Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, September 18, 2009

"The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears" by Kenzaburo Oe

The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears  by Kenzaburo Oe was first published in Japan in 1972 and translated into English by John Nathan in 1977.   It appears in a collection  of four of his works called Teach Us to Out Grow Our Madness   edited by John Nathan.   Mr  Nathan's
introduction is very interesting and provides some useful culture context information.    

I previously posted on his long short story Prize Stock   One of my goals is to read a number of types and genres of Japanese prose works.   At 110 pages most  would classify this work as a novella.

The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears is an exceedingly bizarre narrative by a 35 year old man lying in a hospital bed wearing underwater goggles covered in cellophane.    This man, whose name we never learn,   may or may not have cancer but he believes and seriously hopes he does.   For sure this is the strangest work I have read for the challenge.   The narrator is unreliable.    His perception and memory of past events are at best confused.   The novel is set in hospital in post war Tokyo.    Maybe the narrator saw too much at too young an age and it drove him mad.   Something for sure did!   At more than one point in the
work I felt like yelling out to him "What are you crazy or something?"    I simply have to quote a bit of the opening few lines of the book

"Deep one night he was trimming his nose that would never walk again into sunlight atop living legs, busily
feeling each hair with a Rotex rotary nostril clipper as if to make the nostrils as bare as a monkey's, when suddenly a man, perhaps escaped from the mental ward..or perhaps a lunatic who happened to be passing with a body abnormally small and meagre for a man save only for a face as round as a Dharma's and covered in hair, set down on the edge of his bed and shouted, foaming,  What in God's name are you?  WHAT?...I'm cancer, cancer LIVER CANCER it is me".

In the world of this book, passing lunatics screaming the truth at us, or is  it,  perfectly ordinary.   When one is possibly dying of cancer, of course,  your top priority might be to trim your nose hairs.

The vast majority of the work consists of an interior monologue spoken out loud..   For brief periods the person who the narrator has designated as the administrator of his will comment on the monologue  and once and a while even his mother has a comment or two to make.   He flashes back in time from the times of the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria (where someone very important to him may have been killed-maybe his brother or stepbrother), to the period right after the Emperor of Japan in August of 1945 came on the radio and advised the Japanese people he was not a god .   As conveyed indirectly in The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears   this affects the narrator and the Japan as a culture much as if the Pope were to say he had been advised by God to inform the people of the world that Christianity was a fraud.    Perhaps the impact was worse as the Emperor of Japan was seen as divine himself.   He himself was seen as God, not God's messenger.     The more one believes in old ways the harder is becomes to accept new ones.

Through out the narrative we hear about "a certain person" who may be the narrator's brother or step- brother.   He may have died a hero's death in Manchuria or he may be a deserter hiding away while plotting to kill the Emperor.   Just to muddy the waters a bit more, the Emperor may also be confused at times with the narrator' s father.   He seems never to have known his father.   Here is how the narrator sees his cancer, real or not

"When he began to feel cancer growing in his body cavity with the vigor of fermenting malt...his cancer appeared to him as a flourishing bed of yellow hyacinths or possibly chrysanthemums bathed in a faint, purple light."

Everything matters in this narrative.   It seems as carefully crafted as  a work of Flaubert.    Hyacinths grow with extreme rapidity and chrysanthemums are sacred  to the Emperor.      

Here are some words from the administrator  about another chrysanthemum

"blind to all things  in reality but the colossal chrysanthemum topped with a purple aurora illuminates the 
darkness behind his closed lids more radiantly than any light he has ever seen". 

Maybe we know now why he wears underwater goggles with cellophane on them.

Part of the story is about the narrator's hatred of his mother which seems s to stem either from her preference for his brother or issues with the narrator's never seen by him father.   We learn enough about the narrator to partially reconstruct his interior world.

"My mother was isolated...from the days those ashes returned...she began to ignore every man, woman and child in the valley even when they were right under her nose.   Which left me, a kid to run around the valley..collecting our rations ...and making sure a certain party, who was gradually becoming obsessive over his food, had enough to eat."     

I cannot really begin to convey the strange and wonderful qualities of this work.   Imagine if Rabelais (Oe was a student of French literature and philosophy at the University of Tokyo), Jean Paul Sarte and William Burroughs collaborated on a work right after eating some very bad blow fish and you have an idea of what 
 The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears   feels like as you read it.   

This book is about a lot of things and it is about itself.   It is about loss of faith, feelings of profound loss,
survivor's guilt,   and the destruction of old values.   We feel the effects of the war everywhere.
The Japanese culture provided  no role models or cultural archetypes to help them cope with what could not happen, total defeat.   

There is a long established literary tradition of using the insane to say what cannot be accepted by those in fully sunlit worlds.    The narrator of  The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears has very deep roots in western culture.    His ancestors were in the plays of Euripides, his great grandfather was Dostoevsky's  underground man,   he speaks through Crazy Jane.   Oe has stated that he has come to understand the meaning of his own works through reading the poetry of William Butler Yeats.   

I do not mean to convey  that The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears is a closed work that cannot be enjoyed or even followed without great effort.   It can be enjoyed just as a narrative of a crazy person.  As such we will pick up a lot about the aftereffects of the war on Japan.    We will see how the Japanese people felt when they heard the Emperor speak on the radio, and we will learn something about the home front in rural Japan.   The book is also funny-imagine the very straight laced executor of the narrator's estate being threatened with the loss of his work as administrator of the narrator's estate (who appears to have nothing to pass along anyway and probably is not going to die soon either) by a man in underwater goggles.    

My first judgment is that Oe is as deep as the Russians and as careful as Proust and Flaubert and knows as much about people as Dickens.  


ds said...

Brilliant review, Mel. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

A lot of nice work (and info) in this post. Excellent, thanks!

Suko said...

I agree with ds. I would struggle to understand this book, even though it's short, but with the help of your review, and Wikipedia, I might be able to make some sense of a book about a crazy man with "cancer", who's also an unreliable narrator. On second thought, maybe not.

Bellezza said...

When I saw this title, I was hoping against hope that it would refer to Christ wiping away our tears. But, I should have known that there are so few believers of Christianity in Japan, and that the opposite would be true: the book proclaiming that Christianity is a fraud. No wonder there is such a high suicide rate in Japan; there's no hope! There's no belief or faith that I can see. It makes me sad. How interesting that this book has moments so bizarre; I'm beginning to wonder if that's a trait of much Japanese literature. (Along with the lack of faith aspect I'm seeing.)

Peter S. said...

Hi, Melvin! I just bought this book a month ago. Although I haven't read it yet, I just knew that the full price I paid for it will be worth it, especially after reading your review.

Anna said...

This does sound like a really odd book, but I'd be willing to give it a try. I'll get this posted on the challenge site soon.

Diary of an Eccentric

Anna said...

We posted your review on War Through the Generations.

Diary of an Eccentric

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Mel, since you wrote this post I've become aware of and read a couple of books by Oe & what you say rings true, It's amazing for a start how great a shadow Manchuria casts upon post wat Japanese Literature. Then there's the subject of alienation that seems very prevalent in the culture. Any liked the post & have been looking for my next Oe, I think I've found it. Thanks.

Mel u said...

Parrish Lantern-This is close to my favorite Oe-soon I will be posting on more Oe after a long Oe hiatus-I hope you like this work and will really want to read your response