Perhaps all books are messages from other times and places, even the ones written yesterday and just down the road. But these three works by Kenzaburo Oë, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, have an unusual flavour of missives cast into the sea long ago, only now arriving on our island beach. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids was published in Japan in 1958, and is now translated for the first time. A Personal Matter was published in Japan in 1964, and in an American translation, here reprinted, in 1969. Hiroshima Notes was published in Japan in 1965 and first translated, in this version, in 1981. So the youngest of the books is thirty years old, half Oë’s own age. The effect of reading them now is not to make us feel we have been there before, because we haven’t, even if we have been to Japan and read other Japanese novels. The effect, on me at least, was to make me try to remember these books’ English and American coevals, whatever it was we were reading in the wake of Sartre and Camus, and before the Sixties became the Sixties. William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Thomas Pynchon, who else?
Oë wrote his graduation thesis on Sartre (in 1959), and evokes Camus in Hiroshima Notes: ‘A plague that ravages a city in North Africa, for example, appears as an abnormal phenomenon; but the doctors and citizens who struggle against it rely on their normal everyday human traits.’ What Oë’s fiction takes from Existentialism is the privileging of the extreme situation, and the need to insist on the absurdity of the absurd. Horror and meaninglessness may be frequent, even banal, but we are lost if we treat them as normal, as all there is: if we abandon our anger at the affront they offer to reason. If our normality helps us to struggle, our rage may help us to survive. But in Oë’s work the extreme situation is not chosen, and does not have the speculative, metaphysical feel it has in Sartre and Camus. Is suicide the only philosophical question, as Camus suggests in The Myth of Sisyphus? What if it’s not a philosophical question at all? It’s striking that Oë comes closest to his French mentors in his reportorial prose, in Hiroshima Notes. He tells the real-life story of a young man who was a child in Hiroshima in 1945. In his late teens he was diagnosed as having leukaemia, and given two years to live. In those two years he did live, worked hard and happily, and got engaged. Then he died. His fiancée visited the hospital to thank everyone for looking after him, left a gift, and the following morning was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills. ‘Her choice was not made in excessive sorrow over his death,’ Oë writes, ‘nor out of despair over being driven into a corner where she had no other choice ... She chose to share his fate, and did so completely.’ But Oë makes clear that he is guessing here, believing what he wants to believe, and he is not as calm or as bland as he sounds. The young man’s diligence at work and the girl’s suicide, he says, ‘were clear rejections of a deceptive nation and of the surviving people’. That is, they refused to take part in the comfortable conspiracies of postwar Japan, as if they were characters in Oë’s fiction. But in the fiction, they wouldn’t talk about themselves in this way, and he wouldn’t he explaining them. The pathos of the story surely lies in the fact that we don’t know how the couple felt: we have only their deaths, and the sense of these deaths as part of the long, sinister legacy of a single day in August 1945.
Hiroshima Notes describes a series of visits to the city between 1963 and 1965. The prose (of the translation at least) is functional, unadorned, and the tone rather desultory, as Oë picks up squabbles around the peace movement, reconstructs medical cases, celebrates doctors and campaigning journalists. The great virtue of the book is its insistence on the way the meanings of the atom bomb have been hijacked, so that it has come to stand for national strength and technical achievement, rather than unprecedented and uncontrollable human misery; and in the sombre reminders the book offers us of that misery. A soldier returns to consciousness after the blast, and finds his ‘comrades standing erect and saluting; when I said “Hey,” and tapped their shoulders, they crumbled down into ashes.’ A young mother who survived the Hiroshima bomb, albeit with burns and keloid scars, gives birth to a stillborn child. When she says she wants to see the baby, she is told it has ‘been disposed of’. Oë remarks that ‘the hospital policy of not showing deformed stillborn babies to their mothers is certainly humane,’ but clings to the mother’s remark: ‘If only I could see my baby, I would have courage.’ The word ‘courage’, Oë thinks, is the purest Existentialism, the ‘expression of a humanism beyond popular humanism’.
There are two phrases in the book which look like important clues to Oë’s work. One is about the need for the nation ‘to learn the lessons of Hiroshima’. The other says that ‘by taking Hiroshima as the fundamental focus of my thought, I want to confirm that I am, above all, a Japanese writer.’ But what are the lessons of Hiroshima, and shouldn’t the chief pupils be the people who dropped the bomb? There are of course the lessons of courage, dignity, patience, imagination and love which the people of Hiroshima can and do teach. These are, in Oë’s words, ‘people who do not pity themselves in spite of everything’. But the lesson the nation needs to learn seems to be about facing horror: like the plague, like Aids, the effects of radiation will not disappear because we wish they would. Characters in Oë’s fiction are always running away; if they are lucky, they get a chance to think again and come back.
But ‘taking Hiroshima as the fundamental focus of my thought’ doesn’t seem to mean writing about Hiroshima, and in A Personal Matter, where a child is apparently born with a brain hernia (it later turns out to be a tumour), the connection is entertained only to be dismissed: ‘Bird tried comparing his child who seemed to have two heads with pictures he had seen of mutations caused by radioactivity. But he had only to think to himself about the baby’s abnormality and a sense of extremely personal shame hotly rose in his throat.’ Bird is not justified in his shame, of course, but he is right to feel he is not a victim of anything other than nature. Hiroshima as a focus for thought means the unthinkable could always happen, has already happened. The task for the imagination (for the Japanese writer, as Oë says) is neither to tame nor to submit to the horror, but to bring its combined enormity and historicity to light, to find disaster’s analogues wherever they lurk and to show a range of responses to them. In his brilliant short novel Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (collected in a volume of that name, published by Grove in 1977 and still in print), Oë lines up, in language which is as ironic and seemingly heartless as a cartoon, a whole series of failures and obsessions: a mother, now old, who has always hated her son; a man who needs the dependence of his retarded son far more than the son needs him; another man who supports (perhaps betrays) a failed coup and then locks himself away until he dies. Can these madnesses be outgrown? Probably not; and certainly not if we can’t see them as madnesses. The obsessive man at least comes to his senses when he is almost thrown into the polar bear pit at the zoo by a group of hooligans, the absurdity of the context being precisely the point of the illumination. Only some sort of Surrealism affords any kind of cure for the craziness Oë has in mind.
When Bird, in A Personal Matter, first sees his deformed baby, he is much taken by the bandage round the head.
Bird began to cry. Head in bandages, like Apollinaire: the image simplified his feelings instantly and directed them. He could feel himself turning into a sentimental jelly, yet he felt himself being sanctioned and justified: he even discovered a sweetness in his tears.
Like Apollinaire, my son was wounded on a dark and lonely battlefield mat I have never seen, and he has arrived with his head in bandages. I’ll have to bury him like a soldier who died at war. Bird continued to cry.
There is no suggestion here that these images are appropriate to the case – or inappropriate. What’s ruined in this crazy literary connection is the very idea of appropriateness. Except that on some far loop of association the name of Apollinaire may help us towards the notion of irrelevance as consolation, and of metaphor as the long way home.
Bird at first assumes the child will die within days, encouraged by doctors who are even more full of shame than he is.
Unexpectedly, the Director’s thick eyelids reddened and he burst into a childish giggle. Bird had sensed a suspicious presence lurking beneath that hairy skin, and now he knew that it was this giggle, this giggle that had revealed itself first in the guise of a vague smile. Bird glared at the giggling doctor in rage before he realised the man was laughing from embarrassment. He had extracted from between the legs of another man’s wife a species of monster beyond classification.
Bird then hopes the doctors will collude in helping the baby to die; and one at least seems willing. But the child gets healthier and healthier. Bird decides to kidnap it and take it to an abortionist to be killed. At the last minute, panicking at the thought that he may be too late, he rescues the child and returns him to the hospital for the operation which will give him a chance of near-normal life. Bird is not a hero. The novel is full of his violence, cowardice, loveless screwing and fear and hatred of women. He scarcely thinks of his wife, the mother of his child. But then all this lamentable, un-heroic stuff is what gives meaning to the ending of the book; if not happy, it is at least not murderous. Bird seems to think not that virtue has won out, but that reality wouldn’t let him go. There is still a ‘muted resentment’ in his voice as he tells his father-in-law what happened: ‘It seems that reality compels you to live properly when you live in the real world. I mean, even if you intend to get yourself caught in a trap of deception, you find somewhere along the line that your only choice is to avoid it.’ His father-in-law reminds him that ‘it is possible to live in the real world in quite a different way.’ ‘There are people who leap-frog from one deception to another until the day they die.’ We recall Oë’s phrase about the ‘deceptive nation’ in Hiroshima Notes. Hiroshima, for the Japanese writer and for many others, would be the greatest possible, and the most legitimate-seeming temptation to the refusal of reality. And for those whose refusals failed, for whatever reason, it would be reality’s most awesome lesson.
Was Hiroshima a focus of thought for Oë in 1958, when he published Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, his first novel? This was before his first visit to Hiroshima in 1960, and before his first Hiroshima article in 1963. The bomb and its consequences could hardly not have been on his mind, whether he had visited or not, but the word ‘focus’ may tell the story here. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids concerns a group of reform school boys who have been evacuated during the war (during a war, I should say, since times and places are not specified). They arrive in a village stricken by the plague, and are abandoned there. They fend for themselves, bury the dead, meet a deserter from the Army. They are violent, excitable, ruthless, helpless children, like the boys in Lord of the Flies – except that there is no allegory here, only a laconic hint of what an alternative to sheepish adult life might look like. The villagers return and beat the children into denying there was a plague or that anything untoward has happened. All except one child, our narrator, whom we last see thrashing about in the forest, perhaps on his way to death, and certainly not on his way to freedom, since he knows that the world outside the village can also only be a prison for him. ‘We nip the bad buds early,’ one of the villagers says. ‘We squash vermin while it’s small.’ There are no second chances, and they call all dissenters ‘vermin’.
The most haunting image in the book shows the children stamping the earth on the graves they have dug, inventing a ritual to cope with death and intuitively forging ‘a firm bond between our bewildered selves’. They are afraid of the dead beneath them, but closer to them than to the villagers who abandoned them, or to whatever memories of home they may have: ‘Night had fallen, and since there was no one to come running out from the defunct rows of houses calling us with sweet voices, we went on trampling down the earth in silence for a long time, holding on to each others’ shoulders.’ What happens if we use the memory of Hiroshima to bring that picture into focus?