A Personal Matter – Kenzaburō Ōe (tr. John Nathan)

“You’re right about this being limited to me, it’s entirely a personal matter. But with some personal experiences that lead you way into a cave all by yourself, you must eventually come to a side tunnel or something that opens on a truth that concerns not just yourself but everyone.”

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, Kenzaburō Ōe is known for his deeply personal works, and he credits his son Hikari, brain damaged from birth, for influencing his literary career.  Ōe claims that he has tried to give his son a “voice” through his writing. Several of Ōe’s books feature a character based on his son and ‘A Personal Matter’ (1964) deals with the birth of a son who has a brain hernia, Hikari was born in 1963.

The novel opens with a sense of foreboding, our protagonist, Bird, looking at the map of Africa in the atlas, a place he wants to escape to:

Shuddering, Bird peered at the details of the map. The ocean surrounding Africa was inked in the teary blue of a winter sky at dawn. Longitudes and latitudes were not the mechanical lines of a compass: the bold strokes evoked the artist’s unsteadiness and caprice. The continent itself resembled the skull of a man who had hung his head. With doleful, downcast eyes, a man with a huge head was gazing at Australia, land of the koala, the platypus, and the kangaroo. The miniature Africa indicating population distribution in a lower corner of the map was like a dead head beginning to decompose; another, veined with transportation routes, was a skinned head with the capillaries painfully exposed. Both these little Africas suggested unnatural death, raw and violent.

At this stage of the book Bird’s wife is still in labour, he is yet to learn of his first-born son being born brain damaged. Wandering the streets and telephoning the hospital each hour Bird wanders into a game arcade where he tests his strength, he is no longer the man he thought he was, reduced from a fighter to a scrawny meek being whose strength is less than the kick from a gang member who are watching him. Once Bird leaves the arcade he is literally, and metaphorically, attacked by the gang, we know that our journey with Bird is going to be deeply personal.

“Brain hernia, we call it. The brain is protruding from a fault in the skull.”

From this point onwards the novel explores a range of emotional responses, Bird a former alcoholic, goes through phases of anger, grief, hopelessness, despair, rejection, guilt, fear:

I’m afraid of the dark recesses where that grotesque baby was created

Shame, after an act of sexual perversion with a former girlfriend Bird is in the “grip of diffidence”.

Bird tried comparing his child who seemed to have two heads with pictures he had seen of mutations caused by radioactivity. But he had only to think to himself about the baby’s abnormality and a sense of extremely personal shame hotly rose into his throat. How could he discuss the misfortune with other people, it was inherent in himself! He had the feeling this would never be a problem he could share with the rest of mankind.

The guilt:

If life was eternal and if there was a god who judges, Bird thought, then he would be found guilty. But his guilt now, like the grief that had assailed him in the ambulance when he had compared the baby to Apollinaire with his head in bandages, tasted primarily of honey.

This is a deeply personal exploration of a man who has a choice, does he keep and rear a handicapped child, does he allow the hospital to operate most likely causing death, does he allow them to slowly starve the child? Interestingly Bird’s wife, his mother and father-in-law are minor players here, the focus is on Bird’s inner turmoil and that of his former girlfriend whose husband had committed suicide.

Set against the backdrop of the Russians resuming nuclear tests there is a hint of the human crisis being faced, Kenzaburō Ōe has written extensively on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as pressuring the Government after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and organising antinuclear protests.

Before this novel Kenzaburō Ōe published a series of works incorporating sexual metaphors for the occupation of Japan, and this work does have a chapter with a similar theme, Himoko, Bird’s former girlfriend, is the “Japan” placed in a humiliating position by the oppressor, Bird.

The main character here is called “Bird” and the novel is littered with animal similes:

like a bed of straw for sick livestock
like an angry rat
like a titmouse pecking at millet seeds
like a laughable cartoon bear
like an orangutan sampling a flavour
like a fish with a ripped belly

These examples coming from only five pages of text! A world where nature should be dominant, but the simmering threat of nuclear war poses the question, should I bring a young life into this world?  

An interesting novel that touches on many of Kenzaburō Ōe’s themes, one that is deeply personal, (well it  is ‘A Personal Matter’), however it could also be seen as deeply egotistical and misogynistic. Ōe has gone into the dark cave all by himself, but he discovers a truth that concerns not only himself but everyone. For readers who haven’t come across his works before this is less daunting that more recent works and it would be a nice entry point to his oeuvre.

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The Books of Jacob – Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Jennifer Croft) – ‘The Book of Fog’ & ‘The Book of Sand’

Released in November 2021 in the UK and Australia Olga Tokarczuk’s latest work to be translated into English, ‘The Books of Jacob’ (translated by Jennifer Croft), is not due for release in the United States until February 2022.

Being fortunate enough to get a head start on a significant reading audience is a gift, it means I have two months to work my way through the 965 pages before writing a review that coincides with the North American release. ‘The Books of Jacob’ consists of seven books, of which I’ve managed to complete two, ‘The Book of Fog’ and ‘The Book of Sand’. Today I am going to share with you my initial thoughts.

On the first page there is an alternate title:

“The Books of Jacob, or: A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages, and three major religions, not counting the minor sects. Told by the dead, supplemented by the author, drawing from a range of books, and aided by imagination, the which being the greatest natural gift of any person. That the wise might have it for a record, that my compatriots reflect, laypersons gain some understanding, and melancholy souls obtain some slight enjoyment.’

Olga Tokarczuk has given us a hint, before you even approach one of the 965 pages, that this is an epic journey, part fact, part fiction, controversial for Poles, fantastic yet educational and if you are melancholic slightly enjoyable.

The ‘Prologue’ commences on page 965 and the page count goes backwards, have we joined the narrative once it is complete and are working our way backwards towards commencement? Yente sees everything from above herself, “Yente sees all.” (“Told by the dead.”) In the opening paragraph “she” (let’s assume it is Yente) swallows a piece of paper:

Once swallowed, the piece of paper lodges in her esophagus, near her heart. Saliva-soaked. The specially prepared black ink dissolves slowly now, the letters losing their shapes. Within the human body, the word splits in two: substance and essence. When the former goes, the latter, formlessly abiding, may be absorbed into the body’s tissues, since essences always seek carriers in matter – even if this is to be the cause of many misfortunes.

Is this a story where you absorb the essence as the substance will disappear?

‘The Books of Jacob’ is made up of seven books, ‘The Book of Fog’, ‘The Book of Sand’, ‘The Book of the Road’, ‘The Book of the Comet’, ‘The book of Metal and Sulfur’, ‘The Book of the Distant Country’, and ‘The Book of Names’. There are innumerable references to language:

For some time they seek a common language. Jacob starts with what the Jews of Smyrna speak, Ladino,  and Nahman, not understanding, responds in Hebrew. Neither of them feels right chatting in the street in the holy language, so they break off, and Nahman switches to Yiddish. But here again Jacob has a rather strange accent, so instead he responds in Turkish, fluently, joyfully, as though finding himself suddenly on home turf, though Nahman doesn’t feel completely at home here. In the end they speak a mixture, not worrying about the provenance of words; words are not nobility that want their genealogical trees retraced. Words are merchants, swift and useful, now here, now there.

One character, Father Chmielowski, is admonished for his overuse of Latin, he defends his usage in a letter:

You ask: Why Latin? And You, like other Members of the fairer Sex, advocate for Polish to be more widely employed in written Forms. I have Nothing against the Polish Language – but how are we to speak in it, since there aren’t enough Words?….
…The Polish Language is clumsy in so many Ways and sounds like a mere Peasant’s Tongue. It is suitable for the Description of the Landscape, of Agriculture at the most, but it would be difficult to express complex Matters in it, or higher Themes, or spiritual ones. Whatever Language a Person speaks is the Language in which he thinks. And Polish is neither clear nor tangible. It is more suited to a Traveler’s Descriptions of the Weather, but not to Discourses, where one must exert one’s Mind and express oneself clearly. Well, it does lend itself to Poetry, my dear Madam, our Sarmatian Muse, for Poetry is indistinct and intangible.

Books, language and readers:

I took to heart what Isohar had taught us. He said that there are four types of readers. There is the reading sponge, the reading funnel, the reading colander, and the reading sieve. The sponge absorbs everything it comes into contact with: and it is evident he remembers much of it later too. But he is not able to filter out what is the most important. The funnel takes in what he reads at one end while at the other, everything he reads pours out of him. The strainer lets through the wine and keeps the sediment: he ought not read at all – it would be infinitely better if he simply dedicated himself to some manual trade. The sieve, on the other hand, separates out the chaff to give a result of only the finest grains.

This story is told twice, is it Olga Tokarczuk advising us to be sieve readers, or is it a MacGuffin? There is also another reference to the “four paths of reading and understanding”.

There were once four great sages, whose names were Ben Asai, Ben Soma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiba. One after the other they went to paradise…Ben Asai, well, he saw it, and he died…he got into the River Pishon, a name that can be translated as: lips that learn in the strictest sense…
Ben Soma, well, he saw it, and he lost his mind….he got into the River Gihon, a name that tells us that the person is only seeing the allegorical meaning….Elisha ben Abuyah…looked and became a heretic. That means he got into the River Hiddekel, and he got lost in the great many possible meanings….Only Rabbi Akiba went into paradise and came back unscathed, which means that having plunged into the River Phrath, he got the deepest meaning, the mystical one.

There are many groups of four, the four readers, the four great sages and back to language, taken from the Holy Book the Torah’s structure, four letters:

“P, pshat, that’s the literal meaning, R, remez, that’s the figurative meaning, D, drash, that’s what the learned say, and S. sod, that’s the mystical meaning.”

A work that reads like parables from a Holy Book, thousands of characters, small anecdotes that may appear irrelevant, however what is the allegorical meaning?  You feel as though you are being taken along a mystical journey, now to use the sieve and keep the finest grains, and take away the deepest meaning, the mystical one. ‘The Book of the Road’ starts at page 701, remember it goes backwards, I’ll slowly read on and possibly report back in once I’ve finished the next two books.

My copy of ‘The Books of Jacob’ is courtesy of Text Publishing.

House of the Sleeping Beauties and other stories – Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker)

Sleep

Late last year Vintage International re-released Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties”, a novella, short story (?) that had been out-of-print in English for about thirteen years. It appears as though even Nobel Prize winners have books that simply disappear.  For many years I had wanted to read this story, but could not find a decently priced second hand copy, so once I learned of the re-release a pre-order was placed, and I eagerly awaited the book’s arrival. The edition contains three “stories”, “House of the Sleeping Beauties” (1961), ”One Arm” (1964) and the earlier “Of Birds and Beasts” (1933). Having recently read Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa”  as part of my “World Ulysses” tour, it was timely to read another early work and a couple of later stories from his oeuvre.

The book opens with the title story, where our ageing narrator, Eguchi, visits a country abode to sleep next to a naked sleeping teenage girl. His visits to sleep with different drugged virginal nude girls become more frequent, and each visit makes up one chapter, five visits, six girls. This is a work of unspoken secrets, “all was silence”, “nothing suggested that the room had unusual secrets”, the only disquiet in the opening scenes being a stylized bird on the Madame’s obi knot on her kimono. A work that balances age and youth, male and female, ugliness and beauty, eroticism and innocence;

Had he not come to this house seeking the ultimate in the ugliness of old age?”

Written in light, exquisite prose, a whisper, the meditative reflections of an old man, juxtaposed against the reflective beauty of the sleeping virgins, through this light touch the imagery is delicate, yet at the same time the subject matter is oppressive, a beautifully balanced exploration of death, memory, and desire;

For the old men who were customers the woman could “trust”, sleeping with a beauty who would not awaken was a temptation, an adventure, a joy they could trust. Old Kiga had said to Eguchi that only when he was beside a girl who had been put to sleep could be himself feel alive. (p22)

The fantasy world of a red velvet alcove, with sounds of waves crashing in the background, whilst an old man views sleeping beauties and recalls erotic interactions from his past, is a meditation on both possession, and obsession as well as a reflective musing on the beauty of innocence and youth.

Might it be called the surprise of suddenly being pulled away from the everyday world? (p35)

This is a haunting, sad, obsessive tale, balancing the macabre with the surreal, the potential repulsiveness with the prospective magnificence. The pussyfooting of “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa”, where the teenage prostitutes sit on the periphery is now suddenly an ageing writer’s obsession, the dark, secret preoccupations now the main theme for Kawabata’s work.

It was a house frequented by old men who could no longer use women as women; but Eguchi, on this third visit, knew that to sleep with such a girl was a fleeting consolation, the pursuit of a vanished happiness in being alive. And were there among them old men who secretly asked to sleep forever beside a girl who had been put to sleep? There seemed to be a sadness in the young girl’s body that called up in an old man a longing for death. But perhaps Eguchi was, among the old men who came to the house, one of the more easily moved; and perhaps most of them but wanted to drink in the youth of girls put to sleep, to enjoy girls who would not awaken. (pp58-59)

This edition contains an introduction by Yukio Mishima, and it should come with a spoiler warning, unless you want the last of the five chapters in the story revealed I suggest you skip reading the three page introduction and head straight into the text itself.

There could be for an old man worn to the point of death no time of greater oblivion that when he lay enveloped in the skin of a young girl. (p47)

The next story in the collection is “One Arm”;

“I can let you have one of my arms for the night,” said the girl. She took off her right arm at the shoulder and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee. (p103)

This is a bizarre story where a young woman removes her arm and gives it to our narrator, an older man, for the night, he then recounts his journey home, his sleeping with the arm and his fixations. Another story of possession, obsession, beauty and youth, male and female. Here we have a blurring of fantasy and reality, fetishism and control. Similar in themes to “House of the Sleeping Beauties” using meditative, sparse and reflective prose, we also have the theme of “sleep” dominating the tale, a place where the fantasy can become reality, peace…an otherworldly state…

“Self? What is that? Where is it?”
“Far away,” said the arm, as if singing in consolation. “People walk around looking for selves, far away.”
“And do they come upon them?”
“Far away,” said the arm once more (p111)

The final story in the collection is “Of Birds and Beasts”, where our narrator is a hermit animal collector;

But for him life was filled with a young freshness for several days after a new bird came. He felt in it the blessings of the universe. Perhaps it was a failing on his part, but he was unable to feel anything of the sort in a human being. And it was easier to see the wonders of creation in a moving bird than in motionless shells and flowers. The little creatures, even when caged, gave forth the joy of life. (p131)

Here it is a human’s withdrawal from social relations and using pets as his interaction with the world. There are some striking examples of Kawabata’s style in this short story, where two extremes, opposites, can take shape within a single sentence;

Love of birds and animals comes to be a quest for superior ones, and so cruelty takes root.

Any kind of inhumanity, given practice, becomes human.

In these two examples, love becomes cruelty and inhumanity, human, it is through these exploration of extremes that I enjoy Kawabata’s work. In these three stories, that cover thirty years of his work, we can see numerous dichotomies in play.

Another common element used in each story is observations made whilst removed, in “House of the Sleeping Beauties” it is the voyeurism of the narrator observing the sleeping girls, their helplessness and his control, he could kill them if he chose to do so, in “One Arm” it is the meticulous detail of the inherited arm, in “Of Birds and Beasts” it is the narrator’s ability to observe pets being discarded as trash. Our narrators somehow on the outside of the action, drawing the reader into the observational, you are the voyeur.

Skilful, moving, meditative and thought provoking these are three stories that any fan of Japanese literature, or short stories should seek out.