image was not the kind that arises spontaneously from a Japanese mentality. It was the superficial image of a Japanese as seen from a European point of view a fantasy. Mishima acted out that image just as it was. He created himself exactly in accordance with it. That was the way he lived, and that was the way he died. Edward Said uses the word orientalism to refer to the impression held by Europeans of the Orient. He insists that orientalism is a view held by Europeans and has nothing to do with the people who actually live in the Orient. But Mishima thought the opposite. He said, in effect, "Your image of the Japanese is me." But what in fact happened is that Mishima presented a false image. As a result, the conception of Japanese people held by most Europeans has Mishima at one pole and people like Akio Morita, chairman of Sony, at the other pole. In my opinion, both poles are inaccurate.
I wonder, Mr. Oe, do you feel responsible for how Japanese people are perceived abroad? When you are writing your books, are you conscious of an international audience and of what the books will do to Western people's perceptions of Japan? Or do you not think about things like that?
I was interviewed once by a German television station. The interviewer had translated one of my books into German. He asked me whether it was very important to me to be translated into German. I said no, and a deathly silence fell over the studio. The reason I said no is simply that I write my books for Japanese readers rather than for foreigners. Moreover, the Japanese readers I have in mind are a limited group. The people I write for are people of my own generation, people who have had the same experiences as myself. So when I go abroad, or am translated abroad or criticized abroad, I feel rather indifferent about it. The responsibilities I feel are to Japanese readers, people who are living together with me in this environment.
Speaking as a reader, foreign literature is very important to me. William Blake is important to me. I've written one book based on Blake, and one based on Malcolm Lowry. Another book was about a Dante specialist who lives out in the country. So in that sense I have been much influenced by foreign literature. I read your books in English, for example. Naturally, I believe that a real novelist is international.
For some reason, Japanese writers tend to stay away from international writers' conferences. Up to now, at least, there have not been many authors who have gone abroad to speak out about Japan's place in the world, about the contradictions felt by Japanese writers in the midst of economic prosperity, about the things that trouble them deeply. So for my part I am trying to do that, little by little. Japan has many very capable businessmen and politicians, but as a novelist I want to speak out internationally about things that they never mention. And I think it is meaningful for writers from abroad, especially young writers like yourself, to come to Japan to look closely at this country and to meet Japanese intellectuals. I hope this will lead to a deeper understanding of things such as the difficult role played by Japanese intellectuals amid material prosperity, and to cultural encounters at a genuinely substantial level.
Emiko Sakurai (review date Spring 1978)
SOURCE: A review of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, in World Literature Today, Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 345-46.
[In the following review of the English publication of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, Sakurai hails Ōe as a major international talent.]
Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness [translated by John Nathan] is the third publication in English of the extraordinary works of Kenzaburo Ōé, the most talented writer to emerge in Japan after World War II. Like his previous publications (A Personal Matter, 1968, also translated by John Nathan, and The Silent Cry, 1975), this book is certain to surprise some Western readers who have come to expect delicate prose and exquisite imagery from a Japanese novelist. Having learned his craft from postwar American authors such as Norman Mailer and French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, rather than from The Tale of Genji, Ōé writes fiction that is more brutal and savage than exquisite or quaint. He was a twenty-two-year-old French major at Tokyo University when he won his first literary prize. Since then he has won virtually every literary award offered in Japan, including the coveted Akutagawa Prize in 1958 for Prize Stock, the earliest composition among the four short novels contained in the present book.
Prize Stock is a tightly knit tale of a black American flier's captivity in a mountain village during the War. Ōé referred to it as a "pastoral." But what a pastoral! Ōé superimposes a mythic, primeval society on the village and reveals the nature of man and conditions of human existence through a densely woven pattern of animal images. "Chilly, sweating stones" jut "like the swollen belly of a pupa," and "skin flush[es] hot as the innards of a freshly killed chicken." Symbolism is apparent as little boys in the opening scene "collect" well-shaped bones at a makeshift crematorium to use as medals and the black captive with a boar trap around his ankles is "reared" in the cellar. It is a powerful story that exploits all the elements of fiction.
The imagery of The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away is just as striking. The narrator lies in a hospital wearing a pair of underwater goggles covered in dark cellophane and singing the song "Happy Days Are Here Again" in anticipation of death from liver cancer and return to an event in 1945 that ended his happy days. It is a technical as well as imagistic triumph. Aghwee the Sky Monster tells of a young composer haunted by the phantom of a kangaroo-sized baby in a white nightgown. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is a tragicomic story of a fat man's obsession with his mentally defective son and the imagined madness of his own dead father. Both are original, well-plotted tales with vivid, if not likable characters and memorable scenes.
The four novellas vary in technique and style as well as subject matter but are alike in the theme of alienation (apparent in the images of the chained captive and the cancer patient waiting for liberation), in their absurdist, ironic, black-comic view of life and the use of anti-heroes. Artistic excellence characterizes all four. The translation is accurate and conveys the essence of the original, although some readers may prefer a more Anglicized, smooth-flowing rendition to Nathan's faithful-to-the-last-comma approach. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is a book that should be read by everyone interested in contemporary fiction, for Ōé is as important a writer as Mailer or Updike.
Sanroku Yoshida (review date Summer 1988)
SOURCE: A review of Natsukashii toshi e no tegami, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 510-11.
[In the following review, Yoshida hails Natsukashii toshi e no tegami as a technically daring "milestone in Ōe's career."]
In the past Kenzaburō Ōe treated his concept of cosmos expansively in the novels Man'en gan'nen no futtobōru (1967; Eng. The Silent Cry, 1974) and Dojidai gemu (Contemporary Games; 1979). In the former, folkloric elements are quintessential to the formation of his cosmos; in the latter, mythical allusions are also utilized. In his new novel [Natsukashii toshi e no tegami, 1987] Ōe molds his microcosm on Dante's cosmology in The Divine Comedy, quoting from the work extensively.
The central theme of the novel is "the eternal dream time," an abstract structure in which the past, present, and future all overlap. The major organizing element in this time structure, however, is space, specifically the author's native village in the mountains of Shikoku, which was also the backdrop for the two novels mentioned above. In the title of the present volume, for example, toshi (year) is not used as a time indicator but rather to signify the combining of time and space into one concept. An English rendering of the title would be "Letters to the Time/Space of Fond Memories." This forms the novel's Dante-like cosmos.
Ōe borrows many characters, episodes, and images from his earlier works; in other words, he makes use of his own literary archetypes. Since, however, he presents them in a slightly different manner, this blurs the ontological meaning of the literary archetypes in the reader's mind and distills them into more abstract entities. Furthermore, the intertextual study of these distilled images between the present novel and its predecessors reveals a larger framework of Ōe's cosmology, in which the time/space concept is conceived.
Natsukashii toshi e no tegami is more autobiographical than anything that Ōe has ever written. In spite of its highly sophisticated theme, the narrative is easier to follow than that of Dojidai gemu. The overall tone is optimistic, which is not at all the case with Man'en gan'nen no futtobōru. The present novel is another milestone in Ōe's career and in Japanese literature as well.
Sanroku Yoshida (review date Spring 1991)
SOURCE: A review of Chiryō-tō, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, p. 368.
[In the following review, Yoshida commends Ōe's Chiryō-tō as an imaginative and beautifully composed piece of science fiction.]
In Chiryō-tō (Towers of Healing) the novelist Ōe Kenzaburō is concerned with the effect of a worldwide nuclear disaster, particularly its impact on the human race. He had previously developed this theme in Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi (Flood onto My Soul; 1973), but here his earlier cataclysmic view has been replaced by a more optimistic outlook.
In the new novel, which was first serialized in Hermes (July 1989–March 1990), Ōe predicts a Persian Gulf crisis. The story is set at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the use of nuclear weapons in the gulf has made the earth apparently uninhabitable. This has inspired an international project for immigration to a new earth, and at the beginning of the story the exodus of about a million people to that new earth in the spaceship Star Ship has already occurred. After ten years of scientific research and experiments on the new earth, the Star Ship returns to the old earth. This creates tension between the returnees and those who had been left behind.
The Star Ship Corporation, a government agency, serves as a secret police force over the people in what is now an Orwellian society. Intermarriage between the two groups is strongly discouraged, since the corporation is determined to protect the "pure blood" of the elite from possible AIDS contamination through contact with the other group. Passing a government-administered AIDS test has become a requirement in order for an old-earth person to marry a returnee. If the result of the test is positive, a thorough investigation is made to identify all persons with whom the applicant has had sexual contact. These persons are then ostracized.
The novel focuses on an extended family of several generations, which includes both old-earth residents and returnees. One male is the head of the Star Ship project, and a brother is an underground activist who protests the project. Ōe's narrator, a young girl, belongs to the old-earth part of the family. She wants to marry a returnee but suspects she may have AIDS, having been repeatedly raped while held captive by a European terrorist group. Her family is thus a microcosm of the old-earth returnee society with all its problems and stigmas.
Eventually the narrator musters her courage and takes the AIDS test. The results are negative, and she is liberated from the spell of the disease. She learns from her future husband that the Star Ship crew discovered several towerlike buildings on the new earth. They were called "chiryō-tō" or "towers of healing," since whoever lies down in their coffinlike beds is irradiated and cured of all wounds and disease. The towers are also trees of life. As her future husband tells her this story, she becomes rejuvenated by the new life that is forming within her.
Chiryō-tō is Ōe's first venture into science fiction, but it contains all the characteristics of his earlier works: the "great departure" from a difficult reality, the frequently existential impasse, the breakthrough, and the final advent of new hope. As usual, Ōe is concerned with the social and political situation of the world, with the freedom and happiness of individuals, and with an ecologically healthy environment in which no one is ostracized. Instead of the intensity, urgency, shocking images, and difficult linguistic contrivances of his earlier works, however, here Ōe writes more in a vein of verisimilitude. In quiet colors he provides us with an example of how not to lose hope in our difficult days. More of Ōe's books should be translated into English so that a wider audience can listen to what this important writer from contemporary Japan has to say.
"Reading Japan Through Its Writers: Abe Kobo and Oe Kenzaburo: The Problem of Selfhood in Contemporary Japan." Book Forum VII, No. 1 (1984): 30-1.
Comments on how contemporary Japanese culture is reflected in the works of Ōe and Abe Kōbō.
Enright, D. J. "Days of Marvelous Lays." New York Review of Books XI, No. 6 (10 October 1968): 35-7.
Negative review of A Personal Matter which considers the novel's ending to be contrived.
Gamerman, Amy. "Kenzaburo Oe Wins Nobel in Literature." The Wall Street Journal (14 October 1994): A9.
Reports on Ōe's selection as the Nobel Prize winner and offers a concise overview of his life and career.
Napier, Susan J. "Death and the Emperor: Mishima, Oe, and the Politics of Betrayal." Journal of Asian Studies 48, No. 1 (February 1989): 71-89.
Analyzes the "role of the Emperor" in the works of Ōe and Yukio Mishima. While Ōe is severely critical of the Emperor system, Mishima, who came of age during the 1930s, supported the Emperor for patriotic reasons.
――――――――. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991, 258 p.
Critical study of selected works by Ōe and Yukio Mishima. Napier argues that Ōe and Mishima both "set up alternative fictional worlds of 'closed circles,' even of 'fairy tales,' which are 'outside the influence of time,' to contrast with the reality of modern Japan."
Nemoto, Reiko Tachibana. "Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Oe Kenzaburo's My Tears." Contemporary Literature 34, No. 4 (Winter 1993): 740-66.
Elucidates what Nemoto calls "a striking parallelism" between two novels by Ōe and Günter Grass. Nemoto argues that both "Grass and Oe insist that after Auschwitz and Hiroshima political neutrality in literature is unacceptable."
Remnick, David. "Reading Japan." The New Yorker LXX, No. 48 (6 February 1995): 38-44.
Discusses the facts of Ōe's personal life which account for his surprise announcement at the Nobel Prize ceremony that he would no longer write fiction.
Treat, John Whittier. "Hiroshima Nōto and Ōe Kenzaburō's Existentialist Other." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 47, No. 1 (June 1987): 97-136.
Negative assessment of Ōe's Hiroshima Notes which is described as the ingenuous philosophizing of an author who is "a naive reader of history inversely attempting to comprehend a situation directly accessible only to its immediate victims."
Wilson, Michiko N. The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1986, 160 p.
Discusses Ōe's fiction as a radical departure from traditional Japanese literature.