Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.2, no. 3, June-August, 1997
Our readers' feedback revolves around man's quest for a purpose on earth, his efforts to defeat time, and the ambiguity of God's silent speech. An anthropology graduate from the University of Toronto applauds Megan Donnelly's essay on disabled children in Kenzaburo Oe's fiction, particularly the short story "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness." The tale depicts the lesser-known joys of raising a mentally challenged son. "It is heart-warming to see how the father, who at first worries that his boy will become a monstrous vegetable, ends up imitating the way the youngster scratches his ears," the reader says. "I shift my sympathy from the son to his father who loses his voice and purpose in life when the disabled child finds his independence."
Other aficionados of the 1994 Nobel laureate offer helpful background information pertaining to his novel The Silent Cry. Paul St John Mackintosh of Britain, for one, notes that the "cucumber" suicide of the protagonist's friend is modelled on a real-life incident. A Francophone Japanese friend of Oe's in Paris hanged himself for fear that the world would be reduced to ashes during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s. "The Japanese cucumber (kyuri) is on average much smaller than the Western variety, so that the friend's death is a tiny bit less grotesque than it appears in translation," he adds.
Takashi in The Silent Cry is a virtual caricature of the radical activist-terrorist of the early 1960s, according to Mackintosh. "The advocacy of violence almost without purpose represents to some extent Oe's frustrated wish to be a man of action as well as the grudging realization that many of his political fellow-travellers were in fact psychopaths," he says.
Mackintosh is the co-translator of Oe's Nip the Bud, Shoot the Kids. He goes on to praise The Silent Cry as the greatest novel written in Japan since the Second World War, and perhaps since 1868. "You need to look behind the imagery at the themes," he says. "The book is set in 1960, the watershed year in which Japan's radical left lost its struggle against the renewal of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, AMPO. The novel jumps back and forth over 100 years to comment on Japan's evolution since 1860. Takashi's actions are a deliberate attempt to take the villagers back to their past and recreate that century-old rising."
Oe is apparently well versed in Mircea Eliade's works. The Romanian philosopher, Mackintosh notes, "refers continually to the attempts of religion old and new, primitive and highly developed, to deny or defeat time by ritual reenactment of primal event-patterns, which recreate and refresh the present by returning to the sources." Mackintosh cites Takashi's Bon pantomine as an emblem of the village's rebirth, "as well as a traumatic descent into chaos."
The bon festival also figures prominently in Shusaku Endo's novel Silence. The children's song in particular--"Oh lantern bye, bye, bye./If you throw a stone at it,/your hand withers away"-- reminds Naoko Yamanishi of her native country. "The festival in Japan is a ritual of ancestral worship," she says. "I don't have any personal experiences with it because my mother, being the second daughter, has not inherited the name of her family. In Japan, it is the heir who looks after his or her ancestors' family grave. But I have seen the ritual on television. The light from the lanterns floating on a river is delicate, much softer than the bright light from a bulb or a lamp. It filters through paper. You don't throw a stone at the lanterns because each represents the spirit of an ancestor. It is disrespectful to do so." In Christianity, light symbolizes truth, but to the Japanese, it seems to be a temporal flash in the dark, timeless universe.
Yamanishi aside, several other readers have responded to Benjamin Bacola's article "Has God spoken?" It discusses the emotional struggles of a Portuguese Catholic priest in Tokugawa Japan, as portrayed by Shusaku Endo in his novel Silence. One respondent adamantly denounces missionaries who seek to replace one religion with another. "They usually bring trouble and diseases with them as well," the reader says. "The essay provokes you to think, but it does not resolve the contradictions. I have a problem with that kind of blind faith. It also seems unusual to me that the sea is emotionless and the sun is indifferent. In literature isn't Nature personified as the caring Earth Mother instead? I have seen soothing images of the sun's warmth and the stormy seas' fury."
Another reader questions the role of Sebastian as a "mediator" between the Japanese and God. "Have you read Erma Bombeck's book If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?" she asks. "It makes me laugh, and it makes me cry. When we pray, the Holy Spirit takes our words and our tears to God. We have already an intercessor." Has God spoken? "It seems strange that God is so quiet," she says. "He speaks through the Catholic missionary but not to him. It is good to raise questions, for they usually lead to a revelation. Bacola discusses Endo's novel Silence nicely. It reminds me of the trials that the Apostle Paul and other Christians went through in the first century."
Two readers compare Sebastian with Job in the Old Testament of the Bible instead. "He is severely tested just as Job was tested," Saundrea Coburn of Toronto says. "But neither of them could have gone through the trials by himself. I am puzzled by the question whether God does exist, but appreciate the affirmation in Bacola's conclusion. It is a test of faith." The second reader notes that man may never fully understand the timing and meaning of God's speech. "In the middle of the trials, Job did not sense God's presence although He had been there all the time and had everything planned. That's the biggest problem in our lives."
As for social worker Carolyn Lessard, God's speech is loud and clear. "When people talk about answered prayers, they mean they have got what they want," she explains. "When God says 'no,' that's silence. Sebastian is a vehicle through which He has spoken although the missionary himself may not have heard God's speech. Bacola has done a good job raising the issues involved. That's important."
While Lessard agrees that missionaries are mostly precursors of colonialism, she disputes with the Japanese officials who, in Bacola's words, "stress that both Christianity and Buddhism extol self-denial and selfless love and, therefore, fail to see the relevance of importing an alien faith." She points out some fundamental differences between the two religions. "Buddhism teaches that negation of human desire is the path to perfecting human nature," she explains. "Christianity says that we can't be better people by ourselves and offers a solution to this otherwise hopeless situation. Passions in Christiainty are good. It depends on how and where they are directed."
For Alma Duran, God has spoken through the missionary and demonstrated His love, which rebuilds Sebastian after the fall. "I am a Catholic from Mexico," she explains. "Sebastian's mission is to take God's love to others, and God helps him do that. You have to suffer really to achieve happiness. Because of your suffering, you become fully conscious of others' plight." What impresses Duran most is Bacola's neutrality. "The writer takes the position of a spectator, giving an objective account of the events and people involved," she says. "He doesn't preach to the reader."
It is ironic that only after Sebastian has renounced his faith verbally, does he fully realize his Christ-like empathy towards others, according to Gail Ogilvie of Edmonton, Alberta. "Although he regains his sense of the importance of the Christian mission in the end, he has already felt a vital link between the Japanese sentiments, expressed in a children's song, and his own," she remarks. "Bacola conveys the depth of the Japanese author's search for meaning in the unresolved contradictions of a Western religion. It is in essence the true Christian nature of Sebastian that has persuaded him to apostatize."
Responding to these comments, Bacola says: "While my essay has raised a question, I am reluctant to answer it one way or the other without a doubt. I leave it open for the reader to draw his or her own conclusion. There are many things about God that our finite mind can't comprehend fully. I don't want to claim I do. I don't believe God is silent, but I personally have never been in Sebastian's situation and do not want to oversimplify the contradictions involved. Instead, I have tried to describe the situation as it is and ends my discussion with a purpose in which Sebastian himself believes."
Most of the other responses range from requests for further information to general commentary on individual articles and the journal as whole. Some readers frown upon the breakdown of family values as depicted in Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills, and some continue to caution our writers against being unduly idealistic. A sampling:
Michael Day, assistant professor of English, South Dakota Tech: I have really enjoyed your insightful analyses. You are providing a good model for other teachers, like me, around the country.
I am responsible for choosing two representative East Asian works in translation for the South Dakota Humanities Council reading series. We take world literature out to small towns on the prairie and the Black Hills, and have amazing discussions, but we need works which are both accessible and rather short. Novels usually work well, as long as they are not too dark.I am thinking of Natsume Soseki's I Am a Cat or Akutagawa Ryunosuke's Rashomon for one of the books, since I know Japanese literature fairly well. I am open to recommendations.
[Julie Shim, our writer-illustrator, highly recommends The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Theodore W. Goossen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.]
Brian Castro, Australian novelist, Victoria: I have enjoyed reading your journal very much. A degree of idealism has manifested itself in the latest essays on the Tiananmen Tragedy. As an old sceptic, I wonder if the students had sacrificed a knowledge of foreign policy between China and the West for opinions on human rights and freedoms. I would have preferred more realpolitik over rhetoric. Perhaps historicising China's progress towards modernization would be a more fruitful path to understanding the numerous revolutions China has sustained. These can only be fully appreciated in hindsight. Megan Donnelly's article on Chinese women painters may be just the very catalyst needed to explore and divine these new directions.
Huguette Fontaine, translator, Toronto: The articles are very interesting. Very instructive and well written. I wish I could read all the works discussed by the writers. Freedom is an unremitting quest for those young Chinese "Misty poets" [in Jessica Martin's article] and will guide them on the road of creativity. Perhaps their art originates from this quest and their quest takes root in their art.
Kathy Bennett, Massachusetts: I was searching the Web for reviews of The Artist of the Floating World when I found your site [which features Kevin Hodgson's analysis of the novel]. It is a rich site, well-designed and easy to navigate.
A foreign student in Ontario: I hesitate to ever settle in Canada for fear that my children might follow the examples set by their peers in a permissive society. I like the way my parents have taught me, and I want my children to grow up in the same environment. I am a Catholic. For us, it is no good to move to your boyfriend's place without getting married as Niki does in A Pale View of Hills. Here that's very common.
Gail Ogilvie, staff at the municipal government of Edmonton, Alberta: The articles published in Road to East Asia for the last two years are thought-provoking. The writers' efforts to appreciate the significance of the course material are all-apparent and gratifying to anyone wishing to understand East Asian culture. They have prompted me to reflect upon my own culture.
David Christopher Bowes, Penn State University: As many who know his work, I find Kenzaburo Oe's somewhat medieval descriptions of the forest as being beyond the domain of men, civilization, where madmen scuttle around, heroes traversing . . . I have my own doubts regarding my security in a forest. Oe's rural upbringing and fondness for Swedish author Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlof's Nils get me all upset.
Japanese mountain nights are terrifying. Cicadas humming, jagged angles covered with creepily uniform cedar trees tunnels, spanned and buttressed cliffs . . . What is it exactly that Oe is imagining when Mitsu's wife in The Silent Cry feels a wave of horror as they step off the bus and sense the forest's presence?
Sim Chee Cheang: It's not only a pleasure reading your journal but it can also prove to be a very informative source for people like me. I was looking for something on the writings of diasporic Chinese either in the U.S. or elsewhere for an article I wanted to write. I came across the comments on Amy Tan's writing in your journal and it helped me to see things from a different perspective about a migrant's vision of China and her past.
James O'Donnell, professor of Classical Studies, University of Pennsylvania: Though arising as a classroom exercise, this is very much a journal, and quite serious.
Road to East Asia was selected for the Webpage showcase at York University in the months of March and April, 1997. "The site is beautiful and inspiring--redolent of what we all hope for from education: engaged students creatively occupied in reflecting on the course material and sharing their reflections with one another and the wider community," the judges say. Part of the credit goes to the illustrators who, inspired by our writers, capture beautifully the significance of their essays in art.
On behalf of our writers and editors, I would like to thank our readers once again for their visits and thoughtful feedback.
Illustrations by Julie Shim, Megan Donnelly, and Billy Lo