Monday, 10 February 2014

The Silent Cry

The Silent Cry - Kenzaburo Õe
(Translated by John Bester)

""I seem to be surrounded by the odour of death," I said.
"If that's so, Mitsu, then shake yourself free and climb up into the world of the living again. Otherwise the odour will rub off on you.""

I'm currently reading and blogging more slowly than at any point over the last couple of years and that is why this January in Japan read is only making it here almost half way through February.  However, quality trumps quantity and to have read this one novel trumps reading four or five merely good novels as this is a great novel, one that will leave images stuck in my cerebellum until death (or it's John the Baptist like precursor, senility) wipes my synapses clean.

It is a dark, often violent and to some I imagine unpalatable novel but it is also humourous, intriguing, full of insights and freshness and wrestles honestly with what it is to be a human being in the world. At times I was reminded forcibly and variously of Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Beckett. That is the league Ōe kicks ball in. (Football plays a part in this book and is in the Japanese title - Football in the First Year of Man’en)

This is a book that examines various forces at play in Japanese society and in the life of Õe himself through a dialectical arrangement of contrasting pairs. At the core of the book are two sets of two brothers; two suicides; two children born with disabilities; two risings; a flaming and a tender red; two underground retreats... Its not as tidy as this makes it sound, in fact Õe create's a messy, largely unresolved world where characters act on and interpret events from an angle that is clearly skewed by their own experiences and belief systems. The main character, Mitsusaburo, has been blinded in one eye and he now imagines his unseeing eye "as being forever trained on the darkness within my skull." Perhaps it is this eye that tells the story.

People call out to each other across a century of history or across the similarly unbridgeable gap between a couple severed from each other by a shared shame, a shame generated by the birth of a handicapped son and his later abandonment to institutional care. On the first pages of the book Mitsusaburo (Mitsu) gets out of his insomniac's bed to sit in a hole newly dug in his garden for a septic tank. "Sitting down directly on the bare earth, I feel the water seeping through my pyjama trousers and underwear, wetting my buttocks, but I find myself accepting it docilely, as one who cannot refuse." His friend, and partner (they are both translators) has hung himself, first painting his head red and also thrusting a cucumber up his anus. Thing are looking dark, and not just for cucumbers.

Mitsu's wife is sinking into her own pit, drinking herself into oblivion. She began drinking this way on the day of Mitsu's friend's funeral. At this stage they still had their son at home with them but she says she is afraid of a world where people can kill themselves in such a manner.

We are introduced to Mitsu's brother Takashi when Mitsu and his wife, along with two young friends of Takashi, almost disciples, wait at the airport for his return from America. He had gone initially as part of a drama troupe that "consisted entirely of students who had taken part in the political riots of June, 1960, but had since thought better of it. Their play was a penitential piece entitled Ours Was the Shame, and was followed by an apology to the citizens of America, on behalf of repentant members of the student  movement, for having obstructed their President's visit to Japan."

However, Takashi had, in keeping with his intentions, left the troupe and travelled around America. Mitsu had little information about his whereabouts apart from a report from his friend who had hung himself, who had met Takashi in New York the day he left the troupe. At this meeting Takashi handed the friend a civil rights pamphlet which shows the burnt body of a black man surrounded by white men who have presumably lynched him. the photograph is described as "comic and terrible and disgusting, a representation of violence so direct that it gripped the beholder like some fearful fantasy." This could stand as a description of The Silent Cry itself.

In keeping with the dialectical structure mentioned earlier it seems that not alone has Takashi come back to Japan but in a complete reversal of his flight to America he now wishes to return to their family home in an isolated valley. The village is in the middle of a large forest and the bridge that links it to the outside world is broken. It is fable territory, a feeling emphasised by the family servant, who is now the "fattest woman in Japan" after getting a bang on the head and being plagued by a constant feeling of hunger. One of the reasons that Takashi wishes to return to the valley is that he is arranging the sale of the old storehouse on their land to "The Emperor", a Korean businessman who owns a chain of supermarkets, including the supermarket in the valley which has put all others out of business.

History haunts the two brothers in their home. "All pervasive time: Takashi as he ran stark naked was great-grandfather's brother, and my own; every moment of those hundred years was crowded into this one instant in town." Their great-grandfather and his younger brother played key roles in a rising in 1860. An elder brother returned from WW2 only to be killed soon afterwards in the settlement of Koreans near their town. The Emperor was part of this settlement, made up of workers brought in as forced labour during the war.  Various folk memories, writings, a painting and a diary play a role in the interpretations of the past that bleed into the present.

Mitsu and his wife are pulling apart. Sex has stopped because "to touch on sexual matters meant imposing on ourselves a shared sense of disgust and misery which neither was prepared to face." Indeed Mitsu is becoming disconnected from everything around him. He feels little connection to the people of the valley and gradually withdraws into the storehouse while Takashi tries to take on the role of their great-grandfather's younger brother and becomes a leader of the young men in the valley, banding them together first as a football team and later as his personal troops.

As dangerous passions, nationalistic and xenophobic are stirred up, Mitsu is half-disgusted, half-fascinated. He feels shame for how the Koreans were treated but perhaps it is the same shame that feeds the wider hatred of the Koreans. He is also consumed by horror and shame centred on his son and the suicide of his friend. He wishes that his friend had come to him before he died, or left some message other than the ineffable message of his dead body. "It may well be, of course, that the crimson head, the cucumber in the anus of the naked body, and the death by hanging were themselves a kind of silent cry; but if so, then the cry alone was not enough for those left behind."

How we die, when, and why, are central themes in the book. Whether the younger brother had been killed along with other participants in the peasant rising of 1860 is a question that is raised on a number of occasions. There is a rumour that he left the valley before the reprisals. why their older brother was killed is another. These questions link into wider questions surrounding killings and war. In their older brother's diary he talks of Japan having been "poisoned by a dream of peace".

Just as the two brothers rate influenced by their understanding of the past they are playing a part in establishing new stories that will feed in to the valley's myths. At an annual dance the spirits of the ancestor are represented and their brother and great-grandparents feature, as will one of them by the book's end.

The way Õe uses elements of his own life adds power to the book. The birth of a child with a 'handicap' is a key element in many of his books. He is very visceral in much of his writing about this. He also allows the fictional versions of himself to act badly, and through this explores his feelings of guilt. In a dream Mitsu feels ashamed because he has not shared the experiences of child nor his friend.   "I deserted you" "By never" "having hanged myself in their stead, with my head painted crimson; by never having been put in an institution and left to degenerate into something like the young of a wild beast."

He also fuses this personal story with the wider currents of Japanese history. The original title refers to the Man'en era, an 'era' that lasted only eleven months in 1860/61 and was ended by an uprising and assassination. It was also a time when the relationship between Japan and the wider world, particularly America, were heavily contested. These issues are clearly explored in the book which questions how we use the past to justify our present actions, and how we interpret that past.

On top of these powerful fusions of the personal and political Õe also demonstrates an ability to powerfully represent the mental state of someone suffering acute depression and feeling overwhelmed by the futility of life. He almost places you in the body of the narrator by using physical descriptions of his emotional state. "Fatigue and an unexplained resentment made me feel as though a rotten tooth had overflowed; my mouth seemed filled with an unpleasant taste - the taste of futility."
 (Using toothaches to represent mental states is something I have tried myself and so gives me an opportunity to garnish this review with one of my songs. OK, OK, you don't HAVE to listen to it!)

I could continue picking out quotes and raving about how good this book is but I guess that would be subject to laws of diminishing returns. I do hope this will inspire some people to pick this up and read it but I fully expect the reactions to be divergent. If you read it, or have read it, I'd love to hear your responses to it. Lastly, I should probably say that although it plumbs the depths that the ending is not all black. Hope, and life, continue.


  1. I was so disgruntled with my first and only experience with this author that I don't intend on reading him again (at least not anytime soon); however, you've convinced me that this may be an "aesthetic disagreement" I have with him and not just that he's an annoying and clunky writer as I once thought. Not just anyway. Loved your lines about senility and cucumbers above, by the way!

    1. Yes senility and cucumbers, perhaps I've discovered my muse. Which Õe turned you off? I actually didn't like the first page or so and thought it had clunky translation written all over it but that feeling disappeared fairly rapidly.

  2. Yep, a great read, and one I hope to try again soon. I wonder what turned Richard off him so much?!

    1. Well, I've asked Richard so if he returns here we may discover the answer.

    2. A Personal Matter. Didn't like the repetitiveness, the "colorful" metaphors, or Oe's awkward language/prose in general, plus I think I hated the ending and I definitely hated the translation (by John Nathan) which was full of howlers. Unintentional howlers, I imagine, but I can't compare it with the Japanese original. Not a problem: I won't ever have to fight with you guys over who gets the last 1-2 copies of an Oe title at the bookstore!

  3. Great commentary on this book.

    I myself sometimes have trouble with violent works but as you allude to, if the book is infused with meaning the tough stuff becomes bearable. Based upon your description it does indeed to reflect the dark side of life. I intend to read more works by non western authors going forward and I will put this one on my list.