Saturday, May 15, 2010

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness

Earlier this year when Kenzaburō Ōe’s new novel Changeling appeared I read several reviews that piqued my interest, and then, coming across it in the local library, I read the first few pages and knew that it needed to be on my “to read” list.  But the books I wound up buying for now were two used book store finds, the four-novella collection Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (trans. John Nathan, 1977) and A Quiet Life (trans. Kunioki Yanagishita & William Wetheral, 1996). I’ve just finished the first of the two, and it makes me wonder how I haven’t read any of his work before.  This first novella in particular, The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, is astonishing, so much so that it may diminish the other three in comparison. 

The Day features a delusional narrator in a hospital for a treatable ailment that he nonetheless insists is terminal cancer, recounting a past he refuses to see clearly to be recorded by the “acting executor of the will.”  What we read is this record, and its formally ambitious combination of surrealism, indirection, temporal shifts, and interruptions pays off in humor and pathos—the only comparison I can think of in American or English literature is Faulkner.  Indeed, like Quentin Compson, the narrator of this story is desperately clinging to an ethical code that belongs to a lost world (the antebellum South for QC, Japan before and during WWII for Ōe’s narrator).  It is hard to know how much to say about the plot here before I slide into ruining surprises: this is a story saturated by the narrator’s obsession with events that do not become entirely clear until late in the story.  Loosely, he seeks to recount an “official version” of what he calls his Happy Days, a short period during World War II before he lost his father, but this is a story much more about living with guilt and resentment than it is about nostalgia.  Much of the narrator’s anger and energy is directed at a mother he blames for an inability to commit suicide; his zeal for his imaginary impending death is really for what he imagines will be his victory over her:

However, even at times like these, he was able to enjoy imagining dreamily the clamor and bustle when the announcement of death would send all the systems of his body, alive now and metabolizing tirelessly, racing one another to be the first to decompose.  At the end of the tape which the acting executor of the will would play when he had entered a coma he wanted to record the following words to his mother, who would be coming alone from the house in the valley: Please make sure you stay to observe my body decomposing; if possible I would like you to observe even my putrefied and swollen insides burst my stomach and bubble out as gas and muddy liquid.  But it was not easy to deliver such lines without disagreeable masochistic overtones; besides, if the state of his stomach should oblige him to belch just as he began to record and his voice should falter or tremble, he could imagine carrying his chagrin with him right into the world of the dead, so he merely assembled these sentences in his silent head.
Most of the humor here is dark: it comes from the absurdity and excess of his anger, his grotesque imagination, and the impotence in his fury that keeps him from enacting his schemes (best not to make that tape if it might catch an offhand belch).  And yes, the narrator speaks about himself in third-person, much as he will only refer to his father as “a certain party”—another tic he blames on his mother.

Ōe’s other stories in this volume are much more straightforward, whether narrated in first or third-person.  In Prize Stock, the narrator recalls a turning-point in his youth when an African-American pilot is captured and held in a small parochial village.  The story that gives the collection its name describes a man obsessed with his dead father and his mentally disabled son—both relationships disintegrating after a traumatic encounter with a polar bear at the zoo.  And Aghwee the Sky Monster tells the story of a man hired to be the companion of a composer who has lost his will to go on, having become obsessed with a giant baby he imagines to come down to him from the sky.  This last story is the most unsatisfying—partially because the narrator seems so distant from his own experiences, but more so because the climax, which collapses that distance, is not especially effective.

According to the translator’s introduction and other reviews/blogs I have read, Ōe writes mostly autobiographically, and in these stories you can see him reworking the same set of ideas or problems in different scenarios.  The first and third stories have protagonists obsessed with absent fathers who were lost in very similar (with some variation in detail) circumstances.  The third and fourth both involve protagonists forced to choose at their sons’ births whether to let them die or save them with a surgery that will leave them mentally disabled—they make different choices, but both of them become obsessed with the outcome. (And it has to be said that the attitude toward people with disabilities here is somewhat trapped in its time, even considering the fathers’ love for their sons, dead and living alike.)

I find myself grappling the most with Prize Stock, largely because I know so little about Japanese cultural contexts for thinking about race.  If this story was published by an American or even just Western author, I would know right where to put it: treatment of black men as animals, obsession with the size of their penises, ugh ugh ugh.  This is a coming-of-age story where the protagonist and his friends are excited at the spectacle of the prisoner, who becomes their friend only to become dangerous again.  It is not entirely clear to me how much of the exoticism here comes from the prisoner’s general American foreignness, and how much comes from his blackness.  And either way it is also not clear to me at the end of this story that the prisoner-as-animal attitude is at all repudiated.  The narrator’s youthful illusions are destroyed, but the “reality” he comes to face is that the prisoner was, after all, a dangerous wild animal rather than a nice pet.  Not much to show in the way of growth.

Still, I can’t emphasize enough how engrossing I found The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away.  It evades the problems of the other stories and rewards the reader for finding the rhythm of its stranger prose, and it makes me eager to read more Kenzaburō Ōe.

No comments:

Post a Comment