Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness

I must confess to being a bit prejudiced towards liking the fiction of Kenzaburo Oe. He was a visiting scholar at Princeton University when Fei Fei formed the Nanking Conference committee, and he was one of the first scholars she approached for advice and recommendations. He was very supportive, both of the cause and the conference itself. He made an unsolicited donation of $500 and an unsolicited offer to write an essay for our post-conference book (which, alas, never worked out due to other work commitments on his part when the book was being prepared). That financial donation enabled us to use his name in our invitations to other renowned scholars, a wonderful ice-breaker especially for Japanese scholars who were initially understandably skeptical about the intent of the conference, fearing it would be "Japan-bashing," which it never was intended to be.

Combining our liking and respecting Oe with the fact that he is indeed a Nobel laureate, I found a Grove Press edition of Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, a collection of 4 novellas that, hopefully for purely objective reasons, I found absolutely wonderful.

The longest story in the book is "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" whose premise seems straight out of science fiction: a thirty-five year old Japanese man—referred to only as he throughout the story—lies dying in a terminal cancer ward of a hospital, dictating his memoirs to a nurse while awaiting death clad in hospital gown and underwater goggles covered in dark cellophane. There is a catch though: the hospital staff has detected absolutely no sign of cancer in the man at all. They believe his cancer is entirely a delusion.

Most of the story consists of the man’s memoirs, particularly the years 1945-46 when the Japanese Empire lost the war with the United States. We learn of his childish shock when the emperor announced to a grief-stricken nation that he was not a god, but only a mortal, of the relationship between his mother who is grief-stricken over the death of her older son in the war in China, of his father’s less-than-triumphant return from the war and how he hides out in a small shed behind the family home sitting in the dark dying of bladder cancer while wearing underwater goggles covered in dark cellophane!

The story’s main concern is the complex relationship between the boy and his two parents, about his father’s crazy scheme to lead a team of disillusioned soldiers against the government that surrendered Japan’s pride by losing the war, about the boy’s failed suicide attempt and, ultimately, about his father’s dramatic death, which was the defining moment in the boy’s own life, ultimately leading to his lying in the terminal ward of the hospital.

As an outsider who until recently knew virtually nothing about Japanese thought and culture, this novella was quite revealing and totally fascinating. It was also beautifully written, although that pleasure almost pales besides the wonders of the story itself.

Another fine novella was "Prize Stock" which tells the story of a black American soldier who parachutes out of a downed plane and is taken prisoner by the citizens of a rural Japanese village during World War II. This story was very revealing about how the Japanese view non-Japanese. At one point the kids who are the point-of-view characters realize the prisoner is "almost like a human". That is how many Japanese considered Chinese during the time of the Nanking Massacre, which is why they were able to slaughter fifteen million innocent Chinese during the war without feeling evil themselves. As befitting a Nobel Prize winner, the ending of the story is very suitable without being contrived at all.

This collection provides good views into Japanese culture and attitudes, especially during World War II, and is highly-recommended.


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