Thursday, March 16, 2023

Farewell to Kenzaburo Oe.


   What prompted me to take Japanese fiction in college. I can't remember. The need to fill an English credit, no doubt. And some youthful desire to be of-the-moment; Japan was certainly cutting edge in the early 1980s — their economic miracle running full bore. They were the future. 
     I easily recall the novels we read. Some early stuff: "The Tale of Genji." "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon." Yukio Mishima's homoerotic "Confessions of a Mask."
    And "A Personal Matter" by Kenzaburo Oe. Mishima might have been the romantic hero, with his personal army of acolytes and his disemboweling himself on television after some daft failed coup. But he was also a right wing nationalist asshat. 
     Oe was the guy I could relate to, or more particularly, his character of Bird, a feckless instructor, dreaming over his maps of Africa, his name an ironic comment on his earthbound soul. Bird's wife gives birth to a child, killing the dream of Africa, and the child has a skull deformity. 
     While she is in the hospital, Bird goes on a bender, pinballing around Tokyo, visiting old girlfriends in his sports car.  There's a very Japanese scene where, hung over, he vomits in front of his class, and a student runs over to the puddle, falls to his hands and knees, gives it a whiff, and announces he smells alcohol. I used one passage from it in "Out of the Wreck I Rise:"
Guillaume Apollinaire

      "Bird himself was wary of the craving, occult but deeply rooted, that he still had for alcohol. Often since those four weeks in whisky hell he had asked himself why he had stayed drunk for seven hundred hours, and never had he arrived a conclusive answer. So long as his descent into the abyss of whisky remained a riddle, there was a constant danger he might suddenly return."

      But that wasn't why I love the book. It was a single paragraph that bowled me over at 21 and still does. Bird and his girlfriend take the child and plan, in essence, to deliver it to an abortionist and have him killed. There's a scene in an ambulance where he looks down at the child and thinks:     
"Like Apollinaire, my son was wounded on a dark and lonely battlefield that I have never seen, and he has arrived with his head in bandages. I'll have to bury him like a soldier who died in war."
     I'm not sure how beautiful and sad that reads yanked out of context. And I shouldn't say what happens in the book — you should read it. I will say that Oe's son Hikari was indeed born with a similar deformity, one that kept him at the mental level of a 3-year-old for the rest of his life. A nevertheless meaningful life where he became known as a composer of flute and piano music.
     Oe died Monday. He was an important literary figure in Japan, noted for pushing back against that country's tendency toward conformity and militancy. Oe won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, so he doesn't need my plaudits. But I felt the need to say goodbye to him anyway. Maybe it's time to read "A Personal Matter" again — I never read it a second time, because the first reading stuck with me clearly for 40 years. That itself says something about a book.


  1. I am moved by this. I'll add the book to my reading list, as I did, The Conjure-Man Dies.

  2. Neil - you have sophisticated tastes in literature, you are obviously a talented writer. All of your books are nonfiction. Have you ever considered dabbling in fiction?

    1. I have dabbled. I've got a novel in the basement somewhere. But fiction is hard, to write and to get published. If you plug "Summer Fiction Week" into the search bar you can find half a dozen stories I wrote when I had the ear of an editor at The New Yorker in the mid-1990s. And if you are really curious, track down a copy of "Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Handle," edited by David Wallis, for my great might-have-been, "Mascots Reign at Fall Show," the story I worked on for a long time with an editor there that ALMOST got printed.


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