Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
With Japan and its history as a backdrop, Oe's fiction explores themes that are realistic to our contemporary society. "Oe clearly stands at the juncture of modern Japanese and Western literary traditions," Michiko Wilson says. "It is refreshing to see how he is totally at ease with a variety of Western intellectual and literary disciplines without sacrificing his Japanese identity" (vii). Oe's approach is often a refinement of famous Asian and Western masters such as Kim Chi Ha and Mark Twain. Politically, Oe was involved in a 1975 hunger strike for two days, protesting the persecution of Kim by the South Korean government (Wilson, 130). Artistically, Oe is fascinated by Kim Chi Ha's portrayal of a cultural hero and his use of grotesque realism. Kim inspires him, in Oe's own words, "to rediscover a cultural force, which Japan has lost in the process of modernization . . . that generates ... 'grotesque realism' that laughs at everything, including himself, or death which is closely linked with rebirth, or the continual reversal of rigidly fixed hierarchical relationships" (Wilson, 9). He started decades ago his quest for a cultural hero who would represent Japan, just as Huck Finn does for America.*
Takashi in The Silent Cry bears resemblances to Huck Finn. While Huck risks his own security to work with Tom Sawyer to liberate Jim, Takashi makes a hero's sacrifice for the revival of his townspeople. With his great- grandfather's younger brother as his role model, Takashi sets out to free the people of his hometown from Paek Sun-gi, the Emperor of the Supermarkets, who is destroying the village's traditional economy.
The handsome Taka must have felt pressured to live up to his mother's expectations and to "lead a successful life" (Kenzaburo Oe, The Silent Cry, trans. John Bester, 19). This explains many of the drastic actions that Taka takes throughout his adult life, including his leadership in the 1960 student riots against the United States Security Treaty and his trip to America. Unlike Mitsu, who can be viewed as the passive hero, Taka is the active hero, always ready to initiate actions. Taka's charisma enables him to manipulate people, cleverly deal with the Emperor, and prepare the attack on the supermarket.
Apart from the two brothers, Oe presents a collection of grotesque characters, namely Gii (the mad hermit), the dreadful Chosokabe (a mythical figure of the forest), and Jin (Japan's Fattest Woman). These characters are distinctly Japanese portrayed with Western masterly strokes. The inclusion of a mentally handicapped son, modeled on Oe's own child, Hikari, is also significant, for the boy is a major inspiration in Oe's career and life."For the last thirty years, I've been attempting to express my son's voice," Oe told Canadian journalist Frank Koller."I was also expressing myself as a novelist and very, very conscious of the fact that I was producing these novels in order to save myself" ("A Conversation with Oe Kenzaburo," Descant/Japan, 26).
The relationship of a father and his handicapped son figures prominently in Oe's fiction. In his first two works, "Aghwee" and A Personal Matter, Oe poses the narrator with the direct question of whether he should kill the baby or keep him (Wilson, 84). These two narratives reflect perhaps the most important decision that Oe himself has made in his life so far. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, The Waters Are Come in unto My Soul and The Pinch- runner Memorandum cover such complex issues as "What is my meaningful relation to the world?"(Wilson, 86). It is a question that Oe is still struggling with at the present.
Social issues aside, Oe deals with the political reality in postwar Japan. Oe's candid criticism of his country's aggressive foreign policy largely accounts for the controversy surrounding him and his Nobel prize in Japan. While supporters of Japanese literature celebrated when Kawabata was awarded the same award in 1968, they did not applaud Oe's victory twenty-six year later (Ted Goossen, "After the Cherry Blossoms: Writing Today's Japan," Descant/Japan, 11). The 1994 laureate is not afraid to lay bare the atrocities in Japanese history.
"The modernization of Japan was oriented towards learning from and imitating the West, yet the country is situated in Asia and has firmly maintained its traditional culture," says Oe in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize for Literature. "This ambiguity drove the country into the position of an invader in Asia, and resulted in its isolation from other Asian nations, not only politically but also socially and culturally" (quoted by Goossen, 11). In his interview with Koller, Oe openly criticizes the Japanese government for not completely admitting Japan's aggression and expresses his sympathy for war victims (Descant/Japan 31).
By and large, Oe's fiction can be viewed as a breakthrough in Japanese literature. His view differs from the older generation of Japanese novelists, who adhere to Japan's old conventions even though they now face a bleakly different postwar reality. Although Oe's political stance remains controversial in a good part of Japan, changes are coming, and it appears that with time Oe's talents will be recognized even in his homeland.
*Michiko N. Wilson attributes this idea to "Expressing the Expressive Life--My Moratorium 1" in Complete Works of Oe Kenzaburo (OKZ). The quotation is from OKZ, vol. 2, series I, pp. 353-54.
Barthes, Roland. "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative." New literary History 6, no.2 (winter 1975) 237-72.
Goossen, Ted, Karen Mulhallen, et al. ed.Descant/Japan 26.2 (summer 1995).
"Descant/Japan is the fifth in an informal series of special issues of the magazine devoted to particular countries of regions," writes editor Mulhallen.
Napier, J. Susan. Escape from the Wasteland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Oe, Kenzaburo. The Silent Cry. Trans. John Bester. New York: Kodansha International Ltd., 1974.
Wilson, N. Michiko. The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986.
Copyright © 1996 by the author. Information from this article should be attributed to the author.