A Personal Matter
The blurb tells us that thirty-three-year-old Kenzaburo Oë is “the most dynamic and revolutionary writer to have emerged in Japan since the end of the War,” that he is “without doubt the first truly modern Japanese writer,” and that “he has wrenched Japanese literature free of its deeply rooted, inbred tradition and moved it into the mainstream of world literature.” One would deduce from these descriptions that either Oë is Supermansan or else, enfeebled by centuries of incest, Japanese literature is peculiarly backward! What the blurb doesn’t tell us is that fiction was somewhat doubtfully part of the Japanese literary tradition, and that because of its low status compared with poetry and philosophical writing, it showed a distinct tendency toward the pornographic throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, at the end of the War, Japanese writers of fiction had a good start: they were already “modern.” They were already pretty near “the mainstream of world literature,” if this mainstream consists of the writers whom the blurb lists as Oë’s “influences and literary heroes”—Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean-Paul Sartre. To mention only some of the more respectable novelists who have been translated in English, Junichiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai, Shohei Ooka, and Yukio Mishima (whose Temple of the Golden Pavilion has a character who tramples on the belly of a pregnant prostitute and another who rapes a sixty-year-old widow while she is worshipping his clubfeet)—these are sufficient to indicate that where extreme situations in fiction are concerned Oë is no great pioneer. In truth he can only seem revolutionary to someone who still thinks of Japan in terms of priests chanting sutras and elegant geisha entertaining their cultured guests with readings from Lady Murasaki and Lady Shonagon.
Oë’s hero, a young man called Bird, becomes the father of a freak, a two-headed baby, or more exactly a baby with brain hernia. Bird dreams persistently of going to Africa and is already given to bouts of drunkenness (“four weeks straight,” soon after marrying). Having been shown his baby son, he takes refuge with a girl he knew at the university, whose husband killed himself a year after their marriage, possibly because of her “deviate tastes.” Now,
winter and summer alike, during the day she was always sprawled in her darkened bedroom, pondering something extremely metaphysical while she chain-smoked Players until an artificial fog hung over her bed. She never left the house until after dusk.
We gather that Bird’s father committed suicide too. Disgust is the prevalent if not exclusive condition of mind for the next 100-plus pages. Himiko, the girl, is chasing a bigger and better orgasm. Much of the time Bird isn’t in a fit state to lend any assistance: as she says,
Let’s say we did go to bed together, you’d have all you could do to crumple between my legs and vomit. Your disgust would overwhelm you, and you’d smear my belly with brown whisky and yellow bile. You …
Pornographers in Translation January 16, 1969