‘…he couldn’t help seeing himself as a lonely, isolated symbol of the generation gap, eating modernity’s dust.’ –Kenzaburō Ōe, The Changeling
Kenzaburō Ōe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994 for, according to the committee, creating through his writing a place ‘where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.’
And his notable acceptance speech at the time was as ‘un-Japanese’ as his work and persona are known to be. While Ōe did draw on previous Japanese laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s 1968 Nobel monologue, he also took the opportunity to publicly highlight his stance against renewed militarism in Japan.
Yasuko Claremont , author of The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburo and the upcoming Legacies of the Asia-pacific War: The Yakeato Generation, put this unique quality of Ōe’s into a clearer context for me when I spoke to her on the topic:
‘In both his writing and speeches Ōe has consistently expressed his moral convictions, upholding human rights and denouncing the retention of nuclear weapons. It is this individuality which differentiates him from other Japanese writers. Ôe has long been an international figure.’
Ōe, who started writing while attending Tokyo University as a student of French literature,has since produced a range of work including essays, short stories and novels and credits as major influences his area of study and the American literature his mother provided him in his youth.
Claremont also told me that, in her opinion, what makes Ōe a great writer is ‘the range and significance of his themes.’
She pointed to some specific examples from over a 50-year span of his work: ‘a father’s devotion to his mentally-impaired son, the bleakness of life in post-war Japan under the American occupation, a woman’s path to salvation through self-sacrifice, power relationships shown through cycles of village life (and) his use of mythology in depicting mankind’s place in the cosmos.’
So while for her, Ôe’s Prize Stock, (‘which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize when Ôe was still a university student, such is his talent’), is a personal favourite, for readers new to his work she would recommend his novel, A Personal Matter,which she calls‘a psychological masterpiece.’ She explained why: ‘It will grip readers from the first page. The story is about the dilemma of a young father who finds that his newly-born son has a large lump extruding from his head. The father decides to have his son murdered by an abortionist, and only when it is almost too late does he rush to save him.’
Meanwhile, Frederick Glaysher, a Japanese literature aficionado, who became a fan of Oe’s work after hearing of his nonconformist ways, (‘he was a novelist who was critical of the extreme nationalism of writers like Yukio Mishima’), would recommend above all, The Silent Cry. Glaysher calls it a ‘very profound and provoking novel that goes deep into modern life, East and West.’ He also told me that for him, what’s appealing overall about Oe is his ability to take historical and social experience and through fiction find a way to extract ‘every drop of meaning,’ exploring and confronting social problems and issues a ‘very deep levels.’
Oe currently lives in Tokyo with his family, and the English translation of his 2000 book The Changeling, which has received positive international reviews, was published in March.