The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away - Kenzaburo Ōe
(from Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, a collection of "Four Short Novels by Kenzaburo Ōe".)
"partly I was afraid that, eaten in a valley surrounded by a forest, and early in the morning besides, the smell of a thing like that would draw down upon us all those ghostly creatures that had dwelled for years in the forest's depths."
This is the first, and longest, of the four 'short novels' that make up this volume of Ōe. Even from this one short novel it's easy to see why Kenzaburo Ōe won the Nobel Prize. The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away is an emotionally powerful excavation of the tensions at play between the members of a Japanese family in the aftermath of WW2.
The narrator lies dying (or maybe not) from liver cancer in hospital, dictating his story to a a person known as the "acting executor of the will" who comments from time to time on the details of the story or of the narrator's current situation. The author also refers to his father as 'a certain party' throughout. These abstractions seem to indicate that the characters they refer to may be read in many ways.
The narrator's conception of his cancer is that it is like Charon, conducting him to new kingdoms. Even before death he feels changed. "The existence inside him of something growing on its own vitality which, by means of its own internal power alone, was about to conduct him to and beyond new realms he could not fully conceive, and which, moreover, he was able to locate in his body as actual sensations in blood and flesh, seemed an experience more momentous than any since sexual awakening." He plans to use his forthcoming death to win an ongoing battle he has with his mother, a battle which seems in part to be about preserving an image he has of his father, who withdrew, dying and in hiding, into the storehouse for the final period of his life. He too, was dying of cancer.
To say that the narrator is unreliable is to do him a disservice. "His mother maintained he had actually been mad since he was three.." Although he describes the world in physical terms there is a feeling throughout that this is an intense psychodrama which may or may not have any relationship to 'real' events. He tells us himself that he is often telling us what he thinks should have happened, or events he feels - "when I sensed the difficulty in my liver was incurable, I declared my freedom from all bonds connecting me to the real world that was holding me dangling from its fingertips, so there's no telling whether I've actually experienced what I say..."
We are into an abstracted reality, but one which gives a feeling to me of a surgeon, or coroner, cutting deeply in order to find a hidden reality. Body, country, and family are all cut open to try and show what they are. "Once, he had tried stirring up the depths of memory rooted in his very flesh itself." There is a passage which captures the horror of childhood trauma and its consequences - "As he stares now at his hands, large and angry-red from cirrhosis yet resembling the child's, he recreates, in the high-noon space in that valley in the forest in the depths of his consciousness at thirty-five, the small child that was himself, musing that if he climbed aboard a time machine and returned to the side of that terrified child in the valley and embraced those small, stiffened shoulders his own hands in present time would also lose their angry redness."
Here the valley is placed firmly "in the depths of his consciousness." A valley surrounded by woods features in most of the stories in this collection, indeed the first three stories are set in very similar territory and also refer to incidents towards the end of the war. In this novel the end of the war is fused with the appearance of the emperor who, in accepting defeat, also has to give up his divinity and become an ordinary human being.
There is something of a fairy tale quality about the setting and the narrative strand about the narrator's older half-brother plays with this. It is the cause of the rift between his mother and father. When the older brother deserts from the Japanese army in China and both parent's send off messages to contacts in China. The father wants him shot so he cannot bring shame on the family. His stepmother tries to save him, reversing the usual fairy tale trope.
The narrator wears goggles covered in coloured cellophane throughout and although there is a suggestion that this may be "to prevent anyone from reading his expression ever." It also means that he cannot see the outside world clearly. His father wore them when he withdrew from the world. Everything he sees is coloured and blurred by these goggles - "after the doctor left he had the acting executor of the will undress him and then carefully examined, using a hand mirror, the old scars that covered his back, buttocks, and thighs. Not that very many small scars could actually be discovered through underwater goggles covered with cellophane. It was rather the various scars in the flesh of his memory that he uncovered."
One of the memories uncovered is of cutting himself, which helps him avoid getting a beating. He seems to have cut himself for deeper reasons, however. "In the swift wounding of his own flesh on a bewildering impulse from the hot, pitch-black core of himself he had felt a deep joy.." It ensures his safety for a while, whatever the impulse behind it - "only the leader of the juvenile gang had glimpsed, just behind the roughness he had displayed on the surface, a baffling internal passion by turns turbulent and still. And it appeared that he was instinctively wary of the weird energy he could sense arcing between those poles: in his instructions to his henchmen he put it plainly: watch out for him, he don't care what happen to him.." And it is as if Ōe shares the impulse to cut but uses the sharp edges of typeface to do the cutting.
The story proceeds back and forwards and we find out more about the fathers actions on the day after the war ends with Japan's surrender and the emperor's surrender of his divinity. This story is emotionally fearless, as are all the stories in this collection. I hope to post on the other three in the coming days.
I was inspired to pick this book from my shelves by the following virtual event, hosted by Tony from Tony's Reading List. Thanks Tony!
|January in Japan|