A Nobel Pursuit

Nobel time has come and gone for another year, and (alas) Haruki Murakami still hasn’t brought home the prize.  While the committee (hopefully) has many years yet to rectify this, it means that there are still only two Japanese Nobel laureates in the literature section – Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe.  So, while we wait for 1Q84 to arrive on our doorsteps (and ponder what might have been), I thought it might be nice to have a look at a couple of works from the writers Murakami is hoping to emulate…

Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness is a novella centred on Toshio Oki, a middle-aged novelist, and Otoko Ueno, an artist whom Oki (while already married) seduced at an early age, and whose life he altered dramatically.  Decades after their affair was brought to an end, the writer decides to visit his former love in Kyoto to hear the New Year bells ringing, and on this trip he meets Keiko Sakami, a young woman who has become Otoko’s protégée – and perhaps a whole lot more…

Otoko greets Oki warmly, if warily, and it is actually Keiko who shows more of an interest in the writer (whose most famous work is a novel based on his relationship with Otoko).  It soon becomes clear that the stunning and vibrant Keiko knows all about Otoko and Oki’s affair, and while, on the surface at least, she appears to want to respect her teacher’s wishes to treat her old flame with respect, the reader soon suspects that she has another motive for her interest in Oki – revenge.
My first thought on reading this (aided by memories of several other J-Lit classics) was that if you are to believe fiction, Japanese women are most definitely not to be crossed.  It’s not giving much away to say that the most interesting character in the novella is Keiko, a femme fatale in the vein of Mitsuko (the memorable character in Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s Quicksand).  It’s not just her scheming against Oki and his family which is so disturbing, it’s also her behaviour when she is with Otoko.  Urgent, pouting, aggressive, meek, flirty… she is anything but predictable.
As is so often the case with Japanese literature though, nature itself is just as important as the people who move through it.  Kawabata is a master of painting pictures with words in his works, and Beauty and Sadness is no exception.  The reader is treated to sumptuous descriptions of Arashiyama and the other mountains surrounding Kyoto; we walk with Oki through the hills of Kamakura; and we gaze out over the beautiful Lake Biwa, still unaware of what is to happen there.  There certainly is a lot of beauty in Kawabata’s writing – if you read this book, you’ll see that behind the beauty, there is often a fair amount of sadness too…

If Kawabata is the traditional, aesthetic Yin of modern Japanese literature though, Kenzaburo Oe is most definitely the foreign-influenced, hard-nosed Yang.  In contrast to the understated elegance of Beauty and Sadness, A Personal Matter, one of Oe’s earliest works, is a rather modern and realistic affair.

The short novel introduces us to Bird, a twenty-seven-year-old cram-school teacher, who is hanging around in Tokyo, waiting for news on the birth of his first child.  When the call finally comes, he senses that not all is well, and on arriving at the hospital, his fears are confirmed.  His son has been born with a large lump on his head, which the doctors describe as a brain hernia.  Faced with a situation where his son will either die in a matter of days or grow up severely mentally disabled,  Bird leaves the hospital and quickly begins to unravel…

Bird’s trial of character as he deliberates whether to make an effort to save his son’s life, a decision which will result in him giving up his life’s dream of travelling to Africa, may seem grotesque (and more than a little over the top), but it is actually a slightly exaggerated metaphor for the sense of a loss of freedom which accompanies the joy of welcoming a child into the world.  The problems his son is facing allow Bird to consider running away from his responsibilities, throwing away his career and falling into the arms of a former girlfriend in an attempt to regain his freedom.  It isn’t until the last few pages, after many tortuous episodes, that we are told the decision Bird has come to.

A Personal Matter is a thought-provoking book, but in a gritty, unflinching way.  It is reminiscent of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (written four years earlier) in both its content and its style, very different indeed to Beauty and Sadness.  Where Kawabata’s works are steeped in tea houses and temples, Oe shows us the underbelly of Japanese life – tenements, amusement arcades, gay bars, dodgy clinics – and doesn’t shy away from explicit sex, alcoholism and violence.  Slammed by many critics at the time for his sullying of pure Japanese writing, Oe is obviously an influence on several contemporary Japanese writers.  Haruki Murakami is, of course, one that comes to mind, but it’s safe to say that writers such as Ryu Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and Natsuo Kirino were also nudged into their writing paths by Oe’s Westernised style.

I’ve now read four of Kawabata’s works, while A Personal Matter is my second OeOe may verge on the disturbing at some points, but I enjoy the way he dissects the issues facing normal modern Japanese families, ones without homes overlooking the valleys of Kamakura.  Perhaps though that’s why the two works reviewed here complement each other so well: the delicate and the crude, the subdued and the brash, the inside and the outside…

…the Yin and the Yang.

3 thoughts on “A Nobel Pursuit

  1. Have not read that Kawabata, but have read personal matter & it does seem a lot of Japanese writing divided along the modern/trad aesthetic, although Funnily enough It's the traditional sounding Kawabata, who plays both sides against each other in the Master of Go, a book where the protagonists represent opposing sides of this aesthetic. Enjoyed your post .
    PS have book 1 & 2 HM am waiting on 3 possibly tomorrow.


  2. I've never read Beauty and Sadness, but I, too, found A Personal Matter to be a very thought provoking book. In fact, I don't think I'll ever forget it. I was at turns horrified and sympathetic to Bird, and relieved in the end that he seemed to wise up to life and its responsibilites.

    As to Murakami? Who knows how come he hasn't won! I can only say that the judges must be too stupid to give him what he deserves. They don't know how to qualify his ingenious, beyond creative, capabilities. Idiots. As though everyone can fit in a box.


  3. Gary – Yes, 'The Master of Go' is good for that very reason. I still have 'The Sound of the Mountain' to read, and that has been highly recommended, so we'll have to wait and see what I make of that!

    I thought I had a review copy of '1Q84' lined up, but it appears that it's not coming (hasn't come yet, anyway), so it may be a while before I get to it 😦

    Belezza – Of course, for Oe, it *is* a rather personal matter 🙂

    Re: Murakami, I think the judges may be gambling that he'll be around for a good few years yet…


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