Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is a powerful addition to Kenzaburō Ōe’s substantial literary work, dealing with his relationship with his mentally disabled son Hikari, known to Ōe’s readers by his nickname of “Eeyore,” after the name of the donkey in A. A. Milne’s stories about Winnie the Pooh. Eeyore’s birth in 1963 inspired Ōe to write the novels which earned him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994, most notably Kojinteki na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter, 1968) andMan’en gan’nen no futtoboru (1967; The Silent Cry, 1974), and three further novels. John Nathan’s masterful translation of this novel finally gives English-speaking readers the welcome chance to experience further the extraordinary depth of a father’s love for his disabled son, which lies at the root of so much of Ōe’s influential writing.
The novel begins with the narrator’s return from a whirlwind trip to Germany in 1982, in the last decade of the Cold War, where he was a prominent speaker warning of the dangers of nuclear war. Picked up at Tokyo’s Narita airport by his wife and second son Saku, the narrator immediately senses that something has gone wrong with his family. Indeed, the nineteen- year-old Eeyore has not taken well to the absence of his father. He has become reclusive and introverted. He frightened his mother and siblings by picking up a kitchen knife and silently facing the garden of their Tokyo home. Meeting Eeyore, the narrator realizes that his son had worried that his father had died and that he would have to face the future without him.
The novel reflects on the powerful father-son relationship through the events of the next year, until Eeyore moves out into a dormitory for mentally disabled adults upon reaching his twentieth birthday. This bond is challenged by the changes brought on by Eeyore becoming an adult. For a fitting birthday present, the narrator seeks to write a sort of guide book to the adult world to his son, phrased in terms he and other disabled people could understand. This attempt becomes one of the organizing principles of the novel. Ōe’s text is clearly based on autobiographical occurrences, but thrives because of his literary imagination, which changes reality to find a deeper, spiritual truth.
At the core of this endeavor lies the narrator’s literary and philosophical preoccupation with the works of the early nineteenth century English writer William Blake (1757- 1827). The novel’s title, for example, is a quote from Blake’s poem about the Renaissance poet and playwright John Milton (1608-1674). The narrator has decided to study Blake’s poetry in order to find meaning in his own life. He embarks on his project with considerable zeal. Ōe mixes his narrator’s reflection on Blake with many quotations from his poetry and includes excerpts from the literary criticism of Blake by real-life academics. Similarly, Ōe quotes from his own previous novels, which centered on his relationship with Eeyore, whose real Japanese name, Hikari, means “light” in English. All this makes for an interesting novel which, in postmodern fashion, mixes the real and the fictional, the historical and the imagined.
For a reader familiar with his other work, these stylistic techniques have a familiar charm. Kenzaburō Ōe’s writing has been influenced by the French existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez (b. 1928), both of whom he met in person. He is also influenced by the literary styles of postmodernism.Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! carries the traces of these influences. There is the narrator’s continuous wrestling with the question of obtaining grace in a world removed from the certainties of a religious faith, which resembles the soul-searching of the existentialists. The narrator’s rendition of grotesque dreams about his son reminds a reader of the multilayered nature of reality in Latin American Magical Realism. Ōe’s stylistic decision not to name the first-person narrator and many other characters is a postmodern sleight of hand.
Ōe’s overriding goal of linking William Blake’s poetry to the narrator’s quest to...
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