on 26 November 2012
This is not an easy book, and I felt it dragged at times, but I'd still give it a positive review because it really struck a chord and I find myself still thinking about it over a year after reading it.
The story is of two brothers returning to their childhood home, and tracks their two different characters and how one ultimately causes a strange and somewhat futile uprising in the nearby village, which ends tragically. There is a very significant subplot - mostly revealed through the narrator's reminiscences - about the history of the village and the family during the Second World War (which finished only about 20 years before the events of the book) and earlier in the 1860s, which chimes with the themes of the contemporary narrative. It's quite a murky and confusing tale - all is only really revealed at the very end, and even then I wouldn't say the reader comes away with any wholly satisfactory answers.
The themes which come through strongly are family identity, personal responsibility, and a sort of confusion and sense of hopelessness at the state of Japanese culture and society in the sixties. The narrator is by far the more conservative of the two brothers, and epitomises this embarrassed, awkward sort of frustration in much of his life, without ever rebelling like his younger brother does.
It is often considered Oe's greatest work. I have read some of his other novels, and I would agree that despite finding it frustrating, it is a unique work. I really felt it got under my skin as a story. Oe is great at depicting men experiencing complex and perhaps un-reconcileably contradictory emotions. His novels often focus on the man faced with a cruel predicament he struggles to resolve, and perhaps never will. I know that doesn't make this book sound like much fun, but it is a really impressive novel, and well worth the effort.
Featuring rioting and looting of corporate supermarkets and anger against immigrants, this is a timely re-issue of Nobel Prize for Literature winner's Kenzaburo Óe's 1967 classic "The Silent Cry" which was cited by the Nobel committee as his key work.
One of the quotes on the back of the book observes that there is a "touch of Dostoevsky" in this work which is an accurate comment. If you are a fan of the big Russian classics, then you will find much to enjoy in Óe. The book is introspective and minutely detailed. It's not a book that is easy to dip into. It is irritatingly slow to evolve if you take this approach. Far better to devote a chunk of time to immersing yourself in Óe's world when the hope and despair of his protagonists reveals its full magnitude. There's no doubt it is a dense read, compounded by the fact that the style of presentation in this Serpent's Tail version is very 1960s - small print, densely presented.
The story is narrated by one of two brothers who together return to their childhood village in rural Japan. We learn that the narrator, Mitsu, has fathered a handicapped son who has been taken away to an institution. He is still dealing with the inner feelings of guilt about this when his best friend commits suicide in strange circumstances involving a cucumber stuck where cucumbers are not usually found. There is often a dark and almost grotesque humour that threads through the tragic events in Óe's story. The book also features, for example, "Japan's fattest woman" whose obesity is portrayed in all its magnitude.
Mitsu also suffered an accident as a child which has left him with only one working eye. He envisages the other eye looking inward to his soul, which suggests that even before his recent double tragedy, he was given to introspection.
His brother, Takashi, by contrast, is a man of action - albeit often misguided. Takashi is the more charismatic of the two and he persuades Mitsu and his wife to accompany him back to their childhood village in the depths of a Japanese winter. There Takashi starts out on a mission to reclaim the local, traditional ways of life from the modern developments of a Korean businessman who is dubbed the "Emperor of the Supermarkets" in a chilling reflection of their own ancestors' parts in the civil uprisings of 1860s and the anti-Korean sentiments of the post war period.
It is in the relationship between the two brothers that the story positively soars and as the truth about their ancestors starts to emerge, and you are never sure how it will turn out. The isolation of the village, cut off by the winter snows, creates an oppressive background for the story to unfold. Just when the you feel that the story is collapsing under its own introspection, it positively soars as the relationship between Mitsu and Takashi unfolds.
I found it a demanding but ultimately highly rewarding read. The depiction of rural Japanese life is beautifully portrayed and the book is insightful in the psychology of how one man can insight the masses to bend to his own aims.
It's not a book to suit all tastes, but for fans of literary fiction, you'll wonder why you hadn't heard more about this book before.
on 10 August 2014
I found the beginning somewhat difficult - heavy, with a certain laboured obscurity, quite reflective of sixties mysticism - but am so glad that I persevered. The way Oe weaves time together, the brothers with their ancestors, the community with its past, is nothing short of brilliant. If you find yourself losing heart, keep going
on 14 January 2009
Kenzaburo Oe writes through a dark personal crisis, where the narrator struggles with his ancestors, close relations, memories of the second world war, self destructive urges and racism to find his moral purpose. As well as these themes, however, Oe portrays rural Japan in fascinating detail and brings this world to life for the reader. Oe deserves his Nobel prize for his insight and humanity.