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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

17 by Kenzaburo O 大江 健三郎

17  by Kenzaburo Oe (1963, 73 pages, translated 1996 by Luk Van Haute)

Kenzaburo Oe

Japanese Literature 

Kenzaburo Oe (1935, Uchiko, Japan-1994 Nobel Prize for literature) is on my read everything they have written (or is translated) list.    By my count, he has 14 works of fiction translated into English.   I have read 12 of them so far.   Obviously I greatly admire and enjoy his work.    (There is background information on him in my prior posts for those interested.)

Yukio Mishima occupies the  right peak of Japanese  WWII literature, Oe the left.   17 is in many ways a condemnation of the typical hero of a Mishima novel.    The prototypical Mishima hero (such as found in The Torrents of Spring and A Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea) is a young man who has just found out the adults in his world do not live up to the ethical standards he learned in school.   He is outraged and feels a call to action even to murder the adults who he feels have betrayed him.   At the same time he seeks desperately a new standard bearer to give him hope.   If this sounds to you  like the political scenario that lead to Fascism you are on target to understanding why Oe is so diametrically opposed to the Mishima model of  Japanese history.  (Mishima is also on my read everything list.)

17 is a very left wing (I use these terms to refer to Japanese who oppose the rearming of Japan, the glorification of  the Emperor, the acceptance of nuclear protection  from the USA,  the use of nuclear power, the Samurai way (a slave's code-sorry just how I see it) and any attempt to cover up Japan's role in WWII.   Oe has been sued several times by right wing organizations.   Most recently for saying that Japanese leaders on Okinawa attempted to propagandize local citizens into suicide once they saw the Americans would take the island.

The central male character in 17  has just turned 17 and he knows about the American magazine of that name.  To him it represents all that is bad with Japan in 1960.   He sees a country selling itself for consumer goods.    As an late adolescent, he conflates  his sex drive with his desire to return Japan to old ways.   In part this may be the result of him simply feeling left out because he lacks the means to buy the items he repudiates.  

In one very brilliant scene, our lead character visits a massage parlor.    The woman who will take care of him as an ear missing and her face has been severely damaged.    She is a few years older than he is and clearly hates being a sex worker.    One of  the dominant themes that fueled the ideological fires of the post WWII Japanese right wing was the wide spread of prostitution which they felt degraded Japanese women (or in reality when the customers were American service men they felt it was a direct affort to their manhood).    The young man is very repelled by her appearance and feels guilty as he knows she has suffered war injuries.   No Japanese will marry her now.     He also understands he is violating his own code driven by his animal needs.    He concludes he should commit suicide in an attack on what his right heroes speak against.    Of course there is an excellent chance they are the owners of the massage parlor or at least frequent customers.

On one level  17 is a political novel, on another it is a coming of age story about a confused young man growing up in a country whose belief structure (really there religion) was destroyed when when they were defeated in WWII and their Emperor said he was just a man.    As I am starting to see it, this theme is a near dominant one in post WWII Japanese literature:  what do you do when your value system is totally destroyed and is revealed to you as a vicious joke at your expense.

17 should for sure be on the reading list of those who admire Oe.     It is out of print but can be bought for under $5.00 online.

So far I have not read or posted on many Japanese short stories because I did not have print media or links to works in this Genre.   I now have solved this problem and once the Japanese Literature 5 Challenge begins I will be frequently posting on Japanese short stories.  

Mel u

1 comment:

@parridhlantern said...

Have read a couple of Oe's books & this could be the next as I'm in the Jap-Lit challenge. On the subject of short stories I can't recall if you have read Endo's stained glass elegies, if not I can recommend it to you