Saturday, 19 January 2013

Prize Stock

Prize Stock - Kenzaburo Ōe
(from Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, a collection of "Four Short Novels by Kenzaburo Ōe".)

The second story in this collection, Prize Stock, is shorter than the first, only sixty pages long. It is narrated by a young boy, or should I say his older self, remembering. It is set in a small village in the woods, somewhat isolated from the nearest town. An american bomber crashes in the woods and the villagers capture the survivor, something that causes great excitement amoung the village children.
""He's black, you see that! I thought he would be all along." Harelip's voice trembled with excitement. "He's a real black man, you see.""

It opens with two boys digging in the ashes of an outdoor crematorium, "in search of remains, nicely shaped bones we could use as medals to decorate our chests, but the village children had collected them all.." "Our village had been forced to begin cremating out of doors by an extended rainy season: early summer rains had fallen stubbornly until floods had become an everyday occurrence. When a landslide crushed the suspension bridge that was the shortest route to the town, the elementary school annex in our village was closed, mail delivery stopped, and our adults, when a trip was unavoidable, reached the town by walking the narrow, crumbly path along the mountain ridge. Transporting the dead to the crematorium in the town was out of the question." (town is italicised in the original).

This passage reminded me of Nick Cave's The Carny, an outcrop from his novel And the Ass Saw the Angel which is set in the American South. As I proceeded reading I was reminded of the doyenne of Southern Gothic, Flannery O' Connor. Some quick googling showed that Ōe was very much in thrall to Flannery O'Connor, even basing a novel on a woman who models her life on the writer. For this reason I  reread the Flannery O'Connor story, Good Country People which shares an artificial leg with Prize Stock.  I also reread Frank O'Connor's Guests of the Nation which shares the relationship between prisoners of war and their guards. Basically now I'm going to see where the three stories take me. I will be referring to details of plot etc in the stories by the two O'Connors (potential SPOILERS) so if you are the sort of reader who doesn't like to know much about a story before reading it turn away now. I will try to be less specific in references to Prize Stock.  The two stories are available online so if you want to read them before I spoil them do so now. I have also read and will be using quotes from Ōe's interview in The Paris Review.

Here is a quote from Ōe which shows how he sees his work firmly based in international literature. He also talks of immersing himself in particular writers for years at a time, reading not just their fiction but everything else, including critical works. "When I wrote my first novel I was twenty-two years old and a student of French literature. Although I was writing in Japanese, I was passionate about French and English novels and poetry: Gascar and Sartre, Auden and Eliot. I was constantly comparing Japanese literature to French and English literature. I would read in French or English for eight hours and then write in Japanese for two hours. I would think, How would a French writer express this? How would an English writer express this? By reading in foreign languages and then writing in Japanese, I wanted to build a bridge." I feel that Ōe would have read the two stories I have read in order to write this. They are two of the most celebrated stories by writers called O'Connor, maybe even in the whole short story tradition. They have also written some of the most interesting writing about short stories.

 In order to think out loud about the relationship between the stories it will be necessary to briefly synopsise them. Good Country People tells the story of Joy/Hulga a thirty one year old woman who lives with her mother in the rural southern states of America. She has a PHD and fulminates against the 'ignorance' of her mother and housekeeper and their religion. Hulga herself is an atheist. She changed her name from Joy to Hulga because it was the ugliest name she could think of. Her mother doesn't acknowledge her new name. She also has an artificial leg from a hunting accident when she was ten, and a heart condition likely to lead to an early death. When a young bible salesman comes to the door her mother invites him to dinner. He is 'good country people' too, she thinks. He says that he has a heart condition, too. Hulga and the salesman secretly arrange to meet and she plans to seduce him. They climb into the loft in a lonely barn and the tables are turned. Hulga finds that she is not in control nor as much of a nihilist as she thought she was. She was making assumptions that people were good, just like her mother. The bible salesman, also an atheist, it turns out, steals her artificial leg.

Guests of the Nation tells of three Irishmen holding two Englishmen hostage during the War of Independence. They treat them like friends, playing cards every night and finding that the English soldiers fit right in to the household and neighbourhood.("it was my belief that you could have planted that pair down anywhere from this to Claregalway and they'd have taken root there like a native weed.") However as a result of the killing of some Irish prisoners the order comes to kill the two Englishmen in reprisal and they have to take the men to the bog, kill them and bury them.

When Prize Stock opens with the two boys digging in a crematorium we suspect that there will be unpleasant truths uncovered in the story, and so it is. The boys had failed to get the best of the remains because the older brother, our narrator, had been upset to the point of nausea by a glimpse of the cremation. Others were less sensitive. There is a sense that the villagers are apart from the more 'civilised" residents of the town. the use of italics to highlight 'town' in the passage above is an example of how the tension between town and village is signposted. A similar tension is highlighted in Frank O'Connors story. "Noble and myself used to make fun of his broad accent, because we were from the town." In both stories the captors start to relax around their captives but remain aware that they may get instructions from elsewhere at any stage. The trust developed is always provisional. In Flannery O'Connors story the two types of people are defined in the mind of Joy/Hulga's mother. Of her tenant farmer and his wife, her housekeeper she says -  "they were not trash. They were good country people."

All three stories set up systems of opposed dualities. Prisoner(s)/captors; Good/trash; country/town; believer/atheist; they who give orders/they who take orders... This allows things to flip quickly and for people to have to act against type.

In Prize Stock and Guests of the Nation the black soldier and one of the English prisoners gain the trust of their captors by being useful. As a reader the narrator telling us that they trust the captive alerts you to a potential escape, or at least opens up the possibility: Guests of the Nation:  "after the first couple of days we gave up all pretence of keeping an eye on them. Not that they could have got far, because they had accents you could cut with a knife, and wore khaki tunics and overcoats with civilian pants and boots, but I believe they never had any idea of escaping and were quite content to be where they were." We are in the head of one of the captors in both these stories. In Good Country People the voice is third person but we realise that Hulga has similar trust in the bible salesman, and considers him her captive, under her power. Hulga is wrong, the soldier in Guests of the Nation right and the boy in Prize Stock partly right. Here is Ōe on why he writes in the first person. "A really good novelist is able to write in the third person, but I have never been able to write well in the third person. In that sense, I am an amateur novelist. Though I have written in the third person in the past, the character has always somehow resembled myself. The reason is that only through the first person have I been able to pinpoint the reality of my interiority." I feel that sometimes the first person is best suited to a belief that there is only subjective reality and also to a type of writing that slightly blurs the distance between author and narrator. Again from the Paris Review interview: "The two overlapped—my fictional forest and my boyhood home. I’ve written my childhood many times. The real and imagined are all mixed up."

A parallel that strikes me between Guests of the Nation and Prize Stock is that Guests of the Nation also opens with a mention of ashes, although in a far more domestic setting and less obviously foreshadowing death. "At dusk the big Englishman, Belcher, would shift his long legs out of the ashes..." However this is the register that Frank O'Connor is writing in and Ōe is writing in a far more extreme register. For some reason this convinces me that Ōe had the O'Connor story in mind when writing this.

The influence of the other O'Connor is broader but less particular. One of the things with Flannery O'Connor is the world her characters move in, and Ōe's world seems similar. Hardscrabble folk, farmers and hunters, carrying guns and distrustful of the town. Another part of Flannery O'Connor's style is to introduce strange objects and treat them like Chekov's gun. It is no surprise that the artificial leg in both stories plays a key part in the story. 

Also Flannery O'Connor writes all her stories (most anyway), to illustrate the place religion has in the world of her characters. She often has a theological point to make. Ōe is not religious but there is a sense that the stories are all about similar things. In his own words - "People say that I’ve been writing about the same things over and over again ever since—my son Hikari and Hiroshima. I’m a boring person. I read a lot of literature, I think about a lot of things, but at the base of it all is Hikari and Hiroshima." Now Prize Stock predates Hikari's birth but it is interesting that the narrator is hurt by his father, a subject that will fascinate Ōe in the stories that deal with the relationship between a series of fathers and their disabled sons. I also found myself thinking of the bombing of Hiroshima when the boys see a large US plane high overhead. It is like the US soldier wreaks changes similar to the bomb and the story is filled with characters with disabilities Harelip, the clerk from the town with an artificial leg and the narrator's own disability arising from the action of the story. Does this explain why these two subjects would be so key to Ōe's work. "People say that I’ve been writing about the same things over and over again ever since—my son Hikari and Hiroshima. I’m a boring person. I read a lot of literature, I think about a lot of things, but at the base of it all is Hikari and Hiroshima."

Prize Stock is far longer and more wide ranging than either of the other two stories. It is full of a strange quasi-mythological atmosphere. The children seem to be worshippers of Pan and play thoughtlessly with each others bodies at the village spring while the adults are away. The soldier is brought into this world and in a strange scene a goat is brought for him to try to copulate with. They look on the soldier as a purely physical entity, comparing him to domestic livestock. At times this language can be disturbing but this seems fitting as the story and the themes embedded in it are disturbing.

Finally, when the order comes from town that the prisoner is to be escorted their a chain of events which leads to violence is started. The narrators/main characters in all three stories seem to finish the story weighed down by knowledge of the harshness of life. Ōe directly connects this with the change from child to adult. "I had rapidly become familiar with sudden death and the expressions of the dead, sad at times and grinning at times, just as the adults were familiar with them." Frank O'Connor has his character become as a child "I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow."

Flannery O'Connor has her story end with a conversation between Hulga's mother and housekeeper, with the housekeeper seeing a more truthful version of the world than either Hulga or her mother, both who bought into the salesman being simple, just "good country people".
"Some can't be that simple," she said. "I know I never could."

All three epiphanies are the manifestation of darkness in human nature. They make an interesting trilogy. Thanks for staying with me this far. (If anyone has?) And thanks again to Tony at January in Japan for steering me towards Japan for the month.


  1. Great post! I haven't read the other stories, but it's interesting that you see parallels there as a certain other Japanese writer, one Oe had a great influence on, is also very much into American literature...

  2. This is one I want to read at some point, and it is interesting spotting possible points of inspiration between different writers, particularly as it can give you a trail to follow for that next (new to you) writer. Great post thanks

    1. Thanks Parrish. I often find that comparing stories and writers with each other gives rise to a different set of ideas than when you look at them in isolation. It can also be a great way to find a foothold in a new writer.

  3. I am most interested when Oe writes about his disabled son, or the father and son relationship period. I don't think that's an easy one, from what I've seen, under the best of circumstances. The writing of war and ashes and death is such a common theme in Japaneseliterature, and I don't suppose it can be otherwise due to the terrible suffering their country has endured. I didn't know about Oe's fascination with French and English; thanks for such a thorough post.

    1. I am looking forward to reading more of Ōe's books about his son, which seems to have been a very rich seam for him. As a foster carer I have some experience of autism and it can be difficult, but also very rewarding.
      I also like the quasi mythological forest world of his childhood, and find his fascination with the humanisation of the Emperor and the dropping of the atomic bomb both understandable and rich with potential.

  4. like belleza I loved his books connect with his son ,wish his books were easier to find second hand thou (although I could get of net but still love second hand shops ) ,all the best stu

    1. Absolutely Stu. This one was a lucky find. Can't even remember where. Will be keeping an eye out for them now though.