Tag Archives: Ôe Kenzaburo

A long and talky portrayal of a splintered doomsday-advancing cult


I am puzzled that Oe Kenzaburo (1935-) was promoted by Grove Press publisher Barry Rossiter and remain dubious about awarding a Nobel Prize to him (for a then-living Japanese writer in 1994, I’d have picked Inoue Yasushi). In his speech accepting the award, Oe said that he was finished with autobiographical fiction. I think that his guilt about his brain-damaged son Hikari became tedious, and welcomed moving on to other topics.

His first post-prize novel, the 576-page 1999 Chugaeri,/Somersault, lacks the concision of his early and middle-period work. It was stimulated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult and the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system of 1995 that was the biggest trauma for Japanese between the atomic bombs/surrender/occupation and the 2011 Fukishima nuclear reactor explosions following the Tôhoku earthquake.


The sprawling novel focuses on the revival of a cult that had been dissolved a decade earlier by its founders, Patron and Guide, appalled at a militant faction that was planning to seize a nuclear power plant. (This is the titular “somersault.”) A remnant (Technicians intent on speeding the end of the world) has kidnapped Guide, and Patron wants to lead an alternative, more peaceful group than that of his former followers.

Patron lacks convincing charisma and the characters of his circle seem forced notions with pat motivations and no substance. Kizu, a painter who has become new co-leader with Patron, is dying of colon cancer and discovers homoerotic feelings that seem borrowed from Thomas Mann’s (much shorter and focused novella, Death in Venice with an older, more brutish Tadzio, herein named Ikuo). The ghost of Dosteovesky (especially  Devils and The Possessed) also lies heavily on the cult members.

There is obsessive, very stilted dialogue about the cult (a toxic mix of Christianity, Judaism, animism, and Buddhism), its attempted dissolution, and the eschatological message of the Church of the New Man (with no new visions since Patron’s original ones, explicated by the now unreachable Guide, before the “somersault”). Oe does little to illuminate why some people join doomsday cults; Murakami’s Underground, comprised of interviews of Aum members and survivors of the subway attack casts more light and takes less effort slogging through turgid theological discussions and painstakingly detailed logistics of running a cult.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A chaotic, but IMHO better, Oe representation of a cult (of a particular saint) is

An Echo of Heaven. I’ve also written about earlier Oe fiction (in chronological order of their publication):

Nip the Bud Shoot the Kids

Prize Stock, etc. (early novellas)

A Personal Matter

The Silent Cry

A Quiet Life

The pretty good, the somewhat dubious, and the very dubious Nobel Prizes for Literature

Having spent the week here writing about fiction written by Ôe Kenzaburo has solidified my skepticism that he deserved a Nobel Prize for literature. I think that the first Japanese to receive the honor. Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), was a plausible candidate for the honor in 1968, though were it my choice of a Japanese writer alive during the 1960s I would have chosen Tanizaki Junichiro (who had died before the 1968 award went to Kawabata) or Mishima Yukio. In contrast, I don’t have a stronger contender among Japanese writers, ca. 2018 (not having read the Japanese-German Tawada Yoko). The Japanese writer recurrently mentioned more recently as a possible candidate, Murakami Haruki (1949-) had published some books that received international attention (A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood) but did not have a large body of work.

From the Japanese contenders, I went to look at the list of all the winners. I have split the ones I have read enough of to have an opinion into three classes (each listed in the chronological order of their award):

Choices I consider plausible or better (inclusion in this category is far from being an endorsement of all of their work, however!)

Rudyard Kipling

Selma Lagerlöf

Rabindranath Tagore

Knut Hamsum

W.B. Yeats

George Bernard Shaw

Thomas Mann

Sinclair Lewis

Ivan Bunin

Luigi Pirandello

Eugene O’Neill

Roger Martin du Gard

Herman Hesse

André Gide

T. S. Eliot

William Faulkner

Pär Lagerkvist

Ernest Hemingway

Halldór Laxness

Juan Ramôn Jiménez

Albert Camus

Boris Pasternak

Ivo Anrdic

John Steinbeck

Jean-Paul Sartre

Miguel Asturias

Kawabata Yasunari

Pablo Neruda

Heinrich Böll

Patrick White

Eugenio Montale

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Czelaw Milosz

Elias Canetti

Gabriel García Marquez

Joseph Brodsky

Naguib Mahfouz

Octavio Paz

Seamus Heaney

J. M. Coetzee

Harold Pinter

Mario Vargas Llosa

Alice Munro

Svetlana Alexievich

Bob Dylan


Choices about which I am at least somewhat skeptical

Henry Skieniewicz

Maurice Materlinck

Romain Rolland

Anatole France

Henri Bergson

John Galsworthy

Bertrand Russell

François Mauriac

Winston Churchill

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Samuel Beckett

Saul Bellow

Claude Simon

Wole Soyinka

Nadine Gordimer

Toni Morrison

Ôe Kenzaburo

José Saramago

Günter Grass

Gao Xingjian

V.S. Naipaul

Orhan Pamuk

Doris Lessing

J.M.G. Le Ciézio

Kazou Ishiguro


Bad choices

Pearl Buck

Mikhail Sholokhov

William Golding

Dario Fo

Imre Kertész

Herta Müller

Mo Yan

Patrick Modiano

There are an additional 38 winner about whom I know too little to have formed an opinion of their worth.

By my (generous) reckoning, the Swedish Academy is batting .635 (or .420 if the denominator includes winners from whom I’ve read nothing), but only .333 in the last ten years (not scoring a Swedish poet I’ve never read)

Some of the failures (sins of omission rather than commission) include Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Henry James, William James, Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, August Strinberg, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, Natsume Sōseki, Rainer Marie Rilke, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Virginian Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Italo Svevo, Bertholt Brecht, E.M. Forster, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Anna Akhmatova, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, R. K. Narayan, Marguerite Yourcenar, Primo Levi, Pramoedya Ananta Toer,Michel Tournier, Chinua Achebe, and Peter Matthiessen.

My prime still-living candidate is Michael Ondatjee, followed by Yu Hua (pictured left to right below). I’d be fine with Louise Erdrich and/or Tom Stoppard and/or Peter Cameron winning—after them. If Murakami wins, he’ll go into my second bundle of winners.


Ôe’s “A Quiet Life”


Oe’s 1990 novel, A Quiet Life/ Shizuka-na seikatsu, did not put me to sleep but reading it made me so weary that I took a nap.

I found it hard to believe the narrator’s voice was a 20-year-old virgin girl’s (his daughter’s, here called Ma-Chan). There is the usual (usual at least in recent Oe work) heaving intertextuality, including a Russian film “The Stalker,” Céline, Blake, and an early Oe novel, all of which are reflected on by Ma-Chan. Reading Oe, there is evidence of a shame culture, but he seems to be guilt-ridden (especially as a selfish father), not ashamed. Here he abases himself via criticism he puts in his daughter’s voice. She is very self-critical, too.

Molesters recur, and one is thwarted by the young woman, though the main leitmotif is worrying about and celebrating Eeyore (Haraki’s pooh donkey nickname) in whose charge the handicapped boy is left when her parents go off to California for six months.

The politics (protesting Polish communist Gen. Jariulweski’s visit) seems remote. The parts don’t fit together smoothly, particularly the discussion of “The Stalker.” The sentimentalizing of Céline is plausible for the character, perhaps. But is the whole family so obsessed with Christianity (“spiritual matters” never seem to be Buddhist or Taoist in Oe)? and does his daughter respond to Blake in the same way as her father? Interesting enough, but I’m sure I have many more entertaining and/or more illuminating books I could have read. Even for Japanese morbidity, I have unread Tanazaki books. . .

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©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ôe’s “An Echo of Heaven”


Ôe Kenzaburo (born in 1935), who became the second Japanese writer to win a Nobel Prize for literature in 1994, remains to me a very alien writer, despite his familiarity with Western culture and his having spent considerable time outside Japan. Ôe’s books feel much more alien to me than those of Tanizaki Junichiro who writings were also very perverse, and whose focus was always on Japanese culture and history, or Mishima Yukio, who was an ultranationalist and whose writings were also very perverse, or the first Japanese Nobel Prize winner, Kawataba Yasunari. (Abe Kôbô’s books are mystifying for reasons other than culture. Murakami Haruki’s influences by western high and pop culture make him more accessible to western readers.)

Ôe should seem less alien because he/his characters are wracked by guilt, whereas Japan is supposed to be a “shame culture” rather than a “guilt culture.” The mentally retarded offspring who is a common denominator in Ôe fiction since the birth of his own retarded son (e.g., in The Silent Cry) are assigned to Marie Kuraki, in An Echo of Heaven (first published in 1989 as Jinsei no shinseki —  and doubled. In addition to a retarded son there is a crippled one and both kill themselves by a venerable Japanese method: throwing themselves from a cliff into the ocean, not by slicing their bellies open.

Seeking meaning in the twin tragedy, Marie, who is said to look like Betty Boop, joins a cult and moves to California. After the cult breaks up, she moves to a Mexican village and becomes a saint.

The book is filled with letters and journal entries from people who met and admired Marie — “Citizen Kane” style putting together a puzzle, but without a “Rosebud.”

Intellectuals like her, these reporters discuss Frida Kahlo, Flannery O’Connor, Balzac’s Le Curé de village, Yeats’s “Second Coming,” and Manicheanism — and nothing from Japanese culture. Though the protagonist is Japanese, most of the book is set in California and Mexico rather than Japan. Yet the attitudes of even the non-Japanese characters seem difficult to fathom for me (and I presume to generalize, other Americans.)


Ôe’s protective love for his handicapped son (who became a composer) Hikari is important as in his other work (his other two children are hardly ever mentioned or reimagined as fictional characters).

The pretentious theater troupe Marie sponsors and the cult she keeps from group suicide are recognizable phenomena. The Mexican collective farm led by a Japanese-Mexican soy sauce manufacturer is less so. Ôe’s sensitivities and frankness sometimes make me squirm and the story is interesting, but the subjectivity of the saint in her final incarnation (which includes being raped after forswearing sex) is not convincingly imagined.

I’m not sure anything is imagined, but perhaps the documents and the character are fictional and I underestimate Oe’s creativity. The dreams he gives her are certainly very strange.

BTW, while emulating saintliness, Marie does not regard herself as a saint. The drowned sons have been read by some as Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the cult leader who reminds me of Jim Jones (of People’s Temple and the massacre at Jonestown) as the postwar Japanese prime ministers.
The novel was awarded the Sei Ito Literary Prize, whatever that is (that is, I have not been able to find out anything else that has won the prize).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oe’s “A Personal Matter”


Ôe Kenzaburo’s guilt-ridden autobiographical novel A Personal Matter (published in Japanese in 1964 as Kojinteki na taiken, in English in 1968). No new liaison is arranged for the wife of the narrator, Bird. He spends most of his time with another woman (an ex-girlfriend) while his wife is in the hospital having given birth to a monstrosity — as in “Aghwee The Sky Monster,” also published in Japanese in 1964, in which the protagonist kills his son who was born with a brain tumor; here it is a deformed head). At least in English, the prose is quite accurate and overloaded with adjectives and some quite convoluted constructions. I’m pretty sure that the reader-hostile constructions mimic if not reproduce those of the original Japanese.

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Homosexuality keeps popping up. At the beginning Bird realizes that he is cruising a male transvestite. Later, when he is immobilized by what came out of his wife’s womb, Himiko expresses surprise that Bird has not fucked any male student admirers (p. 111, and on p. 77 she tells him that a jealous boyfriend of hers “had a thing for adults like you; if you ever got together he’d do everything he could to please you. Bird, I bet you’ve had that kind of service lots of times before. Weren’t there boys below you in college who worshipped you? And there must be students in your classes who are particularly devoted. I’ve always thought of you as a hero figure for kinds in that kind of sub-culture.” And “It was certain, he was destined to be helped out of impossible situations by a band of younger brothers” on p. 140).

Sodomizing her cures his fear of the hole in front. He is very aroused by “coition this inhuman”! (p. 113). Himiko is one of several women who “go to bed with her [a producer friend and favorite schoolmate] to make her feel a little better,” which “didn’t shock him particularly” (p. 150). And at the end Himiko takes Bird to a gay bar named for and run by a former friend of his, Kikuhiko, which is the name he chooses for his infant who survives. In the first instance, Bird thinks, “A youth who tries so hard to be faithful to the warp in himself that he ends up searching the street in drag for perverts, a young man like that must have eyes and ears and a heart exquisitely sensitive to the fear that roots in the backlands of the subconscious” (p. 6). In the final one, he reflects, “This was a shrewd and observant Kikuhiko, no longer the simple fairy Bird had known: his friend’s life of apostasy and descent could not have been easy or uninvolved” (p. 208). I suppose this is “tolerance,” but plenty ambivalent.


As did Oe himself (as he discussed in the nonfiction A Healing Family), Bird eventually accepts the deformed son. Diluting his milk early on seems a pretty ineffectual way to kill him (not that I wanted Bird to succeed at that!)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

“Prize Stock” and other early Oe fictions

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The strangely elegiac horror-story/parable novella “Prize Stock” (“Shiiku“, 1957) launched Ôe Kenzaburo’s career. It won the Akutagawa Prize for the young (born in 1935) writer.

I don’t quite understand why the Shikoku villagers kill their African American WWII flyer, who was the sole survivor of a plane crash nearby. They don’t want to bother to transport him? (or let the region’s townspeople take him away). It is chilling that the Japanese, not just the child recalling wartime, did not consider the black flyer human. Would they have considered an exotic white American flyer dropped from the air human?

The town during wartime lacks adult males (whereas Nip the Bud,Shootthe Kids has no adults at all) It is too small to be a bombing target and the war seems far off to the villagers, who have never seen a black person before. (The captive is only seen through the eyes of a boy, nicknamed “Frog,” who considers him “a rare and wonderful domestic animal.” He treats him as a pet, though eventually turning on him and calling him “kuronbo,” which is not quite as pejorative as the translation in two different translations of the story as “nigger.”)

(BTW, there were no African American airmen in the Pacific theater of WWII, only the European, not that that affects the tale of dehumanization of the alien in Ôe’s story… or the mistreatment of prisoners of war by Japan, which was not a signatory of the Geneva Conventions on POW treatment.  Ôe was himself born in a rural village on Shikoku in 1935 and grew up there during the war. He was an outsider with a funny accent when he went to Tokyo University.)


“Prize Stock: is engrossing, but gives me the creeps. To a lesser extent, so does Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. The New Age (après la lettre) Aghwee, the Sky Monster doesn’t. It has some of the urban anguish of more recent work (I’m thinking of A Quiet Life, with its more external menaces and the ubiquitous retarded child to protect, though he is older there). I find Oe a very frustrating writer, yet his work haunts me, especially Echo of Heaven).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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


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.)


“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