Kenzaburo Oe was born on January 31, 1935, in Uchiko, Japan. He began to study French literature at the age of 18 at the University of Tokyo. His first collection of short stories was published in the 1950s and was influenced by contemporary French and American authors. One of Oe’s sons was born with brain damage – his disability became a recurring motif in the novels. His semi-autobiographical novel A Personal Matter, published in 1964, tells the story of a young father who must come to terms with the fact that his newborn son is severely mentally disabled.
Several of Oe’s novels also deal with the aftermath of the Second World War and the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the most notable of which is Hiroshima Notes (1965). Alongside a writing career, Oe was involved in campaigns against nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
He became controversial in Japan because of the content of some of his short stories and essays. For example, his essay “Okinawa Notes” depicts how members of Japan’s military forced the population on the island of Okinawa to take their lives during the invasion in 1945. This led to Oe’s being sued by two military officers.
Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. His writing was acknowledged by the committee as a “poetic force [that] creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” He was also awarded, the Legion of Honour, France’s highest civil honour, in 2002. Oe died on March 13 of old age.
Here is a selection of nine books written by Kenzaburo Oe and translated into the English from the Japanese.
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, translated by Paul StJohn Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids recounts the exploits of 15 teenage reformatory boys evacuated in wartime to a remote mountain village where they are feared and detested by the local peasants. When plague breaks out, the villagers flee, blocking the boys inside the deserted town. Their brief attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love, and tribal valour is doomed in the face of death and the adult nightmare of war.
A Personal Matter, translated by John Nathan
A Personal Matter is a 1964 semi-autobiographical novel by the author. It tells the story of a young father who must come to terms with the fact that his newborn son is severely mentally disabled. In this book, a 27-year-old frustrated intellectual’s utopian dreams are shattered when his wife gives birth to a brain-damaged child.
The Silent Cry, translated by John Bester
Two brothers, Takashi and Mitsu, return from Tokyo to the village of their childhood. The selling of their family home leads them to an inescapable confrontation with their family history. Their attempt to escape the influence of the city ends in failure as they realise that its tentacles extend to everything in the countryside, including their own relationship.
The Changeling, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm
Writer Kogito Choko is in his sixties when he rekindles a childhood friendship with his estranged brother-in-law, the renowned filmmaker Goro Hanawa. As part of their correspondence, Goro sends Kogito a trunk of tapes he has recorded of reflections about their friendship. But as Kogito is listening one night, he hears something odd. “I’m going to head over to the Other Side now,” Goro says, and then Kogito hears a loud thud.
After a moment of silence, Goro’s voice continues, “But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Moments later, Kogito’s wife rushes in; Goro has jumped to his death from the roof of a building.
With that, Kogito begins a far-ranging search to understand what drove his brother-in-law to suicide. The quest takes him to Berlin, where he confronts ghosts from both his own past, and that of his lifelong, but departed, friend.
A Quiet Life, translated by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall
A Quiet Life is narrated by Ma-chan, a 20-year-old woman. Her father is a famous novelist; her older brother, though severely brain damaged, possesses an almost magical gift for musical composition; and her mother’s life is devoted to the care of them both. Ma-chan and her younger brother find themselves emotionally on the outside of this oddly constructed nuclear family. But when her father accepts a visiting professorship from an American university, Ma-chan finds herself suddenly the head of the household and at the centre of family relationships that she must begin to redefine.
Hiroshima Notes, translated by David L Swain and Toshi Yonezawa
Hiroshima Notes is a powerful statement on the Hiroshima bombing and its terrible legacy. Oe’s account of the lives of the many victims of Hiroshima and the valiant efforts of those who cared for them, both immediately after the atomic blast and in the years that follow, reveals the horrific extent of the devastation. It is a heartrending portrait of a ravaged city and of the “human face” in the midst of nuclear destruction.
Somersault, translated by Philip Gabriel
A decade before the story opens, two men referred to as the Patron and Guide of mankind were leaders of an influential religious movement. When a radical faction of their followers threatened to unleash an apocalypse, they recanted all of their teachings and abandoned their followers. Now, after ten years of silence, Patron and Guide begin contacting their old followers and reaching out to the public, assisted by a small group of young people who have come to them in recent months.
Just as they are beginning this renewed push, the radical faction kidnaps Guide, holding him captive until his health gives out. Patron and a small core of the faithful, including a painter named Kizu who may become the new Guide, move to the mountains to establish the church’s new base, followed by two groups from Patron’s old church: the devout Quiet Women, and the Technicians, who have ties to the old radical faction.
The Baby Fireflies, young men from a nearby village, attempt to influence the church with local traditions and military discipline. As planning proceeds for the summer conference that will bring together the faithful and launch the new church in the eyes of the world, the conflicting agendas of these factions threaten to make a mockery of the church’s unity – or something far more dangerous.
An Echo of Heaven, translated by Margaret Mitsutani
A group of Mexicans sits in the desert, gazing up at the image of their new saint projected onto an outdoor screen. The woman is Marie Kuraki, recruited to act the part of a “sorrowing mother,” to help unite the workers on a cooperative farm in a remote village in Mexico.
By becoming a “saint,” Marie, an unbeliever in search of spiritual peace, reaches the end of a long journey induced by a series of personal tragedies: above all, by the death of her two sons, which happened when one of them was pushing his brother in a wheelchair along a path above a cliff by the sea.
To rebuild her life, Marie leaves her home in Japan to go to a commune in California, under the shy guidance of a guru called Little Father; then on to Mexico, where she falls briefly under the spell of the Dark Virgin of Guadalupe; and finally to a mountain village in the shadow of an Aztec pyramid. There she offers what’s left of her life to the local people, who come to venerate her, though her own faith remains as enigmatic as before.
Death by Water, translated by Deborah Boehm
In Death by Water, Choko returns to his hometown village in search of a red trunk fabled to hold documents revealing the details of his father’s death during World War II – details that will serve as the foundation for his new, and final, novel.
The book that he wishes to write would examine the turbulent relationship he had with his father, and the guilt he feels about being absent the night his father drowned in a storm-swollen river; but how to write about a man he never really knew? When his estranged sister unexpectedly calls, she offers Choko a remedy – she has in her possession an old and mysterious red trunk, the contents of which promise to unlock the many secrets of the man who disappeared from their lives decades before.
When the contents of the trunk turn out to offer little clarity, he abandons the novel in creative despair. Floundering as an artist, he’s haunted by fear that he may never write his tour de force. But when he collaborates with an avant-garde theater troupe dramatizing his early novels, Choko is revitalised and he finds the will to continue investigating his father’s demise.