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

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kenzaburo Oe and William Butler Yeats

"When He Himself Will Wipe Away My Tears" by Kenzaburo Oe (1972)

Irish Short Story Week Year Two
March 11 to July 1
Nobel Prize Winners Only Week
April 6 to April 13

My Prior Posts for ISSW Year Two

My Prior Posts on Kenzaburo Oe

Please consider joining us for Irish Short Story Week Year Two.   All you are asked to do is to post on one or more Irish short stories (or a work of non-fiction that related well to this topic) and let me know about it.

I decided to include Kenzaburo Oe in Nobel Prize winners only Week on Irish Short Story Week  Year Two because he is one of my core authors, he is a genius, and he is so influenced by William Butler Yeats that he mentioned him eight times in his 1994 Nobel Lecture.  As far as I know I have posted on all of Kenzaburo's translated works of fiction.  Here is what Oe says in his Nobel Speech (and if a writer ever wants to tell the world something, a Nobel Prize Speech would be the place to do it!)

To tell you the truth, rather than with Kawabata my compatriot who stood here twenty-six years ago, I feel more spiritual affinity with the Irish poeWilliam Butler Yeats, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature seventy one years ago when he was at about the same age as me. Of course I would not presume to rank myself with the poetic genius Yeats. I am merely a humble follower living in a country far removed from his. As William Blake, whose work Yeats revalued and restored to the high place it holds in this century, once wrote: 'Across Europe & Asia to China & Japan like lightnings'.
During the last few years I have been engaged in writing a trilogy which I wish to be the culmination of my literary activities. So far the first two parts have been published and I have recently finished writing the third and final part. It is entitled in Japanese A Flaming Green Tree.I am indebted for this title to a stanza from Yeats's poem Vacillation:
Is half all glittering flame and half all green
Abounding foliage moistened with the dew ...
('Vacillation', 11-13)
In fact my trilogy is so soaked in the overflowing influence of Yeats's poems as a whole. On the occasion of Yeat's winning the Nobel Prize the Irish Senate proposed a motion to congratulate him, which contained the following sentences:
... a race that hitherto had not been accepted into the comity of nations.
... Our civilization will be assesed on the name of Senator Yeats.
... there will always be the danger that there may be a stampeding of people who are sufficiently removed from insanity in enthusiasm for destruction.
(The Nobel Prize: Congratulations to Senator Yeats)
Yeats is the writer in whose wake I would like to follow. I would like to do so for the sake of another nation that has now been 'accepted into the comity of nations' but rather on account of the technology in electrical engineering and its manufacture of automobiles. Also I would like to do so as a citizen of such a nation which was stamped into 'insanity in enthusiasm of destruction' both on its own soil and on that of the neighbouring nations.
His wonderful novel, Rouse Up Oh Young Man is almost a gloss on the poetry of  Blake which Oe discovered through reading Yeats.

In deciding what to post on Oe, I selected one of my first posts on Oe and rewrote it a bit.  I When He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears goes to the heart of Oe and I enjoyed it tremendously.

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.  .

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.   This work is more than passing strange.     The narrator is unreliable, to put it mildly.    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 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  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.  

Added note-since I first wrote this post, I read lots more work by Oe and I think he belongs among the great writers of the world.   I think it took a lot of courage and honesty on his part to acknowledge Yeats as one of his masters rather than refer to Japanese antecedents.   Given that Yeats was heavily influenced by the great Indian writer  Rabindranath Tagore who I will post on next for this event we can see a circle from Asian to Western Nobel Prize Winners.   Given the powerful influence of Oe on Japanese literature we can see how the writers of Irish stories are shaping even now the worlds of people who have never even heard of them.  

I thank who ever reads as far down as here. 

Mel u

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