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The Silent Cry, by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, elicits mixed responses from its readers. Some praise it as a work of art while others censure it for being repulsive and lurid. The plot revolves around two brothers who return to their hometown from Tokyo to retrace the history of their family. From the outset of the novel, we learn of the suicide of the narrator's adult school friend. The vivid imagery of the hanged corpse -- face painted red with a cucumber stuffed up his anus, and stark naked -- constantly recurs. The suicide, with the humiliation and degradation associated with it, is key to one of Oe's primary themes.
Japan was at once an aggressor and a victim in the Second World War. The reader mourns its losses and abhors the havoc it wreaked on East Asia. One questions if old Japan represents a cohesive family lifestyle or a blind faith in militarism, propelling the country to pillage in the prewar years.
The drizzly cold April brings back to Etsuko memories of her daughter who has committed suicide, of her friend who drowns the kittens in front of a vulnerable child, and of Mariko who escapes to the river whenever she is sad.
II. The Koreans
The characters in "Flowers of Fire," influenced by homegrown Shamanism, world-renouncing Buddhism, fate-accepting Taoism, or a foreign faith, respond differently to the tragic events that have destroyed their family and divided their country. The hero to have emerged from this volatile situation seems to be a humanity-serving Confucian who has blended Christianity into his philosophy.
Two authors who grapple with Korea's search for an identity differ in their portrayals of the Koreans. While Hwang Sunwon celebrates the triumph of compassion over military conflict in "Cranes," Yi Chong-jun shows the propensity for greed in the struggle for survival.
In the story "Kapitan Lee," the struggle to improve one's fortune takes precedence over loyalty to family and nation. They are foils to the characters in "Flowers of Fire" and "Cranes" who rebel against foreign encroachment or put aside their political differences to remain friends.
"Cranes," by Hwang Sunwon, takes place in a time when the Koreans are torn apart politically and emotionally. Songsam and Tokchae are childhood friends who find each other on opposite sides, but as they reminisce about their past, they begin to find each other on the same side. The conflicting sentiments illustrate the kind of tension that prevails in a divided Korea.
III. Women in Love
Why do women in postwar East Asia abandon their heritage for a mecca in the West? The question seems problematic, for their choice of a different lifestyle could be largely dictated by circumstances.
Etsuko in A Pale View of Hills -- by Kazuo Ishiguro of The Remains of the Day fame -- discards the traditional roles of a Japanese woman to marry an English journalist and settles with him in England. The narrator in "The Young Zelkova" hankers for the way of life America champions. Have these two women found happiness in ruins?
Forbidden love, a recurring theme in Western literature, enraptures the narrator in "The Young Zelkova." She cherishes the nobility of suffering demonstrated by Goethe's love-sick Werther and relishes in similar sentimentality.
In "The Young Zelkova," the naive narrator falls in love with an image of divine manhood enshrined in Western culture. Being part of that culture, I can understand her infatuation with the traits that Apollo embodies -- music, poetry, sunlight, and prophecy.
People in postwar Japan and Korea tend to dismiss such Confucian precepts as filial piety and family obligations to embrace democratic principles. Fictional characters who demonstrate such a tendency follow the trend of the times in which they live. Apparently, they want a change of climate, away from a homeland which has been destroyed by the atomic holocaust or controlled by foreign powers.
Some women characters who strive to run from their past or reality itself may marry a foreigner and settle in the West, or escape to the Never-Never Land in search of selfhood.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, marrying an American could be a ticket to a promised land, away from the ruins and painful memories. Kazuo Ishiguro portrays a Japanese widow in Nagasaki who pins her hope on an American G.I. in A Pale View of Hills.
Despite her father's disapproval, Namiko in Chon Kwangyong's short tale "Kapitan Lee" plans to marry an American professor specializing in Oriental studies. He loves things Korean, and she happens to be Korean.
Road to East Asia, Vol. 1, no. 1
Road to East Asia Vol. 1, no. 3
Readers' responses to Vol. 1, no. 1
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