Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Japanese

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

nip the buds shoot

Given the relatively delicate and pristine works Japanese authors tend to produce, Nip the Buds is a surprising shock to the system; this spare-nothing parable of broken children in a broken system is, really, all about the adults who abandon them. The portrait is anything but flattering.

Kezaburo Oe / Japanese / 1958 / 192 pages
Translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama

It is a truth that has long fascinated artists of the written word: large scale events bear down-ticket, smaller scale implications. In the realm of large events, perhaps none are more fundamentally stupefying and paradigm-shifting than wars. Generations of young people die, geopolitical boundaries are overhauled, autocrats come and democrats go, and the very social fabrics of countries are rent in two. The microcosmic implications are clear: there’ll be no food at dinner, no brother coming home, portraits of beloved leaders must be taken down from the walls, the mail service moves painfully slow, people move out of cities and into the countryside; the list is endless.

Forsaking the grand vistas perhaps more aptly rendered by cinematic treatment, authors of novels seem rather to gravitate toward this smaller side of warfare. All Quiet on the Western Front and The Return of the Soldier are simple stories about simple men who meet predictably tragic ends. Heinrich Böll and W. G. Sebald were concerned less with Germany’s role in World War II then they were the effects this conflict had on the relationship between fathers and sons and the capacity of people to recall painful memories. Chroniclers of war in Eastern Europe like Schulz, Kundera, and Kristof opt for the domestic over the geopolitical, and novels emerging from other traditions — like A Bend in the River and Miramar — also focus narrow lenses on otherwise broader conflicts to capture arresting snapshots of one single piece of the puzzle.

To an extent, the same strategy is employed by one of Japan’s preeminent authors — Kenzaburo Oe — in his harrowing Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids: during a war, a small group of reformatory boys have to fend for themselves in a rural village once they’ve been abandoned by their adult supervisors. But I get the sense that Oe has sectioned off for himself a smaller piece of the pie not in an effort to make his narrative task more manageable, but rather to use it as a microcosmic representation of broader dynamics. Indeed, his subject is the war itself and all of the problems of allegiance, judgment, and collective action it draws out of people. He doesn’t need to tell the whole story because the tiny set piece he’s crafted is just as useful as any other, hypothetical piece he could have crafted. His localized story is reflective of national symptoms; given the horrifying nature of the story, this makes for a truly unsettling realization.

To begin, consider which social groups you’d protect in the event your country was under attack. Women and children, sure, but what about “reformatory” children, or those kids who were behaving so badly in routine social settings that they were removed altogether and shipped off to a boot camp in the mountains? Would anyone really remember or care about these kids when the bombs started dropping? Not likely. Nip the Buds opens with such a group of delinquent youth being evacuated from their school and marched off to a village, where they’ll be looked after while their teachers / overseers / guards run off to fight for the nationalist cause. Except when they get to the village, the head tribesman doesn’t want them and sends them off to the next group of huts up the road. Same story there. And then again at the next place. The reader is dropped into the middle of the group after they’ve been denied lodging at several towns. Some of the boys have attempted (and failed at) escape, one boy is seriously ill with a stomach ache, morale is low, the situation is tense.

At the end of the road — many days’ walk into secluded wilderness — their marshals finally find a “receptive” set of villagers willing to take in the boys. But they end up sequestering them in a barn with only the barest of food and clothing rations. The boys must work hard labor during the day’s noontime heat and are given little rest or hospitality. The one child’s stomach ailment increases in severity, no doctor is sent for, and the boys awake on the second morning to discover that their comrade has died. This instills in the villagers a fear of a possible plague. They implement a crude form of quarantine whereby they leave the village entirely, blockade the boys inside, and leave no note of explanation. The implicit savagery of their situation gradually dawns on the boys: if there is a plague, they’ll all die without assistance and the villagers will eventually return to clean up the bodies. If there isn’t a plague, they’ll return anyway and coerce them back into their servile existence.

It is against this sinister backdrop that the boys are left to their own devices in the village for a number of days. The first-person (but anonymous) narrator is one of the older boys and his younger brother is also a part of the group. The narrator finds a young female in one of the abandoned homes whom he takes as a lover at the same time that the younger brother finds a stray dog that he befriends and cares for. The boys scavenge for food in the houses and, eventually, learn to hunt in the woods. Life is not idyllic, but it becomes bearable as the boys’ familiarity with one another gradually deepens. They stockpile a large amount of food and hold an impromptu festival with a large bonfire, singing, and dancing.

The situation is too tenuous to sustain itself, however. The younger brother’s dog gets excited during the festival and accidentally bites the older brother’s girlfriend. She takes ill almost immediately and dies the next day. The dog is labeled a carrier of disease and the narrator must restrain his younger brother as the other boys kill the dog and bury its body. The younger brother goes fleeing into the woods and is not seen again. In many respects, this is the central — and by far the most effective — scene of the novel. It breaks the narrator’s resolve, the group’s camaraderie, and the reader’s heart all at once. About this time, the villagers return. The boys are a group divided amongst themselves and are in no position to stand up to the patronizing head tribesman. He offers them safe passage to the next village and a bit of food if they swear that they’ll never speak to anyone of their abandonment. One by one, they all take the deal. The narrator, however, hardened by their betrayal and the events of the past few days, adamantly refuses to aid the villagers in their negligence. The villagers get angry and chase him into the woods, where he meets an uncertain fate. Nip the Buds breaks off like a snapped string of an instrument with the narrator fleeing into the dark underbrush.

Tying all the parable’s threads into their broader geopolitical context would take a better historian than I, but it is obvious that Oe is not as concerned with children at play as much as he is with deeper issues of authority and allegiance. And rather than tackling the typical Japanese literary problem of judging how far to accede to cultural influences from the West, Oe is instead drilling down to dynamics existing solely between the citizens and leaders of Japan. This is a parable about a domestic battle over the soul of Japan as it emerged from the throes of a royal dynasty — not the external military  battle its inhabitants were fighting against the West. Nip the Buds is also not a novel about childhood in the same way that, say, A High Wind in Jamaica or The Lord of the Flies are novels about childhood. Kids do bad things, sure. But even bad kids deserve better than what the protagonist receives in this novel. We are invited to think about why.

I’ve been working my way through the Japanese canon this spring and Nip the Buds is a surprising and rewarding read, despite its scant size and breakneck pacing. It is also among the earliest works of an author who has gone on to overhaul his literary stylings and themes on multiple occasions and, eventually, won a Nobel Prize in 1994. I think this novel is a useful addition to one’s stock and I imagine I’ll be returning to the Oe oeuvre in short order.

Rating: 7 / 10 

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The Gate

the gate

Simple, sleek, and subtle, The Gate is a heartwarming tale of two social outcasts and their love for one another; under this straightforward veneer, however, lurks a more anxious and compressed set of insights on interpersonal relations, the nature of disappointment, and the universal quest to find peace with one’s path.

Natsume Soseki / Japanese / 1910 / 214 pages
Translated from the Japanese by William Sibley 

Sometimes the right book comes to you at the right time. Much rarer, I imagine, is the circumstance I currently find myself in: poised on the precipice of a major life event — marriage — I seem to have found myself stumbling upon a series of right books at the right time. It began with A Heart So White which, though the virtues of matrimony were certainly not the novel’s central thrust, indirectly ended up extolling the constancy and stability of marriage when compared to myriad other romantic arrangements. The protagonist harbors some incredible reservations about married life, but as the course of the novel presents him with alternative options, his ultimate decision — whether as a result of attrition or actual persuasion — was to put a ring on it. I found myself in a similar position last November when I finally scaled the mountain that is Anna Karenina. Tolstoy was no champion of the progressive woman (and there is certainly much to balk at in the novel’s message), but by cycling through his portraits of different households, the reader begins to see what sort of husband-and-wife relationships are sustainable and which are not. Although it comes with risk, the quiet dependability of domestic life is, perhaps, the highest attainable virtue.

In line with this progression, enter The Gate, a little-known 1910 Japanese novel by Natsume Soseki. Soseki is evidently unconcerned with marriage as an institution (although the fact that his two key characters — Sosuke and Oyone — have married against the will of both of their families is the source of their ostracism from society). Rather, marriage in The Gate provides a convenient environment in which to examine both the intense interpersonal connections that can develop between two people in isolation and, also, how those connections might preclude more far ranging interactions with society in general. The ostracism of Sosuke and Oyone is only partially externally imposed; it becomes quite clear in the opening pages of the novel that the two of them find great comfort in the exceedingly cloistered, simple, and predictable pattern of their lives.

The pattern goes like this. Sosuke and Oyone arise every morning and breakfast together in their humble residence on the outskirts of Tokyo. Thereafter, Sosuke begins a long commute into the center of the city where he works as a low-level bureaucrat making a trifling wage that allows he and his wife to subsist above the poverty line. Oyone tidies the house while he’s away and prepares food for the evening meal. When he returns, they dine, chat for a couple of hours in the living room, and go to bed early. Occasionally, one or the other of them goes to the public bathhouse to clean up. On the weekends, they make plans to accomplish many tasks, but generally end up lounging about in a pleasant, conversational stupor. Sosuke does not associate with his work colleagues socially and Oyone appears to have no girlfriends except for the housemaid (who is granted, I believe, something like six words of dialogue in the entire novel).

The pattern is interrupted like this. Sosuke has a much younger and hotheaded brother, Koroku, whose educational expenses are supposed to be provided for by an uncle. When the uncle dies, his wife reneges on the offer and Koroku is suddenly financially destitute. He moves into Sosuke’s home, shattering the isolation of his domestic life, and the two of them begin to explore various ways that they might continue to fund Koroku’s education. Furthermore, Sosuke’s landlord — a wealthy man named Sakai, who lives in the building next door — begins to take a social interest in Sosuke after a handful of chance encounters between the two convinces him that Sosuke is an odd fellow who might be worth talking to. The problem here is that Sakai is very well connected in the Tokyo social scene and, to associate with him is to associate with his vast sea of acquaintances as well. Sosuke genuinely enjoys talking to Sakai, but is wary of running into mutual friends from his past whom he has wronged and would rather avoid.

These interruptions prompt the narrator (distant, third person, slightly humorous and highly charitable) to circle back on the narrative and drum up the details of Sosuke’s past with Oyone. Whether due to a prior marriage or simply due to their families’ disapproval, the young couple are socially shunned when they wed and Sosuke must forsake a promising future at the imperial university for a future of, effectively, exile. This choice fundamentally reorients the trajectory of his life, which seems like a small price to pay when Oyone announces that she is expecting a child. The couple’s happiness is shattered (once, twice, and thrice) through a series of miscarriages and, at the point at which we encounter them in the narrative, they have abandoned the effort altogether. Thus, comparatively late in the novel, we are introduced to the feverish passion and bottomless disappointment that underscore the calm placidity of their household. Koroku’s arrival is reminder of their material destitution and of the path Sosuke could have pursued instead. Sakai’s social interest is a reminder of the people they alienated when they married.

Soseki infuses every simple exchange between the couple (both verbal and mute) with hints of this subterranean electricity. And as the floor shifts beneath them and they are forced to once again addresses grievances they had long ago shelved, their habitual interactions take on different meanings: coming home late from work means something different on page 150 than it did on page 5, sleeping in on Sunday represents contentment early on, but depression thereafter, etc. Sosuke is eventually pushed to the point of a nervous breakdown and journeys off into the mountains in search of a monastery where he might spend some weeks meditating, clearing his head, and embracing spiritualist teachings. All of these are too foreign for him, though, and the trip is a failure. Indeed, Sosuke’s one evident pass at dynamism rings hollow because he cannot relax into his unfamiliar surroundings. It took years to erect his peaceful inner chamber with Oyone — it would take just as long for him to find peace in a spiritual community removed from her.

But the book isn’t about the failure of spiritualism (indeed, any attempt at solving his problems would have failed) nor is it about the failure of society (you get the sense that Soseki disapproves of the rigid social conventions that alienate the couple, but this is not his primary concern). Rather, The Gate is about making decisions and then accepting the path that you’ve chosen for yourself. Late in the novel, Sosuke stands at a literal gate while imagining a metaphysical gate from which different paths emanate. He experiences a moment of regret at never being able to pass through the gate, to switch paths, to extricate himself from his deterministic arch. It is a pessimistic moment in a novel that is otherwise light and hopeful.

The unique virtue of Sosuke’s path, however, is that he has actually chosen quite well in Oyone and, as the novel closes, they are once again able to return to the comforting entrenchment of their static domestic life. It might not be much, but it’s sufficient buttress against the outside world. The takeaway is heartfelt and humble: with the right partner at hand, a great many things are tolerable.

Rating: 9 / 10

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Four Japanese Novels


    Four Japanese Novels


Yukio Mishima / The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea / 1963

Shusaku Endo / The Sea and Poison / 1958
Kobo Abé / The Woman in the Dunes / 1962
Haruki Murakami / The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle / 1994

A handful of months back, I decided that it was time to get serious about Japanese literature. I had very little experience with novels from Japan and, as someone who has trumpeted the importance of spreading one’s reading list geographically, I feared that I was bordering on hypocrisy by virtually ignoring the Asian world. I spent the second half of August and the first part of September reading novels from four major Japanese post-WWII authors and I present them here together for your consideration. I don’t intend to belittle the works by lumping them into one post; rather, I wanted the post to reflect the truly singular nature of this reading mini-project. All of the books were at least decent and some of them were really quite wonderful.

Mishima

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a sparse, lean book that explores post-WWII life in a city on the Japanese coast. A woman who manages a clothing store that imports its inventory from European clothiers inadvertently falls in love with a sailor who ends up renouncing the navy in favor of her company. Her young son, who at first admired the sailor’s unrestrained freedom and masculinity, becomes disgusted when the sailor declares his love for the boy’s mother and moves into the family’s home. The boy is a member of a gang of wayward youth who are philosophically opposed to the adult world, kill small animals by way of killing time, and rampage unchecked up and down the Japanese coastline. Having ingratiated himself to the leader of the gang by sharing humiliating stories about the sailor, the boy eventually offers the sailor up to the gang’s aggression as a sacrificial object. The book quickly spins along toward a horrible ending.

Despite the novel’s inherent terseness, Mishima is still able to conjure beautifully atmospheric imagery. The warmth of the sun, the stunning appearance of the boy’s mother, the rollicking of the sea — all of these come alive under the author’s deft pen. Many of the subtler cultural juxtapositions are also expertly rendered, especially the sailor’s internal debate about whether to turn his back on the sea for the sake of love or to stay true to his life’s calling. When Mishima pivots away from the sailor and the mother, however, the narrative tends to suffer. The depiction of the gang of boys falls well short of plausibility and their crack philosophies, violent behavior, and professional-spy-like ability to avoid detection by their parents or law enforcement officers borders on the bizarre. Especially when stacked up against the other novels, Sailor suffers for want of real human emotion. Endo, for example, is able to operate in a similarly sparse framework, but more adeptly draws out his characters’ dynamism and internal tensions. Murakami’s violence is more explosive and far more arresting and Abé wields a pretty huge psychological stick with which he beats his protagonist (and reader) again and again.

Endo

I first read The Sea and Poison for an undergraduate philosophy class. I distinctly remember the day the professor looked at all of the students — who must have been exhibiting signs of scholastic negligence — and beseeched us to pay close attention to Endo. “I have students from many years ago who still tell me that they are haunted by this novel.” Being the sort of person I was at the age of 20, I read the book quickly and enjoyed it more or less. Having picked it up for a second read five years later, my impression is significantly more positive: Endo has created a masterpiece with this novel.

The novel tracks a group of Japanese doctors toward the end of WWII who have been tasked by a military official to conduct medical experiments on American prisoners of war. The main character — Suguro — is a young resident who, for the sake of his career, must shout down his moral objections and assist in the procedures. Endo employs some subtle tricks with chronology and we first encounter Suguro many years after the war when he has sequestered himself in a small, rural community. He appears broken, bereaved and, come to find out, party to a lawsuit filed by the Japanese government against the team of doctors who conducted the experiments. The remainder of the novel cuts back to the past, where the hospital is plagued with tuberculosis patients, midnight bombing campaigns, and food shortages. Endo renders in precise detail the tension underscoring several salient dichotomies: man versus woman; doctor versus patient; countryman versus foreigner.

One of the great facets of the novel (indeed, with all of these novels) is the imagery. Whereas with Mishima the adjectives are beautiful and whereas with Abé they are claustrophobic, with Endo we are peppered with truly horrifying scenes of TB patients fighting over scraps of bread, surgical procedures conducted with ether as the major anesthetic, the auditory experience of cutting through a patient’s ribcage, and so on. The effect is bleak and, by the end of the narrative, there will be no redemption. Bland color schemes, dusty roads, sterile operating rooms, and starched sheets define the landscape both physically and metaphysically. You will grimace and cringe, but not mainly (or, at least, not solely) due to the terribleness of what transpires; rather, more troubling than all of this is to witness firsthand the total desiccation of a man’s well of morality. Endo saps Suguro of everything that he has and casts him brutally aside in what might be one of my favorite closing lines to a novel: “Suguro could go no further. He could go no further.” One must read the novel to fully recognize the gravity of the repetition.

Abé

If Endo gives us the story of a good man gone wrong, then Abé gives us the story of simple man who, through trials and tribulations, becomes a more complicated version of his previous self. The protagonist in question is an entomologist who takes a long weekend at the beach with the intent of collecting some rare species of sand beetles. He unexpectedly runs across a small village and gets distracted by the beautiful landscapes and amiable townsfolk. As night falls, the villagers graciously offer to lodge him for the night in a ramshackle hut at the bottom of a great sand dune. They tell him not to worry; they’ll come back to help him out of the dune in the morning and send him on his way.

That’s not what ends up happening. Instead, the man is partnered with a woman and driven into a type of indentured servitude where he must spend his waking hours shoveling away at the sand dune to prevent it from blowing into the rest of the village. He cannot believe his misfortune and he cannot understand the duplicity of the townsfolk. He is angry with the woman with whom he must labor; then he falls in love with her; then he resents her; then spends weeks trying to figure out how to escape; then, finally, falls into a comfortable pattern of work and grows accustomed to his misfortune.

There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles here and the plot trajectory is predictable. Abé succeeds, however, in tracing out these minute and subtle shifts in the man’s psychological disposition. It doesn’t help that this man is really the everyman and it isn’t long before the reader realizes that the predictability of these shifts constitutes, in itself, the point: this man’s anger would be our anger, his frustrations would be our frustrations and, eventually, his resignation would be our resignation. It is not a terribly comforting thought.

Murakami

Wind-Up Bird is far and away the longest of the novels reviewed here (at 600+ pages, it’s longer than the three previous novels put together) and also the most substantively expansive. Murakami is a very important contemporary writer in Japan and a few of his earlier works — most notably Norwegian Wood and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World — have also garnered widespread recognition in  English-speaking countries as well. He is famous for exploring the cultural crisis that accompanied the country’s demilitarization, democratization, and modernization in the immediate aftermath of WWII, and many critics have argued that Murakami attempted to roll all of Japan into Wind-Up Bird. I’m not particularly well-situated to evaluate this claim, but I can tell you the following: Murakami’s masterwork is sufficiently diffuse, variegated, and spastic that it may well include bits and pieces of everything Japanese. I’m not sure, however, that adding up all the components will actually get you anything that resembles a cohesive whole.

The book is written in three parts and was originally published in three volumes. The first two volumes explore a number of minor calamities that befall Toru Okada: he loses his job and his cat, his wife leaves him for another man, he gets stuck in the bottom of a well, and his ex-brother-in-law (whom he hates) is elected to national political office by a rather wide margin. But that’s not all. Okada also receives strange and lurid phone calls from an unidentified woman; two soothsayers pop up at random and act as if they were intimately acquainted with the finer details of Okada’s future; and a rather forward young girl recruits him to help her conduct research on balding men in a nearby shopping mall. Throughout it all, Okada narrates in a detached, deadpan first-person narrative that — at least for the first 300 pages — is both compelling and entertaining. Toward the end of the second volume, however, the wheels start to come off. Not only is Okada’s character trumped by some of the more interesting ones, but Murakami has thrown together so many disjointed tidbits that the reader is left reeling.

I really like this type of novel, at least in theory. At first, everyone seems to know much more than Okada about what’s going on. This is a situation rather similar to The Magus, where an unsuspecting British teacher is led to a Greek island and made the subject of a bizarre and elaborate psychological experiment. There, someone is behind the curtain pulling the strings and all the actors conspire against the unwitting subject. But with Wind-Up Bird, there’s no ringmaster. In some sense, Murakami could be said to lay out his plots like Bolaño insofar as they progress in seemingly random ways that are nonetheless connected by less tangible overarching principles. Bolaño’s work is short on masterminds, but chuck full of undirected cosmic powers. At the end of the day, though, I’m not so keen on even granting Murakami this much. Some critics have likened him to Pynchon; alas, I don’t think that’s quite right, either.

Suspicions are confirmed with the opening of the third volume where Okada’s first-person narration is brushed aside every third or fourth chapter in favor of newspaper clippings, epistolary writings, old war story flashbacks, and highly allegorical children’s tales. Indeed, there’s such a bewildering array of styles and techniques here that it would require a superhuman novelist to keep them all focused on the same substantive points. Murakami, however, is only occasionally superhuman. In many passages, Wind-Up Bird is a rather serious (and, I suspect, coldly unrelenting) indictment of Japanese military aggression and lingering old-world norms. In others, we get well-developed asides on designing clothes, programming computers, drawing maps, cooking spaghetti, and so on. At still other points, Murakami explores in equally compelling capacities both the macabre and the mendacious, the hallucinatory and the hellish. Wind-Up Bird is an incomplete quilt with many fascinating patterns, but no unifying theme.

Mishima: 5 / 10 
Endo: 9 / 10 
Abe: 7 / 10 
Murakami: 8 / 10