Reading Kenzaburō Ōe’s novel A Quiet Life (1990, trans. Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall), I felt very conscious of the fact that I was reading a translation from a language and culture I know next-to-nothing about—not because the events are impossible to understand (far from it), but because stylistic elements left me wondering if I should complain about the editing, translation, or writing, or if what I was noticing wasn’t just true to patterns of speech in Japan. The first two of the six chapters in particular felt very choppy and stilted to me—I’m not sure whether the later ones improved or if I just got used to the style and absorbed enough in the situation and ideas of the story. I don’t recall the same reading experience from Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness last year, and in at least a couple of places there are what can only be translation/editorial errors: one sentence, as the narrator compares her present experience at a concert with previous experiences, reads, “But now I don’t hear such laughter ring out in the Joining of Hearts Concerts now.” I guess the translators were trying to decide where to put the “now” but wound up leaving it as an exercise for the reader… As a result, I’m left wondering the rest of the time how much the tone is being affected by translation issues in sentence-level style. To my (internal) ear, the narrator comes across as a little more simple-headed than I would guess just from her reflections, even given the fact that the narrative highlights her naïveté.
When I could forget the questions about style, though, I found the story engrossing. In the novel, the narrator (Ma-chan), a 20-year old young woman living with her family, takes care of her older, mentally disabled brother (Eeyore) and her younger brother (O-chan) who is studying for university entrance exams while their parents are in the United States because her father is in what the family calls a “pinch,” or bout of depression. In general the episodes of the novel revolve around situations where people, particularly Ma-chan, have concerns about Eeyore’s well-being, get worked up about them, but then find that everything is ok. There is, throughout, a humorous prodding of the idea that Eeyore’s life is somehow tragic or that he is incapable.
The family is modeled after Ōe’s, and the father, “K,” is an author. One of the things that makes the novel work well is the way the narration through the voice of the daughter gives us distance from “K,” and thus often gives us a sense that Ōe is critiquing himself as much as anyone. Indeed, this novel’s rejection of the idea that Eeyore’s life is a tragedy is a refreshing counter to the perspective on mental disability evinced in the two (decades older) stories in Teach Us that I noted with frustration in my post on that book. On top of this, through the reflections of the narrator and the people around her on her father’s “pinch” and his writing, the novel offers perspective on the relationship between writers, texts, and audiences, a relationship itself loosely tied to questions of faith (or lack of it) and death. There is a conceptual complexity and vigor to the novel that, unfortunately, I’m not entirely convinced is matched by the reading experience in the translation I read.