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An Echo of Heaven is my 14th work by Kenzaburo Oe (1935-Japan-Nobel Prize 1994-there is background information on Oe in my prior posts). It is my goal to read all of the translated fiction of Oe (there is a lot of untranslated work). By my count I have three novels to go.
Obviously I like and admire Oe a great deal. I have posted quite a bit on him on prior occasions so I will just talk very briefly on An Echo of Heaven.
An Echo of Heaven is one of the most overtly "philosophical" of Oe's works. It is the story of a woman whose two handicapped sons committed suicide. It focuses on her attempt to make senses of and cope with the impact of this event on her life. It is not what I can call an "open or easy read" compared to some of his other books. If you are into Oe you will for sure love this book.
An Echo of Heaven is a strange book. It is partially told in long letters from the woman whose sons killed themselves, Marie Kuraki, to the narrator of the story who has agreed to write a book about her to be released in conjunction with a movie a friend of the narrator is making about her. Much of the novel is set among Japanese living in rural Mexico, some went to escape living in post WWII Japan. Marie lives there and has become a saint like figure to the Mexican agricultural workers. She has also joined a religious cult whose leader is called "big daddy" and she is described as looking like "Betty Boop", an American cartoon character. She writes very long letters(10 + pages) about her involvement with the religious cult. I think this is part of Oe's account of the nature and origin of religion. Marie seems at times to throw to her self into a lot of sexual activity, a lot of drinking and meaningless activities in an effort to cope with the death of her sons. One of them was in a wheel chair, both were mentally handicapped (as is one of Oe's children). They agreed to kill themselves. One boy pushed his brother out into the ocean in his wheel chair and then drowned himself. The reasons for this are not made super clear and there is no indication Marie is at fault.
The more I think about it, the more I feel this is among the very deepest most amazing of Oe's work. It is near R rated in parts (I would have to say the sex scenes in Oe are often more about power than pleasure, more about using sex to drive thought out of your mind.). There is a big symbolic import to having the novel set among Japanese living in Mexico (and the USA) and the narrator and Marie both characterize Mexican men as aggressive macho types and the women as used to a harsh life. Marie went to Mexico to help rural Mexicans. Oe also taps into the religious beliefs of the pre-Colombian residents of Mexico and the effect of Catholicism on the lives of the Mexicans.
The narrator of this story is very into the work of Flannery O'Connor and I was very glad I have recently begun to read her work. In one really enjoyable scene the narrator goes into a Mexico City bookstore and buys up all of their works by O'Connor. He asks the clerk if they sell a lot of her work. She says no not really but every once and a while someone will come in and buy all her work. (Probably there have been dissertations written on the Oe/O'Connor connection.)
The narrator is also into Yeats, Blake, Balzac and a few other western Canon status writers but it is O'Connor that is most important here. I think one reason I am drawn to Oe is that he does talk deeply about authors I love in his work. To me it speaks to the depth of Oe that it is not simply that he shines a light on Yeats, Blake and O'Connor but they do so on him as well.
Some readers of Oe who want to shy away from seeing him as an atheist try to see him as thinking along the same lines as the Romanian philosopher Marcea Eliade. I think this is a false almost wishful thinking reading of Oe and represents a shallow understanding of his work. I always think back to his Hiroshima interview with an elderly woman whose whole family were killed in the atomic bomb attack and who was suffering from radiation burns. He said he (in Hiroshima Notes-a work of nonfiction) that he never admired the courage of anyone more than when he saw she was facing this horror without religion.
An Echo of Heaven is a very interesting novel that displays almost the full range of Oe's themes. This novel is out of print but I bought a copy for just a few dollars on Amazon. The next Oe work I read will be The Pinch Runner Memorandum.