Down in the Deep, Dark Forest…

Despite my frequent forays into Japanese literature over the past couple of years, there are still a couple of glaring gaps in my J-Lit C.V., namely my lack of reading of novels from the country’s two Nobel Laureates, Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata.  The latter is on the agenda for the next couple of months, but today’s post sees me tackle the first of these giants, with a review of Oe’s novel The Silent Cry (translated by John Bester) – which is (un)strangely familiar…

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The novel is centred on two men, the reserved Mitsusaburo Nedokoro and his charismatic younger brother Takashi.  The two brothers have had their share of problems in life: Taka fled to America to escape the guilt felt after his mentally-disabled sister’s suicide and his role in violent student riots; Mitsu is emotionally drained, crushed by the double blow of the arrival of a mentally-disabled son and the unexpected, somewhat bizarre, suicide of a close friend.  Therefore, when Taka returns from the States, suggesting a return to their small hometown in Shikoku, Mitsu is happy to go along with his plan.  However, the past has a funny way of returning to haunt the present…

The Silent Cry is a superb book, packing a tremendous amount into its 274 pages.  Oe draws the reader through his thoughts on suicide, family ties and mental illness, using a series of parallels reaching back in time.  The original Japanese title Man’en no Gannen no Futoboru (Football in Year One of the Gan’en Era), actually refers back to 1860, a time when Japan was making its first, tiny efforts to communicate with the outside world again, and the year in which the Nedokoro’s ancestors took part in events which are then repeated a century later.  For those concerned about the use of a sporting word in the title, fear not – sport plays an insignificant role in the book, to the extent where I only found out afterwards, via Wikipedia, that the ‘football’ involved was actually the American, relatively kicking-less, gridiron version…  The English title comes from a comment Mitsu makes, comparing the last actions of his late friend to a silent cry; not for help, however, but more for communication, letting people know of his feelings

The setting of the novel adds to the mood Oe creates, with the Nedokoro’s hometown being a valley completely surrounded by a dark, menacing forest.  The approaching winter, and the promise (or threat) of heavy snow which it brings, along with the damaged bridge cutting off the only road in or out of the village, heighten this sense of isolation, mirroring the feelings of the main characters, each of whom is trying to come to terms with their own issues, in their own way.  Events naturally build to a climax, but the reader is never sure exactly what that climax will bring.

From the very first page, two things were very clear to me.  Firstly, that I was going to like this book (just as with Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, which I read recently, I was sucked straight into the writer’s world); secondly, that the Oe influence on Haruki Murakami which I had read a little about was clearly evident.  From Mitsu’s very first action of getting up, going out to the garden, and descending into a hole, Murakami fans are in very familiar territory.

In fact there are many features of The Silent Cry which impact on Murakami’s work , especially his early novels.  In addition to Mitsu’s predilection for doing his thinking underground, the nickname of ‘the Rat’, given to Mitsu by one of Taka’s friends, and Mitsu’s stoic, almost passive attitude to the events unfolding around him, some of which are actually rather humiliating, are reminiscent of Murakami’s early nameless protagonists.  Even the Japanese title provided inspiration for the younger writer, whose second short novel was entitled 1973-nen no Pinuboru (Pinball, 1973).  Even the idea of the isolated valley could be seen, if we were stretching the point (and, where Murakami is concerned, I usually am), as the model for the Town in Hard-Boiled Wonderland…

Murakami influences aside, this is a book which demands to be read and reread, which I’ll no doubt be doing at some point, especially as I don’t think I paid this book the attention it deserves.  It took me a week to get through it, mainly because of the demands of starting a new job (and looking after an unexpected visitor from overseas!), and that was too long for me.  If I’d read this in three or four days, as I had expected to, I suspect that the narrative would have flowed a lot better, and the mood Oe created would have held up more; the start-stop approach meant that I often took time to get back into the book when picking it up again.

So, just as 2009 was the Year of Yukio Mishima, and 2010 was the Year of Natsume Soseki and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 2011 may well be the year of Kenzaburo Oe.  But will it also be the year of Yasunari Kawabata?  Well, I’ll have to get back to you on that one…

12 thoughts on “Down in the Deep, Dark Forest…

  1. Oe's story seems to always involved two men. I read Changeling and felt lukewarm about it. This sounds like a good read and thanks for selling it so well. I'm half way through Quicksand and wonder where it is leading to.

    I'll be interested to know whose year 2011 is going to be!

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  2. I read my first oe last year and want to read some more ,like fact this influence early murakami ,got order in for these two so hope library gets them might get this to tie in with them ,all the best stu

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  3. I want to read this, but of course that means an inter-library loan. The lack of Japanese lit at my local libraries is baffling. I want to read Murakami's influences.

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  4. Book Bird Dog – Murakami fans have to read this to see his influences – he is a big Oe fan 🙂

    JoV – A lot of his work is said to focus on two brothers – and a mentally disabled child (which is art reflecting life with Oe…). I'm sure this year will see a lot of Oe and Kawabata. Maybe next year I'll find someone completely new 😉

    Stu – Hope you get your books! I'm ordering a lot more library books this year, but my Japanese books are my little indulgence 🙂

    Violet – That's what you get for living in the West 😉 Oe is an obvious influence, but I think a lot of his other influences are American – so I haven't read them…

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  5. For some reason this book never really appealed to me before but now I'm actually looking forward to reading it in April. Thanks! I hadn't realized somehow that Murakami was a big Oe fan, so seeing his early influences is definitely another selling point.

    BTW, I loved Auster's The New York Trilogy. Speaking of Murakami, Auster's stuff tends to remind me of Murakami too (Ok, I've only read 2 of Auster's books so far, but still). That's not just me, is it?

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  6. No worries 🙂

    I also picked up on the similarities with Auster in my review of 'The New York Trilogy', but I'm not sure who influenced who (actually, I think they're contemporaries…). Perhaps they're both just very influenced by Kafka!

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  7. just going back over your Oe posts as I'm currently loving 'The Day He Himself Will Wipe My Tears Away', which I'm reading thanks to January in Japan. It has sat on my shelves for years. Thanks for the push!
    I'll be seeking some more Oe in the future. (There are four novellas in the collection I'm reading – Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness)

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  8. Séamus – Oe is the one big Japanese writer I've criminally neglected, mainly for the silliest of reasons (his books tend to be a few dollars more expensive than other J-Lit writers, so I never quite get around to choosing them…).

    Is your book the one with 'Prize Stock' in it? I read that in the Oxford collection, and it's a great story 🙂

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  9. Yes, Tony, that's the second story. They are called 'short novels' but the first is 110pages, Prize Stock 60pages and the next two 50pages & 40pages. The last three hardly qualify as novels. The writing is powerful, though.

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