Born in Ehime Prefecture in 1935, Kenzaburo Oe studied French literature at Tokyo University but by his mid-20s was making a name for himself as a fierce and controversial writer. He won the coveted Akutagawa Prize in 1957 for his story “Prize Stock” and leaped pen-first into troubled waters with his debut novel Nip The Buds, Shoot the Kids (1958), a dark tale set during the Second World War in the rural area of his native Shikoku. A group of young men is sent into the countryside to work, but the village is overcome with a plague: everything is dying and decomposing. The villagers turn on the boys and abandon them to their fate, prompting a Lord of the Flies-esque upheaval. The wider critique of post-war Japan was unmistakable. His reputation both as a writer of immense talent and craft and also as an outspoken social critic was made.
Oe clearly has a strong concept of the role of the author in political and cultural life, and the darker side of humanity has long been his fascination. In 1961 two novellas — Seventeen and The Death of a Political Youth — dropped onto the literary scene like stun grenades. Based on the real story of a young man who murdered a socialist politician and then took his own life, their publication brought Oe death threats from far-right nationalists — not for the last time.
Throughout his career, he has campaigned on a number of issues — most recently against the use of nuclear power in Japan following the Fukushima disaster — and has never shied away from upsetting the establishment. He went as far as rejecting the Japanese Bunka-kunsho (Order of Culture) because it was an honor presented by the emperor. He is an artist who leads by example.
He returned to Shikoku and the breakdown of social order in The Silent Cry (1967), where again a group of young men in a rural village subverts authority in an almost Rabelaisian way. By letting one corner of the country stand for the whole, and each character to act as an avatar for social and political trends, Oe could explore the corruption and degradation he saw around him. He admonished Japan’s attitude toward foreign powers, seeing the country as too passive and failing to develop in a healthy direction following the defeat. It’s worth pointing out that he meant this in a non-nationalistic sense: he wasn’t calling for any return to a mythical great past, rather he saw defeat as an opportunity to rebuild the nation on democratic principles, an opportunity weak leaders were squandering. A friend is quoted in The Guardian as saying: “After the war, people looked to a hopeful future. But Japan was subservient to the U.S. Young people protested but were defeated, and Oe expressed their anger and defeat; they’d found a hero for their generation.”
After his political beginning, his work began to incorporate more personal themes. In 1963 his son Hikari was born brain-damaged. He explored the uncomfortable feelings this prompted in his 1964 novel A Personal Matter (in my opinion, perhaps his greatest work), where the protagonist contemplates getting rid of his imperfect and burdensome newborn offspring. It’s a masterpiece of existentialist literature — something Oe with his study of French literature and political leanings found himself drawn to. He even met Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris in 1961 — a meeting I would give anything to have been present at. A Personal Matter is an uncomfortable and unflinching dissection, but one that is utterly compelling.
Novels are explorations, conversations the author has with him or herself, and Oe epitomizes that. Each work is a step along the road of understanding, a movement closer to comprehending humanity and the society we have built for ourselves, with an understanding that we are aiming at a moving target, a hydra that grows new heads as soon as one is dealt with. This is why he returns to the same themes, the same settings, the same questions and often the same characters — such as Kogito Choko, his own avatar in his fictional world — with such compulsion. He is never quite happy with his own conclusions, always aware that something has slipped through his net.
Prolific through most of his life, he has slowed down his output recently (at 82 years old, this is perhaps not surprising) yet many of his books remain untranslated, a shocking state of affairs for a man who, in 1994, became only the second Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (the other being Yasunari Kawabata). The Nobel citation described him as “a writer who is not writing books but building an oeuvre” so non-Japanese readers are missing important parts of the edifice. However, while we wait for publishers to get their acts together, there is enough to be getting on with.
For those who like chronology, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids makes a sensible starting point. Others may prefer to go with quintessential and undoubtedly great works like A Personal Matter, The Changeling, The Silent Cry or A Quiet Life. But it doesn’t really matter where you begin — “the books re-echo and vary each other in a great ingenious project” with “persistent leitmotifs” to quote the Nobel citation again — and loop and reloop, echoing the ingenious mind behind them, a mind insistently questioning, never fully satisfied with the answers.