"… No War and Peace, no Kenzaburo Oe’s Homo Sexualis, no Catcher in the Rye. That’s your Kobayashi Book Shop. I mean, who in their right mind’s going [to] be envious of that? Would you be?"
– Norwegian Wood, Murakami Haruki (translated by Alfred Birnbaum)
For the month of May, the Flips Flipping Pages Shelfari group goes for a reading of art-themed books. I've read Two Novels: J ; Seventeen by Ōe Kenzaburo, translated by Luk Van Haute. The painting referred to in J is "The Inferno" by the Belgian painter Paul Delvaux. Seven characters go to a vacation house to make a film based on this painting. Unfortunately, I can’t find a painting of that title online. It's described in the book as “a reproduction of a work by the surrealist Delvaux, in which several women with lovely pubic hair and an air of abstraction are walking through an eternally quiet landscape in the style of de Chirico.... Their pubic hair was an incomparably beautiful chestnut brown, like a shade of bronze.” To be sure, several paintings by Delvaux feature several nude women walking in an urban landscape. It’s just that no one of them is called “The Inferno” or “Hell,” for that matter.
Anyway, both novels (novellas, really) are great reads, but only J is art-related. According to the introduction to the book by Masao Miyoshi, the original Japanese title of J is “nearly untranslatable” though it can be roughly approximated as Sexual Humans. Well, I find that to be a better and more apt title than J. (It must have been what Alfred Birnbaum, in the above epigraph, was referring to as Homo Sexualis. Curiously the second translation of Norwegian Wood, by Jay Rubin, did not mention a title for Ōe’s book in the same quoted passage.)
“J” is the name of the main protagonist, the husband of the film director who was to shoot her art film. With a limited number of characters (J, his wife-director, his sister, the cameraman, the actor, the poet-screenwriter, and the jazz singer/actress), all of them confined in one setting, complete with alcohol and promiscuity and sexual issues, it’s a staging of Murphy’s Law. What happened in the set, even before filming began, are a combination of decadence, trysts, betrayals, and a hair-raising cultural clash with some conservative people living in the neighborhood.
One can read a sort of edginess and sexual rebelliousness in both novels. In the second part of J, sexual promiscuity takes on a new form. It’s now the realm of chikan (which the translator explained in a footnote to literally mean "an oversexed idiot, used to refer to subway molesters"). There’s a band of chikans, sexual predators plying on trains to molest women. The surprising thing is that Ōe managed to somehow humanize his characters. For all their perversity and immorality, there was an underlying complexity in the depiction of the sexual perverts’ irrational behavior, which did not excuse them, but however made them all too human. "Sexual humans," in fact.
The second novella, Seventeen, is a psychological and political novel, but more political really. It was so controversial in Japan that Ōe suppressed the appearance of its sequel in any translation. In it, Ōe managed to delineate the complex character of a troubled teenager prone to sexual-existential angst. Essentially the book cannot be removed from the political as it was based on true events of a 17-year old who flirted with an extreme right-wing group, stabbed a leftist leader to death, and later hanged himself in jail. The latter two events were the plot of “A Political Youth Dies,” the sequel to Seventeen. ( I don’t think I’m spoiling the story as the sequel is censored anyway.) The actual assassination which happened in 1960 was caught on video. It captured the imagination of the nation and served as a reminder of how extreme the politics of the right can be – the youth was labeled a terrorist.
Ōe certainly had an interesting take on the interplay of sex/politics and private/public life. The two novels deal with sexual perverts and how they become entangled with politics of the day. Somehow, they still maintain their shock value in terms of graphic descriptions. It’s hard to imagine how they were received by the Japanese when they were first published in the 1960s. They were said to cause a sensation.
I'm hoping that Ōe will allow the publication of "A Political Youth Dies", the sequel to Seventeen, which he apparently suppressed because it angered extreme right-wingers and he was uncertain about the style and content of the book. He was like Murakami Haruki in the self-censorship aspect, but they have different motivations for censoring their own works. Murakami's motivation was aesthetic (he thinks his two early novels were juvenile works) while Ōe's were aesthetic and political (right-wingers threw stones at his house and harassed him with death threats, leftists constantly sent him letters accusing him of betrayal and cowardice when he withdrew publication of his books). These writers are being too harsh on themselves.
I’m actually sympathetic to Ōe's case. He will not please both sides, the right or the left, and his decision to suppress the translation to any language of the sequel to his novel was as much based on his uncertainty of his work as on his and his family's personal security. I think that despite the literary merit of his politically charged novel, his decision to censor it based on personal security may be valid, although some readers, like me, feel deprived of the continuity of the story. In that sense, even if the novels are of high literary value, it failed the imagination of its "immediate" readers who saw in it a distortion of their political beliefs.
The ideal case is for a political novel to be judged by readers based on literary and artistic filters. As to whether it contains non-progressive politics or not … but who is to know if it contains one or the other? I say let the reader be the judge. Whether the reader wants to subscribe to a critical reading of the book’s politics, is up to him. But how readers in the immediate society of the writer (the Japanese in 1960s Japan, in Ōe's case) will react to overtly political themed novels is another matter. This may be the quandary of a writer born in a milieu hostile to political and sexual expressions.
On the surface of it, several factors seem to weigh down Ōe’s books. First, he based his story on a true story of a troubled teenager and his assassination of a leftist leader. Second, the assassination was captured on tape, shown on national television, and thus entered the national consciousness and left a stain on the doctrines and methods of extreme rightists. Third, Ōe’s imagining of the teenage assassin as a disturbed masturbator did not meet the approval of some readers. The protests came from the sexualization of the character of the assassin in Seventeen and, perhaps, in its sequel. I believe that in the first part of the story (Seventeen), Ōe has sensitively imagined the character as a troubled teenager and has given an authentic, albeit sexually-oriented, edge to his inner conflicts. True, the story exhibited the usual trappings of a young, impressionable teenager, and Ōe’s interpretation of the turbulence of the political climate of the times (1960s Japan) was made at the expense of a polite, conventional, or moderate fictional representation. The shock value was disagreeable to some but, in his own way, he just told it how it was.
It is partly the shock value itself that Ōe seemed to regret later, as he wrote something of an apology for his "careless way of writing," blaming himself that he "should have handled Seventeen and A Political Youth Dies with greater skill," that he "could have written without provoking the right wing and yet making [his] message more forthright." But again, I think Ōe was being too harsh on himself.
On the other hand, Murakami suppressed the publication outside Japan of his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, as well as the first English translation of Norwegian Wood, all books translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Murakami has mentioned in interviews that his estimation of the first two books is not so high, thus he wanted to limit their distribution. Which is a puzzling decision since international sellers (eBay, Amazon) can still get hold of them and retail them outside, albeit sometimes at steep prices. Typed versions of Pinball, 1973 even appeared on the web and access to the books are not entirely prohibitive. Since the first two books are part of a trilogy (or tetralogy if Dance Dance Dance, which also shared characters with these books, is included), there is really something to be gained by reading them prior to A Wild Sheep Chase, the third novel. The books provide some back stories on the main characters, and tell of their early friendships and relationships which can have a bearing on appreciation of the third book. These books are indeed less mature works; it shows. They are self-conscious novels, though moments of beauty, tenderness, and surrealism sometimes flicker in them that make them worthwhile reads.
What drives a certain writer to suppress his early works? When the first novels were usually written at such a precocious age, the writer was unsure of his technique. The trajectory of his career depends in part on the first impressions he makes even if the latter books prove to be the more enduring and the ones that actually spell his success.
The case of Ōe Kenzaburo and his trilogy of novels about sexual deviants in the early 1960s demonstrate a "careless way of writing" that is not up to the moral/ethical/political/whatever scruples of his immediate reading audience. It demonstrates further that the reflection of political reality in books, or the entanglement of characters with the politics of the day, can endanger the life of a writer to the extent that he will censor his own works. As pointed out to me by a member from LibraryThing reading site, Ōe has had his share of crossing the right-wing scholars and politicians in issues related to Japanese involvement in wartime mass suicides.
The case of Murakami Haruki is a more puzzling one. Partly I think it revolves around the "fame complex" that a writer catapulted to popularity falls prey to. Vanity? It may not be as simple as that. It may be something related to the legacy a writer wants to leave. But I don't want to speculate or dwell too much on Murakami. I just think his self-censorship is not justified at all, even if his assessment of his own books tell otherwise.
Going back to Ōe: We want a writer’s politics not to be indebted to any alternative (centrist) perspective other than his own. To avoid offending the right or the left is never an option. It is not a question of whether they ought to be consistent in their leftist/rightist ideas or they should stick to being harmless and just depict human nature in neutral tones. I prefer if they stick to risqué positions. Their works become interesting even if one doesn’t share their politics, e.g., José Saramago and his outdated ideology. (Saramago, I think, is another novelist who doesn’t want to publish his early novels). There is an ethical dimension to novels of politics that should bolster the right of writers to expression and publication.
It would have been better if these writers allow readers to judge for themselves the value of their works, whether the claims that these novels are inferior or they promote some kind of non-progressive/destructive/irresponsible/whatever politics are warranted and so must really be disowned. But then we will never know.
So to reiterate: Mr Ōe, I'm hoping that when the political climate finally permits (which hopefully is not as near as never), you will allow the publication of A Political Youth Dies in translation. You owe it to readers who want to know how the story ended the way you tell it and to see for their own eyes the uncertainties you attribute to it.