Virgil Is To Dante As Oe Is To Us

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 3, 2006 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo


A beach in Thailand. Turquoise seas, gentle breeze, Bob Dylan's disembodied voice in the background. The bland normality of the scene suggests a tourist brochure. And then -- a midget? A midget. One does not see midgets all that much in the real world: don't they all live in Hollywood? But here he is, walking and talking in his Lilliputian world.

And then in the empty blue sky appears a man strapped to a parachute, which in turn is attached to a speedboat. The man sails through the air, his arms flapping. It is a pathetic vision. So this is Man, reduced to the thrill of simulated flight. He looks so helpless, this featherless biped aloft.

More curiosities arrive: a boat shaped like a banana; a dachshund humping a mongrel (too big). And should England win tonight's World Cup match against Denmark, the island will swarm with drunken Neanderthals pouring beer all over each other while they spit "Hail Britannia" at the mortified Thais.

The world, in other words, begins to resemble a novel by Kenzaburo Oe.

Kenzaburo Oe (pronounced oh-way). Born 1935. Student of French literature at Tokyo University. Began writing in 1957. Fathered Hikari, a mentally handicapped boy. Published Hiroshima Notes, an essay about the victims of the American A-Bomb.

Oe represents a break with traditional Japanese literature. His influences are Western, especially French, especially Rabelais, who made writing about drunkenness, farting, and giants respectable. In Oe's world the worst that could be imagined keeps happening, thus stretching the imagination to contain still worse. Oe's characters seem to be in competition with the world to decide which can be more appalling. Example: thousands of chickens die all at once and it comes to pass that they are burnt en masse in a fetid bonfire. Well, then, in reaction, we shall drink whisky and let it dribble out of the corners of our mouths.

A Silent Cry, called Oe's "major mature work" by the Nobel Committee, begins, apparently, with a hangover. The narrator Mitsasubo awakes "in search of an ardent sense of expectation." His whole body aches. A mention of whisky is made, and Mitsu is "reluctant to be reminded either of his nature or the situation in which he finds himself." Mitsu seems determined to deny that he was ever born. Womb metaphors abound.

Mitsu is married to an alcoholic, Natsumi, and his son (like Oe's) is mentally retarded and has been committed to what is euphemistically known as an "institution." Mitsu's brother Takashi has just returned from America, where he contracted a case of the clap from a black prostitute. Together the two brothers travel to the rural, ancestral family home -- Mitsu to get his act together, Takashi to do something idealistic and foolhardy -- i.e. American.

During World War II, the Japanese forced some conquered Koreans into labor camps in Japan. The act was short-sighted because many Koreans remained in Japan after V - J Day. Hell hath no fury like a victim's liberation. And in the Mitsu valley home, a certain Korean known as the "Emperor" wreaks his vengeance in a very modern way: he opens a supermarket chain called "Self-Service Discount Dynamic Store." The Japanese, whose aesthetic is one of sparseness and the small, are, of course, distraught. That the chain owner is called the Emperor only adds insult to injury. But what is to be done?

The sober Takashi resolves to whip the villagers into rebellion against the Emperor of the Supermarkets. But actually they have learned to quite like the supermarket, and they can be prevailed upon only to loot it, not destroy it. Takashi becomes increasingly neurotic, and behind his ideas of rebellion and restoration grows a desire for self-destruction. It turns out that in his youth he had slept with his -- and Mitsu's -- mentally handicapped sister, who subsequently killed herself in despair. Even here the Oe touch is evident: she kills herself by drinking agricultural chemicals.

In his Nobel address, William Faulkner referred to the writer's predicament in an atomic era. "Our tragedy today," he said, "is a general and universal fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: when will I be blown up?" Faulkner refused to accept that a literature could consist of replies to this question. But when Faulkner spoke, only four years had passed since Hiroshima, and he died well before the dulling prospect of total annihilation took up roost in the human psyche.

In Oe, the journey to total insensitivity is nearly complete, and endurance is our watchword. "If the world is full of violence," chirps the tippler Natsumi, "then the most healthy and human reaction is not to stand in front of it moping, but to find something -- anything -- to laugh at." If there is any lesson to be learned of recent human history, it is that human beings are infinitely adaptable. What does not kill us makes us -- more pliable.

In this vein, Oe describes a painting of Hell in which the damned are no longer tormented by their punishments because the punishments have become ho-hum. Still, Oe does not seem convinced that the acceptance of monstrosities represents a higher virtue. He invents the "Smile Training Center", a mental institution where "the inmates, who were given large doses of tranquilizers at every meal, spent all their time placidly smiling." The satire is Swiftian, and Natsumi is refuted. What did Mitsu's friend and former inmate do upon his release from the bedlam of smiles? He "daubed his head all over with crimson paint, stripped, thrust a cucumber up his anus, and hanged himself." Even human adaptability has its limits.


A Silent Cry was published when Oe was in his early thirties, a time when hope for a spectacular future dwindles, to be replaced by an often grudging acceptance of each new sunrise. Oe's latest novel, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!, originally published when Oe was just over the hill, is much more mature in tone, contemplative, even optimistic, and his chief influence is no longer Rabelais but Blake. Indeed, his new novel is primarily a meditation on how Blake has influenced his life and his relationship with his now adult, but no less brain-damaged son, here referred to as Eeyore, the misanthropic donkey pal of happy-go-lucky Pooh.

In Blake, Oe finds a model of a man who believed that ordinary existence can and must be transformed through the imagination. For both authors, reason alone fails to describe reality and also fails to make reality worthwhile. Reason also prevents Oe from understanding his son. Only through imagination can Oe enter his son's cross-wired mind.

Like many modern novelists, Oe draws extensively on his own experiences in constructing his fictions. He is an instance of Orwell's prescient discovery that "a writer nowadays is so hopelessly isolated that the typical modern novel is a novel about a novelist." Isolation is only part of the problem; narcissism is also to blame. Oe acknowledges that "I have yet to confront squarely, the spoiled indulgent cruelty of my younger years." Also to blame is the flagging importance of the novel as an art form. The more complicated the world becomes, the more we want to know how other, real people are managing. So memoirs supersede novels, and novels become thinly-disguised memoirs. Imagination can transfigure personal experience, but pure invention has little place in a pragmatic and commercial modern world.

Oe raises navel-gazing to new heights, but in an extraordinarily detached way. Rouse Up doubles as an academic treatise not only on Blake, but also on Oe's own novels, many of which are variations on Blakean themes. Oe's debt to Blake is enormous. "I had been writing novels for close to twenty-five years," he writes, "by simply restating in my own words the lines of Blake that I had glimpsed in the university as I was entering my young manhood." He dwells in particular on Blake's

"That Man should Labour & sorrow & learn & forget, & return To the dark valley whence he came to begin his labours anew."

In addition to writing masked memoirs, Oe is writing masked literary self-criticism -- thereby putting scores of future scholars out of work. But Oe is not just puffing himself up. In one instance he complains of an earlier novel being "overwritten" -- a modest but correct judgment. But what else to expect of writings composed under the influence of whisky and tranquilizers, as his early works were?

There is, however, a more selfless motive to Rouse Up. Initially Oe had intended to write a kind of guidebook to life containing definitions of basic terms ranging from "foot" to "death". The guidebook would be written so that Hikari/Eeyore, and handicapped people everywhere, could understand it. Ultimately he decides that the project is beyond his powers. Still, he and his wife must live with the horrifying possibility that they will die before Eeyore is able to live without them.

By the "new age" Oe means "the baleful, atomic age" that began in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, when Oe himself was still but a child. It is an age in which "it is not clear that it's better to have been born than not to have been born." (Oe should read Herodotus, who describes the pessimistic Trausi tribe weeping for newborn babies and rejoicing for the newly dead.) The new age is also characterized by the absence of the former cement of Japanese society -- allegiance to a divine Emperor.

According to John Hersey, author of Hiroshima, some survivors of the nuclear attack were discovered to have "chromosome aberrations." Oe does not try to prove that such aberrations caused Eeyore's brain damage, but he does suggest that the new age, "so long as this planet continues to be contaminated", will produce more of Eeyore's abnormal kind. Oe's translator John Nathan says that "Hikari is the only idiot savant in medical history with perfect pitch who is able to compose in his head without first improvising on an instrument." And in his youth, Hikari could distinguish several bird calls from each other. In what kind of world would such talents spell success? And what kind of advice could Oe possibly offer to it?

Much of Rouse Up is concerned with Mishima, an acquaintance of Oe's. A photograph of Mishima's severed head is circulated on the anniversary of his death, in order to arouse the public into new sympathy for his failed revolutionary program. Oe criticized Mishima's suicide, and he laments the effect the grisly photograph might have had on Hikari's mind. The two authors' politics were also at odds. Unlike Mishima, Oe tends to admire Japan's democratic constitution, and wishes to extol its virtues to Hikari and the young generally.

In addition to Blake and Mishima, Oe acknowledges his debts to a host of writers, mostly Western. Among these is Malcolm Lowry, the enigmatic, short-lived, and triumphantly alcoholic author of Under the Volcano, who famously made this prescription, worthy of Oe: "gin and orange juice best cure for alcoholism, the real cause of which is ugliness and complete baffling sterility of existence as sold to you." Like Mishima, Lowry went out with a bang -- both authors having failed where Oe has so far succeeded, in making palatable an ugly, sterile world through art.

As Rouse Up winds down, Oe embraces an ever more Christian worldview. While he is unwilling to believe that "sin" has any meaning, Christ's -- and our -- forgiveness of sin is crucial if humanity is to rise above resentment and its manifestation as violence. Oe also mentions feeling something like grace and makes passing reference to the Lamb and the Tree of Life. The novel ends with a Blake line referring to the certainty of resurrection.

So what, if anything, is distinctly Japanese about all of this? Admittedly very little. But the time may be past when such a question made sense. If you look at recent Nobel Laureates, you will find that they are mostly internationalists, writers without fixed homes or allegiances. Gao Xingjian claims that his Chineseness amounts to the fact that he continues to write in Chinese. The same could be said of Oe and Japanese. Though no longer young, they too are men of a new -- in this case, globalizing -- age.

If The Silent Cry is about life in the shadow of madness, and /Rouse Up/ about life in the shadow of death, then Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness is about the final permutation: madness in the shadow of death. Shown this collection of four short novels, a psychologist would probably diagnose Oe with schizophrenia, manic depression, a persecution complex. You name it, he seems to have it. Even at his most chipper, Oe is plagued by demons and visions and rages, but this collection, and especially the novel "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away", may be what Mishima called the author's esoteric masterpiece, the purest expression of the author's true soul.

Nobody's true soul is ever a very agreeable thing to behold; and its exposure can rather resemble an exorcism. Oe is particularly possessed by the spirit of his late father, who apparently went mad late in life and died with a torturous lack of finesse. Infuriating Oe still further, his mother refuses to divulge the details of his father's demise.

Another focal point is August 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito in effect renounced his divinity by addressing the Japanese people over the radio. This was followed in January 1946 by a formal acknowledgment of his mortality. The effect on Oe, as on many Japanese, was traumatic, and Japanese society has been quite at sea since. Even as a grown man, Oe dwells on this disillusionment in his childhood. He even fears that his own suicide would be punished in the afterlife, the Emperor interpreting the act as an escape from imperial allegiance. To complicate matters, Oe suspects that his father had decided to save Japan by having the Imperial Palace sprinkled with bombs. His father's last-ditch dream for a coup d'état was not realized, and Oe's scorn for his father mirrors his scorn for Mishima.

The war also provides a setting for the story "Prize Stock", the title referring to a black American POW held captive in a remote Japanese village. Japan has always been an ethnically homogeneous and often a xenophobic country, so the villagers treat the black soldier like a gorilla, with a mixture of awe, curiosity, and loathing. Eventually the villagers are astonished to discover that the soldier is "like a person!"

Hikari is once again the impetus behind the two remaining novels. The title piece begins with a typically grotesque scene, in which "an outlandishly fat man came close to being thrown to a polar bear bathing in a filthy pool below him and had the experience of very nearly going mad." Oe is the fat man; Hikari is again christened Eeyore. We are now unsurprised to learn that the fat man requires tranquilizers to face the world alone. And on a father and son visit to the zoo, the fat man sees his mirror image: "a lethargic orangutan...afflicted with melancholia so severely that it needed daily stimulants just to stay alive."

One of the great consolations of literature -- less so of film, literature's usurper -- is that it can show us the inner lives of creatures every bit as -- I presume -- miserable and wretched as ourselves. The consolation is that we are not alone in despairing and soldiering on. Perhaps we are able to do this because the instinct for self-preservation is stronger than the instinct for happiness. And the instinct for passing on one's genes is, or so we are now led to believe, stronger still. This is why the fat man endures such anxiety over his son's well-being.

When Hikari was born, Oe considered allowing him to starve to death. He thought himself incapable of raising an abnormal child. Guilt over this thought motivates the final novel in this collection, "Aghwee the Sky Monster," in which an insane composer named D is occasionally visited by Aghwee, an apparition of a giant baby in diapers. D's father hires the narrator to look after D, who ultimately gets run over by a convoy of trucks as he attempts to "rescue" the monstrous cherub. He dies the following day. Then, mysteriously, a group of children pelt the narrator with rocks, and put out one of his eyes. This leads him to sympathize somewhat with D's "insanity."

I place the word in quotes not simply because it is fashionable to do so, to imply that insanity is relative. Insanity is not relative. It is a rejection or a misunderstanding of consensual reality, which is a constructed sum of six-plus billion human realities. But supposing this reality deserves to be rejected, or can only be misunderstood? What if reality has become surreal, grotesque, a caricature of itself? What would have been inconceivable a hundred or a thousand years ago -- nuclear weapons, sex-means-AIDS-means-death, Prozac -- has become banal; madness is general; and Kenzaburo Oe -- mad as a hatter, mad as hell -- is our trusted guide.

- The End -

Books by Kenzaburo Oe reviewed in this article: Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!, Grove Press, 2002. The Silent Cry, Kodansha International, 1974. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, Grove Press, 1977.

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