‘The Pinch Runner Memorandum’ by Kenzaburō Ōe (Review)

After my past couple of posts looked at two of the Korean old school, this time we’re heading back to Japan for one of the big names in post-war literature.  I’ve already tried several Kenzaburō Ōe books, and today’s choice has plenty in common with my previous reads.  However, it also has a style all of its own, even if it appears to be an influence on a couple of other authors you may have heard of…

The Pinch Runner Memorandum (translated by Michiko N. Wilson and Michael K. Wilson) is an impressively bizarre novel written in a very different style to my last Ōe selection, Death by Water.  After a brief introductory section in which we get to know the narrator (Ōe himself) and the main protagonist of the book, Mori-father (so-called after his son Mori, a schoolmate of Ōe’s mentally disabled child), the novel turns into a monologue that the writer records from the letters Mori-father sends him:

From experience I knew that my power to elicit from Mori-father this loquacious confession was an occupational hazard.  When you lead the life of a novelist, you often get visitors who shoot off their mouths nonstop: what they’ve gone through, what they’ve daydreamed about, what they’ve aspired to, and so on.  Just because I am a writer they expect me, the listener, to fill in the gaps and grasp the full meaning of their prattle – even though it escapes them.
p.24 (M.E. Sharpe, 1994)

While initially resenting the intrusion into his life, the writer soon comes to enjoy the work of documenting his acquaintance’s story, and it’s certainly a fascinating tale.

Recovering from an incident where he was exposed to radioactive waste, Mori-father (a former Nuclear power plant employee) gets by with the help of some hush money from the company and what he receives from a shadowy businessman, dubbed the Patron, who asks him to summarise articles on nuclear energy.  However, his life changes dramatically when, after administering a beating to his son, he experiences a ‘switchover’, losing twenty years while Mori gains them.  No sooner has this happened than things start to get *really* weird…

Let’s not beat about the bush; this is a very strange book in many places.  Ōe himself is the detached scribe, recording Mori-father’s tall tale of a series of adventures all around Tokyo, tailed by the police and Mori-father’s angry estranged wife.  It’s a violent time, with revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries vying for control, and our entry into this world is provided by Mori-father’s lover, television personality Sakurao Ōno.  We lurch from anti-nuke meetings marred by fights to savage beatings at a university campus, so it’s lucky that Mori-father’s newly acquired eighteen-year-old body is built to take the pain.

However, The Pinch Runner Memorandum is very much a story of the nuclear age, and once we get past the random violence (and even more random sex scenes), a plot begins to coalesce around the mysterious figure of the Patron.  In funding both the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries, he hopes to pit the two groups against each in a race to make a small A-Bomb – and hold the country to ransom.  So how do Mori and Mori-father fit into this?  Well, apparently the switchover is “the mandate of the Cosmic Will”, and if that doesn’t sound like they’re on a mission from God, then you simply haven’t been watching the right movies….

As you might expect from what I’ve described above, the book is full of crazy, madcap antics.  Even the fights feature an elderly character attacking people’s legs with his false teeth, who then makes po-faced declarations about the danger of making nuclear bombs in Tokyo basements:

I was invited to Tokyo to attend the antinuke meeting, where people took wonderfully good care of me.  But on the other hand, those same young people are trying to make an A-bomb.  If that’s not unruly, I don’t know what is! (p.155)

Towards the end of the novel, we descend into farce as a group of rag-tag activists in a panel van set out to foil the Patron’s plot and stop the bombs being built, at which point our mental picture changes from The Blues Brothers to Scooby Doo 😉

The Pinch Runner Memorandum is a fun, entertaining read, if a little two-dimensional, but it’s perhaps most interesting for the light it sheds on the next generation of Japanese writers.  Ryū Murakami  certainly appears to have taken some inspiration from Ōe, with the gangs and ultra-violence reminiscent of books like Popular Hits of the Shōwa Era and From the Fatherland, With Love.  As always, though, it’s Haruki Murakami who immediately comes to mind, as it’s impossible to read about the shadowy Patron and his plans without being reminded of the plot of A Wild Sheep Chase.  In fact, there’s something very Boku and the Rat about Mori-father and his taciturn son, a couple of ordinary people charged with bringing down powers beyond their imagination.

No, it doesn’t always make sense, but it’s best to simply accept it all, like the two men do, and go with the flow.  They never asked to be pinch runners in a game they don’t understand, but they might as well just give it their best shot now they’ve been dragged into the contest:

If I had to respond to strangers who smiled or whimpered at us, I’d just say, I never ask myself what qualifications made the Cosmic Will designate us as the pinch runner.  Besides, if we were really a superior player we would’ve already been a regular in the rescue game for humankind.  But we can’t hesitate now, or lose our confidence.  We’ve already been picked.  We’re on base, where we’ve always wanted to be; the Cosmic Coach has given us the sign, concentrate, be alert for the chance to run.  What’s more, we’ve got to rely on our own sixth sense to make that decision!  GO, GO, GO, GO, GO, GO, GO, GO, GO. (p.242)

File under strange, but fun 🙂

4 thoughts on “‘The Pinch Runner Memorandum’ by Kenzaburō Ōe (Review)

  1. Strange but fun sounds good. I’m afraid I’ve read very little Japanese lit (and no Korean) – just a few Murakami and Akutagawa, and I Am a Cat by Soseki (many years ago, that one). Not sure this one would be my cup of tea, but I’ll make a note. Query: what is a ‘pinch runner’? Is this a baseball term, as in ‘pinch hitter’?


    1. Simon – I’m not sure this would be the place to start, or whether Ōe would be a good place to start with J-Lit anyway 😉 As for the pinch runner, yes, it’s from baseball, and I’m assuming it’s similar to the idea of the runner in cricket.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Marina Sofia – Certainly different to all the others I’ve tried, but I have heard that there are a few wild ones out there…


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