- Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe, translated by Philip Gabriel
Atlantic, 570 pp, £16.99, July 2003, ISBN 1 84354 080 0
It is necessary to study precisely how permanent collective wills are formed, and how such wills set themselves concrete short and long-term ends – i.e. a line of collective action.
Nobel Prize-winners seem to fall into two categories: those whom the prize honours, and those who honour the prize. And then there are those assumed to be in the first category, who turn out to have been in the second all along. Such was, for example, ‘the author of a dirty book called Sanctuary’, who proved unexpectedly to be the greatest novelist in the world. Such also, I believe, is Kenzaburo Oe, whose latest novel shows how mistaken American stereotypes of him were (and perhaps how mistaken his own stereotype of himself was).
At least two things were thought to have been known about this writer when Grove gradually began to introduce his work in English in the late 1960s (Oe was born in 1935). The first is that he was a committed anti-nuclear activist (the West probably not knowing enough about Japanese politics to grasp the complexities of the ANPO, or New Left, movement of 1960). The second is that he is the father of a handicapped son, born with a strange protuberance on his head, who has grown up to be a musician and a composer. Anyone unaware of the first of these features is much less likely to have remained unaware of the second, since it appears in virtually every book Oe has written.
But it appears with variations, as do all of Oe’s themes or obsessions. This is not to be understood psychologically, as a pretext for deducing the primal fantasy or archetype repeating itself like the eternal return of some endless murmur. I prefer to think of the process as one of never-ending construction and reconstruction with a finite number of building blocks, which you put together in all kinds of different ways: tragically, comically, mythically and, in the case of Somersault, with a kind of ‘late-style’ simplicity, like the architectonics of a Bruckner symphony.
Still, it would seem that something is new here (the ‘somersault’ of the title suggests renunciation and rebirth). Oe himself has announced that what he calls the ‘idiot son’ cycle of his narratives is over. That is not quite true; but the father-son motif, withdrawing into the background, does seem here to be transformed almost beyond recognition, giving way to an urgent preoccupation with group formation which was always present in Oe’s earlier work, but never posed so directly. Somersault (Ch¯ugaeri, published in Japan in 1999) tells the story of the attempt by its founder to resurrect a religious cult he has himself discredited and virtually destroyed. It is an oddly formalistic exercise, in which the mechanics of group formation – assembling mailing lists, scheduling meetings, renting meeting places and deciding the order of business – seem to take precedence over the content of the particular religion. Not that such a focus would be altogether without interest: one imagines the Naturalist novelists taking this social phenomenon apart like a machine, and describing all the steps and pitfalls with gusto, while disregarding the spirituality altogether. Oe’s novel has little in common with Naturalism, but it is also resolutely non-spiritual and non-psychological; what Oe has in common with Dostoevsky (the comparison is often made) are the endless philosophical conversations which allowed the latter’s novels to escape the ‘monologic’ perspective of the ideology or set of opinions or beliefs the author may have held in real life. With Oe, too, it might be preferable to dissociate the author from ideas he merely seems to endorse (I will touch on the ‘sacrificial’ and on religion itself later on); and where the Naturalists might have offered us a sociologically rich cast of character types – organisers and bureaucrats, fanatics, groupies, secretaries, fellow travellers etc – the supporting cast here is larger than life, and at the same time formulaic (the building-block system) and existential or unique.
We shouldn’t, however, neglect the shadow presence of The Devils behind all this; or the equally Dostoevskian abjection, in which grotesque characters wallow in their shame and inferiority (Oe’s greatest novel, The Silent Cry, published in 1967, begins with the narrator squatting in a muddy pit destined to become a new septic system, and holding a stinking dog in his arms as he evacuates). Victorianism didn’t permit Dostoevsky to indulge in the outbursts of obscenity recurrent in Oe’s work and very much in evidence in Somersault (Judge Woolsey might have pronounced them ‘emetic’ rather than ‘aphrodisiac’); I doubt whether they reflect the hatred of the body often implicit in such passages, but I also want to exclude culturalism and its myths (such as the idea of some ‘Japanese’ sexuality).
Contingency seems to me a better way of understanding all this: it presides over the grotesque detail fully as much as the various bodily functions, and re-places Oe squarely in the existential tradition, to which, as a French scholar, he remains indebted (Japanese critics, however, also make much of his American-style narratives, including the ‘Americanisms’ of his Japanese). If he is not exactly a realist, he is not really a Modernist either (despite the fireworks of his earlier writing: ‘his woollen jacket striped with light and dark brown was worn with an air of reverent care, though the odds were that it would soon deteriorate into a crumpled, baggy heap like a large dead cat’ – The Silent Cry). His work avoids standard Modernist devices such as autoreferentiality; and, although it is often a question of art in Oe – the great Jonah triptych here, the Tantric Buddhist painting of hell in The Silent Cry – my sense is that, as in Hegel, the aesthetic centre of gravity has shifted imperceptibly towards ritual rather than in the direction of the autonomous work of art. Yet Somersault is scarcely Postmodern either, save perhaps for that interest in small groups which parallels a Western ethnic or identity politics.