Kenzaburo Oe (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 having spent considerable time outside Japan. Oe’s books feel much more alien to me than those of Junichiro Tanizaki, who writings were also very perverse, and whose focus was always on Japanese culture and history or Yukio Mishima, who was an ultranationalist and whose writings were also very perverse. (Kobo Abe’s books are mystifying for reasons other than culture, and I have not read much by the first Japanese Nobel Prize winner, Yasunari Kawataba.).
Oe 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 Oe fiction since the birth of his own retarded son 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 b hari-kari.
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. And 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.)
Oe’s protective love for his handicapped son Hikari is important as in his other work (are 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. Oe’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 Jonestown as the postwar Japanese prime ministers.