Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize in 1994 (the year after Toni Morrison) and he’s the among the oldest living laureate (I think Alice Munro is the only one older) and won the longest ago, except for Wole Soyinka, who won a decade before. He’s the last Japanese language winner and only the second ever (after Kawabata). His work is deeply human and humane, personal, and very strong, or least the ones I’ve read are. He’s positioned pretty clearly as a post-WII writer, and like other more contemporary (Oe has published a significant piece about a decade ago) like Murakami and younger writers, part of his work is concerned with Japanese culture and identity after the war. This book is a series of short to medium novellas. Ultimately my take on these novellas is that they do form a kind of whole presented as they are, but separately would not be great on their own. Two of them are too oblique to feel like a fair singular book, and the other two are too straightforward and simple as well.
The first book begins with a long spiraling description of a body in malaise, and the book never goes much beyond that. We find ourselves situated with a langouring man possibly dying, possibly inventing his illness, and the dark, dripping, dreary 100 pages or so contained in this book play out this way. What this most reminds me of, and this is something I think about a lot is Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” in which the very narration and the structures of the narrative begin to degrade along with the apparent headspace of the narrator. The difference here of course is that in the 130 years or so since that book (and all the other versions of “Diary of a Madman” we have had) is that we have a science, a differential diagnostic tool set, and a lot more compassion and capacity to discuss and name what we see happening. And because we have those things now, not only is the reading experience considerably different, so too must the writing as well. This is not a very enjoyable reading experience at all, but does present a curious update to older texts.
When I read Japanese literature, especially that of pre-war Japan, I think a LOT about the before and after markers of the literature. It’s similar to me of reading pre-Revolutionary Russian literature versus Soviet or ant-Soviet literature, and of course German literature post-war versus German literature pre-war (and in the case of German literature thinking about how many of the writers in German we do get around the time of the war are often Jewish, Austrian/Swiss, or otherwise exiles. So that a literature of Nazis more or less does not exist. In Japan it’s different, not only does the modern war not exactly think of even wartime Japan in quite the same terms as Nazi Germany, the literature surrounding it is a lot different. So this story about a young boy in a Japanese village that happens upon a Black American pilot, crashlanded and then imprisoned plays into this strange placement we have for this time period and the language around it.
This book feels a lot like a remix of another (or apparently several other) Oe novels in that we have a large man (described in stereotypical fatphobic/anti-fat language) taking care of a mentally disabled boy and the relationship they have together. This idea, played out here, combined with the boy’s nickname “Eeyore,” which is the same as the disabled son from the Oe novel Rouse up Up O Young Men of the New Age! suggests a kind of remix on the themes.
This story is a kind of remix of the play Harvey, which is already funny enough to think about, but Oe specifically has the narrator reference the play and movie as a way to think about the situation he finds himself in. Our narrator is approached to work as a kind of escort to the son of famous composer, who seems to be haunted?, connected?, familiarized? with a small sky demon in the form of a rabbit. He’s not asked to protect or care for the boy, but to be a escort and to help watch out for him. As the job is discussed and begun early on, it becomes clear that there’s more in the asking than originally understood.
Oe is famous for a few novels (A Personal Matter, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!) that deal with a father handling having a physically and mentally disabled son (and especially how that conflicts with Japanese identity and masculinity and portrayals of disability), and in more mythic, slightly comical ways, this story deals with some of those same ideas.