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 alive. However, most critics emphasize that the style and overall thematic structure of A 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.