Wednesday, 22 January 2014

J-Lit Giants: 11 - Kenzaburo Oe

It's Wednesday again, which means that it's time for another J-Lit Giant to be introduced, and it's a big one today.  He's one of just two Japanese writers to have been awarded the world's highest literary honour, the Nobel Prize for Literature - truly a worthy giant...

Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935 in a small, secluded town on the island of Shikoku.  As a child growing up during the war, his experiences (mostly second hand) were to have an influence on his later writing.  Although he wanted to stay at home and follow in his conservationist father's footsteps, he eventually visited Tokyo at the age of eighteen and later moved there to work on his writing.

Greatly influenced by French writers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, he began to write short stories and quickly won acclaim.  One of his first efforts, 'Prize Stock', the story of a small mountain village and a captured American soldier, won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1958, after which he began to write short novels (e.g. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids).

His life (and writing) changed forever with the birth of his son, Hikari.  The baby was born with a brain swelling which led to a mental handicap, and the trauma Oe felt was to overshadow his subsequent writing.  Many of his later works, including A Personal Matter, were semi-autobiographical works attempting to work through the writer's demons.

Besides his works about Hikari, Oe also wrote much about the war (especially in his early stories and in Hiroshima Notes, a book of essays) and the seclusion of his home town (The Silent Cry).  He gradually became an elder statesman of the Japanese literary scene, an influence on many younger writers (I can think of one prominent example...).  In addition to the Akutagawa Prize, he received many of Japan's highest literary awards (e.g. the Yomiuri Prize and the Tanizaki Prize) before being awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1994.  That wasn't the end of his career though; in fact, he published a new book (In Late Style) very recently :)

I haven't read a lot by Oe, compared to some other Japanese writers, but all three I have read (from his early career) are very good:

1) The Silent Cry - An intense, claustrophobic novel set in a place similar to Oe's real hometown.  While it's another attempt to deal with his disabled son, it's also a superb piece of writing about isolation from society.  Anyone wanting to see where Murakami got his inspiration should read this, as you'll be seeing hints in the first few pages ;)

2) A Personal Matter - A child is born, and a family's life falls apart.  A wonderfully honest account of the dilemmas facing a 1960s man who isn't ready for the task of bringing up a mentally-handicapped child.

3) Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids - A bunch of kids sent to a village in the mountains arrive to find it ravaged by disease.  What happens next?  A kind of Lord of the Flies in the Japanese countryside...

Bonus suggestion - My first encounter with Oe was 'Prize Stock', a forty-page story found both in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories and the Oe collection Teach Us to Outgrow our Madness.  It's a great story which is extremely worthy of winning the Akutagawa Prize :)

There you have it - another giant inducted :)  What do you think - have you read anything by Oe?  What are your favourites?  Let us know by leaving a comment in the usual place...