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.

Book Review: Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age by Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe is probably my favorite writer. Each one of his works is filled with dense, emotionally charged poeticism, and even if a book of his is not particularly gripping, by the end I am always wowed. This book is no exception.

Although some changes have been made, most of the book is rooted in reality: the reader follows the narration of a famous Japanese writer called K, who has written the same books as Oe and who has a disabled son, also like Oe. O ROUSE UP consists of K interweaving the present as his son approaches adulthood with memories, the poetry of William Blake (which serves as an important metaphor), and his own work. The result is an episodic novel (it has been described as a short story collection by its author, although all the parts do cohere) with less narrative drive than some are used to but a powerful book nonetheless.

As an Oe fan, this book is almost everything I want from one of his books. His overt philosophizing, his strange language, his description of human relationships, his mythmaking, his ability to weave all of that into a good story are all present here. But though I don’t have many complaints with this book, I would not recommend anyone start Oe here.

Why? This is a work for those who have already been introduced to him and Japanese culture. When he compares Blake to his own books, I don’t think many who aren’t already familiar with Oe to get much out of it. When he talks about a band of young political youths who united under the famous writer M, you’re supposed to be able to tell that he is referring to Mishima and an offshoot of a militia he formed. Similarly, Oe often talks about his disabled son in his literature and if this is the first time the reader is hearing about their relationship, no doubt they will miss a lot.

If you’re already acquainted with a few of his books, this will probably be a worthwhile book. If you’re looking to get into Oe, there are much better places to start. NIP THE BUDS, SHOOT THE KIDS and A PERSONAL MATTER rank among some of his most accessible, with the former, his first novel, about kids abandoned in a village durig the second world war trying to forge a life for themselves, and the latter detailing a father whose son has just been born with a brain defect and the decisions he makes. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as reviews of those two will be posted soon.