Oe Kenzaburo

Oe Kenzaburo (1935-Present--Nobel Prize, 1994)

Oe Kenzaburo was not one of the "big five" 20th century Japanese novelists I was meeting in the course I took in 1973.  Abe Kobo made it (though still alive), in part, because he was the professor's dissertation subject.  But Oe, who is younger than I am (was not yet forty then) did have the beginning of a reputation among readers of Japanese fiction in English translation, based largely on a single novel at that time, A Personal Matter, the story of a man, Bird, who must come to terms with, first, the responsibilities of being married at all, then--the central action of the book--how to deal with the birth of a deformed child, who seems like a monster to him.  I read this novel that summer, and was made uncomfortable by the way the psychology of the problem was handled (the basic problem of the deformed child Oe has evidently handled very well in his own life).  I guess my problem was that I didn't find Bird a sympathetic character--didn't like him--so didn't go looking for more Oe to read.

This novel had been translated by John Nathan, who tells the story of how he lost Mishima as a friend and client for translation (he had translated Mishima's Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea), when he decided to translate A Personal Matter instead of another Mishima novel he had agreed to do.  After Nathan told him, Mishima never talked to him again, not only considering himself betrayed, but thinking that, in effect, Nathan had "run off with Oe."  Mishima had expected to win the Nobel Prize for Literature on the basis of these translations, Nathan says, and then, in 1968, Kawabata won it instead.  So, some would say, Mishima committed seppuku in 1970 as the only way to top this.  And, ironically, the next Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was Oe--in 1994.  I was so heavily into reading Mishima by the time I  read this in Nathan's biography (published soon after Mishima's sensational suicide) that I was inclined to side with Mishima, thinking, "How could he have deserted Mishima for A Personal Matter?"

The next Oe I met was two or three years later, in a collection of New Writing in Japan which had been edited by Mishima before he died, and which I used as reader in a Freshman Composition class.  It was a long short story, or novella, translated there as The Catch, which told the story of the capture of a black American airman in the rural recesses of Shikoku, where Oe grew up (was the age of one of the boys in the story at the end of the war), and the friendship that develops between two boys and this strange creature their village has "caught" and set them to guard.  It won Japan's top prize for a short story, the Akutagawa Prize, and is still the Oe I like best.  I won't tell you how it ends, for it is easy to find and I encourage you to read it.  My students liked it, too--wrote good papers about it.

So, after that, I was looking for more Oe, and  found a collection that included that story (translated there as Prize Stock), along with Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (the title story), The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, and Aghwee The Sky Monster, four novellas translated by John Nathan, and I used that in another class.  But I didn't like those other stories very much--they were almost as confusing to me as they were to my students, who had a hard time writing about them at all--so I went back to collections of Mishima and Tanizaki, which worked much better as texts for introducing freshmen to Japanese literature.

The next Oe I read was several years later, the novel, The Silent Cry, while I was enrolled in an NEH summer program at the University of California at Berkeley in the summer of 1984, which had gathered together Japanese specialists from across the country.  I did not read it as an assignment, of which I had enough without it, but because Michiko Wilson, who was working on a critical book on Oe (The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo, M.E. Sharpe: Armonk, New York, London, 1986) was a classmate, which provoked my interest, and because I was buying a lot of Japanese novels in a San Francisco bookstore.  I got a copy and read it--and still consider it one of the strangest Japanese novels I have ever read.  It opens with the narrator  telling how he awakened from bad dreams one morning and climbed down into the open hole that had been dug for a septic tank holding a black dog in his arms, sits in the water collected at the bottom, and reflects upon a friend who has painted his head red and hung himself (I just reread that first chapter before writing this), then moves into experiences back in his ancestral Shikoku involving his brother that are almost as bizarre.  I never really got on the wave length, and, with so much else to read, decided to leave Oe for Michiko Wilson and others--and go back to Mishima, whom nobody in this summer seminar of experts on things Japanese seemed to appreciate the way I had come to after reading all of the fifteen or so books of his that had been translated and teaching many of them.

But then, after Oe surprised me by winning the Nobel Prize in 1994, that drew my attention back to him again, and I looked for other things (to find the things I had missed in him).  I found an early novel (his first novel, in fact, from 1958), Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, which I didn't much care for, three early short stories from his college days, Michiko Wilson's book, several reviews and critical articles provoked by the Nobel Prize, and the text of his acceptance speech itself, Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, in which he contrasts himself to Kawabata at length (Kawabata's Nobel Prize speech, in 1968, had been titled Japan the Beautiful and Myself), and in which he seems to be apologizing for Japan in the 20th century (which many may agree with) where Kawabata had evoked and identified with the Japanese aesthetic tradition in rather chauvinist terms.  And he talks a lot about the experience his now grown son, Hikari, who had figured as the model for the monster Bird had to come to terms with in A Personal Matter, has had as a composer (I have been listening to a CD, Music of Hikari Oe, as I write this, and can myself definitely recommend the temper of this music as worth spending an evening with more enthusiastically than I can the temper of most of his father's fiction)--but readily admit that that is a personal bias.

Oe has been compared to the contemporary German novelist, Gunter Grass (eight years older, so about my age, and author of The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years)--as one who was too young to fight in World War II, suffered defeat as an adolescent, and has been trying to come to terms with it ever since.  I have never read any of Grass (saw a film version of The Tin Drum), and, as you can see, I have very mixed feeling about Oe.  I don't pretend to have nearly the sense of comprehensive understanding of his work that I think I have of the "big five" that I have presented these last five months--and worked with pretty steadily for these last twenty five years--but he is obviously an important contemporary Japanese novelist, so you should read him without being overly influenced by my remarks, and make up your own mind.  I think he is the kind of writer that will get a strong reaction, in any case--either you'll like him or you won't.  But try him. Then write to me and tell me what I should be looking for.  I will try to read one more of his books, The Pinch Runner Memorandum, or finish re-reading The Silent Cry, before I pass on, and do encourage you to take a look yourself.

Next month I will present another novelist who is marginal for me, and one I have read even less of, but another one who has been  central for other students of modern Japanese Fiction (and one Mishima hated even more than he did Oe Kenzaburo), Dazai Osamu.