Kenzaburo Ōe, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1977)

June 10th, 2013 § 0 comments

We had come down to the crematorium in search of remains, nicely shaped bones we could use as medals to decorate our chests, but the village children had collected them all and we came away empty-handed.  I would have to beat some out of one of my friends at elementary school.  I remembered peeking two days earlier, past the waists of the adults darkly grouped around the pit, at the corpse of a village woman lying on her back with her naked belly swollen like a small hill, her expression full of sadness in the light of the flames.  I was afraid.  I grasped my brother’s slender arm and quickened my step.  The odor of the corpse, like the sticky fluid certain kinds of beetles leaked when we squeezed them in our calloused fingers, seemed to revive in my nostrils (p. 114)

Wildly dissimilar as other elements of their cultures may be, Japan and the United States have a long history of mutual cultural appropriation when it comes to literature.  Starting with translations of American writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Raymond Chandler and continuing through to the present, American literature has had a profound influence on Japanese writing (in return, Americans have semi-embraced Hello Kitty, social networking technologies, and Ninja Warrior, among more prestigious cultural swap elements).  In particular, for Japanese writers who came of age during World War II, such as the Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Ōe, it was the darker elements that underlay fictions such as Huckleberry Finn that proved to be instrumental in helping them find the narrative voice necessary to express their emotions regarding a world turned upside-down after 1945.

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is an omnibus of four novellas.  In each of these tales, there is an acute crisis facing the protagonists.  In the case of the first (and longest) tale, “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away,” the protagonist is a hypochondriac who is convinced that he is dying of cancer, despite no evidence of the disease being present in his body.  In the second tale, “Prize Stock,” the narrator is a young Japanese youth who during the last months of World War II encounters a black American soldier whose plane crashed near a remote mountain village, with the crisis coming with the contact of the traditional with the near-mythical.  The title story, “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness” concerns a fat Japanese father and his rather idiotic son and the struggles that they endure, while the final tale, “Aghwee the Sky Monster,” is perhaps the most fantastical of them all, with a baby ghost following the narrator.

These short synopses barely hint at the power found in Ōe’s writing.  Look at the passage from “Prize Stock” quoted above.  Note how direct and economical Ōe is with his wording.  Even in translation, there’s this sense of so much being left unsaid between and around the passages read. Why are the children collected bones from the crematorium?  Why is a body lying there outside, with nothing shrouding it?  How come the narrator/protagonist seems almost indifferent to the sight of a dead body?

These are just a few of the questions that are generated from reading Ōe’s stories.  Ōe displays a knack for revealing crushed hopes and dreams, such as in the flashback sequence in “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away,” where the protagonist recalls hearing the Emperor’s voice after Japan’s surrender and remember just how much was destroyed then and there that bombs had never been able to shatter.  Throughout each of these four tales, but especially in “Prize Stock,” there is an unspoken commentary on Japan’s new, changing role in regards to its interactions with the so-called West.  In that tale, the alternating frightened and inquisitive actions of the villagers toward this downed black American pilot emphasizes without any bald comparisons being made just how the Japanese balance themselves between xenophobia and cheerful appropriation of other cultures’ best traits.

Furthermore, there is a dark, cynical humor that lies at the root of these stories.  In many senses, that humor has some of the qualities of Mark Twain’s latter works, which certainly were an influence on Ōe, as the author himself as been known to state.  Perhaps it is due to personal upbringing, but in reading Ōe’s stories set in postwar Japan, I found myself noting similarities in the stark, almost blasted backdrops of Ōe’s Japan with the South of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.  While there is no hard evidence that Ōe had read either author, often there is a commonality in attitude among those authors who grew up viewing life through the lens of the defeated and the devastated.  This vague, threatening, apocalyptic tenor to some of Ōe’s stories adds a sharp edge to these four stories, making them in turns poignant and bittersweet to read and consider.  While these dark overtones may not appeal to all readers, for those who want a touching yet unvarnished look into some of the attitudes in immediate postwar Japan, Ōe’s works, especially Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, are worth reading, especially to see how much of ourselves we can see reflected in these tales that mix in the best of traditional Japanese and American literary influences.

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