Oe’s first novel: Nip the Bud, Shoot the Kids

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Ôe Kenzaburo was born in 1935 in a village on the island of Shikoku and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994 for creating “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”)

I have no idea whether Ôe was familiar with William Goldings’s (1954) Lord of the Flies. The never-named youth in Oe’s first novel, Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids (Memushiri ko-uchi, 1958) were stigmatized: fifteen reform school boys rather than “innocent” school boys. Sent to a rural location, they were forced to take on tasks that not only further stigmatized them, but which were outright dangerous, in particular, dealing with animal carcasses in an area where the plague has broken out. When the boys are abandoned to their own devices (in the rural village where they have been slave labor, locked up in a shed and fed only raw potatoes) they turn into monsters less than they die in loneliness. (The plague is probably a metaphor for the war Ôe’s elders brought on and the suffering of civilians.)

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“In the farming villages, we were like splinters stuck in skin” the narrator recalls. Before the outbreak of the plague from which the villagers fled during a night, a villager warns them: “Anyone caught stealing, starting fires, or making a row will be beaten to death by the villagers. Don’t forget that you’re vermin here. Even so, we’ll shelter and feed you. Always remember that in this village you’re only useless vermin.”

There are also Li, a Korean boy (Koreans were and are stigmatized by their former colonial masters), Nand a young girl who dies of the plague, and a deserter from the imperial army, and more peasant cruelty in this novella.

The boys have some joy in killing birds (taught by Li) and eating them. Their idyll without adult authority ends. The returned villagers fear that outsiders will learn of their negligence and alternately ply to boys with food (rice balls and soup) and threaten them into pledging silence. The unnamed narrator (a recurrent Ôe device) does not make the pledge. A villager tells him: “We squash vermin while it’s small. We’re peasants: we nip the buds early,” and at the end the narrator is chased into the forest where his brother had earlier fled. (The wispy figure of this brother is the innocence lacking in the narrator and his peers, I think.) He fears that it is a trap and that he will be slain away from the eyes of the other boys who sold out (and sold him out).

Not an upbeat tale, but I have not read any Ôe fiction that is!

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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