Book Review: Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe

This is an incredibly Japanese book. At times it makes statements few outside of Japan can relate to, like saying the atomic bombs and their aftermath were worse than the Holocaust (it’s not a pain Olympics, guys). It also dedicates about 1/3 of its size to Japanese conferences on the A-bomb back in the 60s and the factions behind it splitting up, something I don’t think many people nowadays have an interest in. A lot of the other sections feature Oe throwing around vague terms like “dignity” and “courage” liberally; to his credit he does try to define them and the reader does get a sense of what he means by these terms, but the explanations are never truly satisfactory (though Oe himself also admits this).

Still, the sheer power and intensity of these essays outshine those problems. After some talk about the conferences, the rest focuses on the victims and doctors of Hiroshima who struggle to go on living everyday existences, and provides glimpses at those who fail to look past the horror of their condition and those who succeed. It’s very moving, and those who know Oe’s biography know the effect meeting with these people had on him, a feeling Oe manages to condense down on to the paper and transfer to readers.

I wonder how much is lost in translation. At one point, Oe, while highlighting how odd the Japanese word for “dignity” is, writes, “That boy is full of dignity,” noting how odd it sounds in his language and how it sounds translated from a western one. And, reading this book in a western one, it really doesn’t sound too out there. Oe is known for messing with syntax and producing sentences that appear as though they’ve been translated from some European tongue. While translators have been able to reproduce his knotty style with great success in novels like A PERSONAL MATTER or THE SILENT CRY, here the translators attempted no such feats and in the introduction admit that whenever something sounded weird and western in the original they opted for a simple version of the sentence. Too bad, I wonder how this book read in Japanese.

I’m a bit disappointed so few of his essays are available in English. Oe’s role as a spokesman for the new generation in 60s Japan was apparently more for his essays than his fiction. All we have are three small books: this one, a collection of magazine pieces about life with his son, and a short collection of lectures, including the one he gave at the Nobel ceremony. While the beginning of this one is bound in time to the 60s and as a result a bit dated, the middle and end transcend time and are a must read for any one who can get their hands on the collection.

If I remember correctly, Oe once said this was his most important book, and it’s not hard to see why. A must-read for anyone, but power through the first third if you’re not digging it.

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Book Review: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

A baby with a deformed head is born to a Japanese couple. The father, Bird, who dreams of an unencumbered life in Africa, keeps the baby’s problem a secret from his wife and conspires with a doctor to give his son weak milk to kill him. The thought of his disabled offspring drive Bird to binging on alcohol and shacking up with an old girlfriend with problems of her own. So begins Kenzaburo Oe’s A PERSONAL MATTER. Oe himself has a with brain issues, born a few months before this work appeared, and while Oe’s coming to terms with his son is probably much more mundane than the events here, it certainly adds a new dimension to the book.

Oe’s typical awkward yet poetic prose is on full display here. Disillusioned with Japanese traditions after the Second World War, he spurned his country’s conventional prose, like the understated work of Yasunari Kawabata, in favor of long sentences padded with odd and unexpected adjectives. Just look at A PERSONAL MATTER’s opening line:

Bird, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a sigh.

This is not a book meant just for those interested in Japanese literature; it was the inaugural pick at Jonathan Franzen’s book club. As such a focused image of despair, it transcends cultural boundaries, and for such depressing subject matter it is quite the page-turner. For those on the fence, it is also a small commitment, clocking in at 165 pages in my edition.

The most common criticism is the ending, with even some mesmerized by the rest of the book being disappointed upon reaching the last pages. The first time I read it, it was the only negative I could think of. As such, the rest of this review will deal with spoilers, so keep reading at your own risk.

Since Oe accepted his son’s disability in real life, it is not too surprising that Bird does the same here. After the innutritious milk fails to off the baby, Bird and his old girlfriend take him to a sketchy abortion clinic and stop at a bar for a celebratory beer before traveling to Africa when Bird has a change of heart and returns to his family life. Many have claimed that all the bad decisions and existential angst preceding this renders the ending unconvincing and out of place.

The first time I read A PERSONAL MATTER, I went through the book cover to cover one evening, utterly entranced until the ending, which made me rethink my rating from a 5/5 to a 4/5. I had even known the conclusion before I began reading and it still seemed tacked on, ranking up there with GREAT EXPECTATIONS for awful endings.

And then, a few years later, traveling through Japan, with my family, I reread it, taking my time and finishing it after a few days. I was blown away. Tons of literary references that went over my head before now made sense and deepened my appreciation for the author. His language went from odd but beautiful to measured artistic rebellion (I had not known about his reasons for incorporating bizarre metaphors and sentence structures previously). And, most importantly, the ending made sense. When Bird shows up to his job teaching at a cram school incredibly hungover and vomits in front of his class, one student threatens to report him to the headmaster, most likely resulting in a termination. Other pupils offer to cover for him but Bird refuses, insisting he must take responsibility although he cannot articulate why he feels this way. This and a few other side plots and references that I missed when I barreled the book in a few hours foreshadow the ending.

Even with this, the ending still is not a 100% fitting finale, but at least it does not seem like a passage ripped from a different novel and made enough sense in context for me to restore that missing point in my rating. Given the relatively quick composition, it’s a wonder that it is only the ending that does not perfectly fit. A PERSONAL MATTER is not a flawless novel, but it comes very close. Just be sure to take your time with it; it is deceptively dense.

A Young Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of the most famous Japanese writers from the 20th century. Although he authored numerous acclaimed works and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, he is probably better known for his ritual suicide at age 45 (and was also the subject of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MISHIMA: A VISION OF THE VOID). He burst out on to the Japanese literary scene with his semi-autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, detailing a gay man coming of age in war time Japan and hiding his feelings behind a mask, and from there wrote a number of novels (34 in total), plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, many of which are still read 50 years later. Often times his first drafts required little revision. Though he was a little messed in the head, he was clearly a genius.

But, although he clearly had some talent, Mishima worked very hard to get to where he was. In fact, he may be the hardest working writer I’ve ever read about. As a teenager, he focused a great deal on poetry and was capable of churning out enough material to fill a chapbook in a week. But his interests soon shifted and he began writing prose. He read the dictionary to pepper his pieces with obscure and beautiful kanji at a time when I would have failed SAT vocab tests. It’s not clear just how many short stories he wrote at this point in his life, but the number must have been rather high and he also worked on a few novellas and novels. He also produced around 9 full-length plays during these years.

At 17, some teachers at his school were so impressed with his short story “The Forest in Full Bloom” that they published it in their magazine and offered to publish it in book form, a feat all the more amazing because it happened during World War 2 when paper shortages were common. The story, written in an elegant classical Japanese, tells the story of a boy reminiscing about his ancestors. There were a couple other stories to round out the collection.

Soon after Mishima began publishing other prose in various magazines, making a decent amount of money from his writings. Another short story collection soon followed, as did his first novel, BANDITS, about aristocratic lovers with suicidal preoccupations.

Keep in mind, while he was producing all this work, he also held a full time job at the finance ministry and would only write at night, staying up late and averaging four or so hours of sleep each night. When his father began to see the toll this lifestyle was taking on Mishima, he allowed his son to quit to focus on writing—right around the same time Mishima was offered a book deal for his next novel.

Mishima spent the next three months working on his novel, finishing in early 1949. This was CONFESSIONS OF A MASK. Published that summer, it received warm reception. But did not sell well. Mishima got nervous about his decision to resign from his finance post. He could still make a bit of money from his other writings, but would it be enough?

CONFESSIONS, which is now viewed as the work that cemented Mishima as a notable writer, was far from a sensation when first released. It was only in December, when it appeared on a number of critics’ “best of” lists, that the public started to take note. And take note they did. Mishima would enjoy fame for the rest of his life.

So, he was far from a genius figure who could effortlessly produce amazing manuscripts. He spent so much time writing as a teenager that it is quite likely he had written over a million words before BANDITS (often listed as the amount of practice needed to produce something great). And even then, it still took a while for him to find popular success.

To any wannabe writers feeling down because they’ll never be good enough, remember all the writing Mishima had to do before the public took note. Sure, he was 23 when that happened, but by that time he had also written more than most people do over a lifetime. And to anyone who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time because people just shovel words on to a page, remember that Mishima practically did that every single day of his life.