Written in 1958, when the author was only twenty-three, this debut novel is stunning for its depiction of two societies--the society of peasant villagers who live in a remote and nearly inaccessible mountain village, and a society created by young delinquents after they are abandoned and blockaded inside this small village. It is also reflects the author's vision of the broader society of Japan in the aftermath of World War II. Author Kenzaburo Oe was ten years old when the war ended and the Emperor, the "living god," announced the surrender of the country. In the years leading up to the publication of this novel, Japan and the Occupation forces came to agreements and influenced each other, and Oe believes that this led to a sense of emptiness and ambiguity in society--the old values and ways of life were gone, while the increasingly influential western values were not necessarily compatible with Japanese history.
Many western readers of this novel will be shocked to discover how "un-Japanese" in style this novel is. Oe, a student of Sartre and Heidegger in college, embraces those influences in his writing, instead of the delicacy, subtlety, and minimalist simplicity one usually associates with the Japanese arts. The novel is characterized by dense imagery, a strong narrative line and powerful emotions, violence presented as an understandable response to injustice, and an indictment of the communal mindset which can lead to expedient decision-making at the expense of the individual and his liberty.
Narrated by an unnamed delinquent who is one of fifteen boys being evacuated from their reformatory to a remote mountain during the war, the novel shows the inhumanity with which these boys are treated by the peasants for whom they are expected to work clearing the fields. The boys, malnourished and exhausted, arrive in time to bury a huge pile of animal carcasses, and they soon discover that these animals have died from a plague. When one of the boys dies, the villagers take off to avoid infection, barricading the way out so that the boys cannot escape. They must then set up their own society if they are to survive. Away from normal society, the boys are free to express their own emotions, and the narrator and others quickly show their inner humanity. Passages of great beauty--especially the morning in which they discover snow--contrast with the misery of their attempts at survival. Five days later, the villagers return, ready to punish the "delinquents" for stealing food from the houses and burning a warehouse to kill the plague.
Oe's novel is an intense and passionate story about the mindless behavior of the majority against "outsiders." His use of delinquents, by no means perfect or innocent, as the "heroes" of the novel sets the actions of the villagers into sharp relief. The ending is a further indictment of the use of power to control outcomes. Anyone who has enjoyed Lord of the Flies owes it to him-/herself to read this novel, which is as powerful today as it was when it was written. It is far more complex in its characterizations and themes and far less artificial and allegorical than Lord of the Flies. Mary Whipple
A harsh yet utterly compelling read, narrated by a boy from a reformatory, evacuated with his mates into a village while World War 2 rages elsewhere. And while the war itself doesn't touch the characters, it infects the adult villagers around them, who treat the youths brutally:
' "Anyone caught stealing, starting fires or making a row will be beaten to death by the villagers. Even so we'll shelter and feed you. Always remember that in this village you're only useless vermin." '
Amid freezing conditions and with bad food, the kids are soon called up to bury a heap of decaying livestock, in a grisly scene. But it soon appears that the animals are dead from plague, and for five days the adults flee the village, leaving the youths to fend for themselves. Yet they are not alone: there's a young girl, a Korean, a friendly dog and a runaway army cadet...
Often horrifying, yet with moments of great beauty and innocence...as they wash to keep free of plague, they find a crab; the narrator has a close relationship with his kid brother, lending him his camel tin-opener and watching him play with his dog; and the kids make a skating rink when it snows. But such moments just emphasize the brutality that forms the major part of the work all the more. A memorable work.