‘Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan’, edited by Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel (Review)

After a little poetry last time around, today sees me tackling some literary criticism.  However, unlike my recent non-fiction choice, which took us back a thousand years, this one promises insights into rather more contemporary work.  Be careful, though – when I say ‘contemporary’, it’s not quite as up-to-date as you might expect…

Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan (edited by Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel) is an interesting work I found while browsing the shelves of our university library.  It consists of twelve essays by twelve American academics and translators, each taking a Japanese writer as their subject matter.  The collection serves as an overview of the Japanese literary scene (or at least it did when it was first released back in 1999), and while it can be overly dry and academic in places, most of the pieces are enjoyable and informative, introducing new writers and shining fresh light on familiar faces.

It all kicks off with Susan J. Napier’s look at Kenzaburo Ōe himself and his ‘quest for the sublime’.  This mission running throughout the writer’s work is a fraught one, often achieved through sex and violence, yet Napier senses an undercurrent of optimism in his books.  Of course, he’s far from the only writer who critiques Japanese society, and in Davinder L. Bhowmik’s look at the work of Kyōko Hayashi, she explains how the writer frequently returns to the past in an attempt to make sense of what happened during the war.  Having had the misfortune to be present in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation and Nagasaki when the bomb fell, Hayashi certainly has a unique experience with which to confront the past.

Another big-name writer shaped by war-time events is Shūsaku Endō, and Van C. Gessel attempts to emphasise this aspect of the writer’s work, while downplaying the common approach of focusing on his life as a Catholic.  However, with works such as Silence and Deep River out there, that idea only stretches so far…  More interestingly, we later learn of another Catholic writer, Takako Takahashi, with Mark Williams introducing an author whose fiction subverts the traditional I-novel to explore the subconscious.  On a slightly different note, Adrienne Hurley’s take on Minako Ohba shows us the writer’s preoccupation with the difficulties of women overseas, with a particular emphasis on pushing back against male oppression.

The second half of the book moves on with a series of writers born after the war.  One I’ve encountered before is Mieko Kanai, whose works can be hard to untangle.  Here, Sharalyn Orbaugh focuses on a couple of short pieces that force the reader to examine every word in an attempt to squeeze meaning out of the situation.  There’s also Gabriels’ look at Masahiko Shimada, a writer whose dreamscapes often address what he sees as the infantilisation of Japan, as well as a fascinating piece on Kenji Nakagami, a writer with a focus on male rebels stifled by the system.  As Eve Zimmerman explains, his work can be rooted in myth, but that isn’t always a good thing:

Myths are stories, the repetition of which fulfils a human need for order and for pleasure, but they can prove binding, even murderous in the wrong hands.  In Nakagami’s case in particular, Japanese cultural myths demand examination because they contain clues to the denigration of his people.
‘In the Trap of Words: Nakagami Kenji and the Making of Degenerate Fictions’, p.132
(University of Hawai’i Press, 1999)

Another writer fighting against homogenisation and marginalisation is Ryū Murakami, and as Snyder shows us, his work successfully confronts a staid Japanese society with other possibilities of gender and cultural identity.

In a volume like this, it’s inevitable that the different writers will have contrasting styles, and there were a few that stood out more than others.  One of these was Atsuko Sakaki’s crusade to ‘recanonise’ Yumiko Kurahashi, whose inventive work (featuring sexual variance, incest, bestiality and robotic sex) has been criticised by the establishment.  It’s an aggressive, at times angry piece, but more than a little defensive, too:

The very fact that she has not been fully recognized as significant suggests both the intellectual limits of the literary establishment of Japan and her accomplishments as a contemporary postmodernist.
‘(Re)Canonizing Kurahashi Yumiko: Toward Alternative Perspectives for “Modern” “Japanese” “Literature”‘, p.173

Of course, Jay Rubin can afford to be a lot more laid-back given the task of writing about Haruki Murakami, and his take on ‘A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story’ is smooth and enjoyable, reminiscent of his work on the fiction itself.  Rubin argues that this piece, with its focus on memory and the subconscious, is actually a key to many of Murakami’s other works.  I wasn’t expecting to hear anything new here, but this was a nice little piece all the same.

In the last of the essays, Ann Sherif examines the appeal of another well-known writer, Banana Yoshimoto.  By this time, memories of the war seem to have vanished from Japanese literature, and her work appears to be reflecting a society less obsessed with masculine role models.  Instead, Yoshimoto looks at another side of society, and at moving on:

Indeed, in the majority of her writings Yoshimoto Banana exhibits an interest in troubled people (komatta hito), individuals whose lives have been nearly devastated by acts of random violence, loss, illness, and troubled families.  Yet her writings do not harbor the darkness of much other modern Japanese fiction because her narrative concerns the processes of grieving and healing and exhibits a steadfast belief in the possibility of reintegration into society, even after extreme alienation or trauma.
‘Japanese without Apology: Yoshimoto Banana and Healing’, p.279

In essence, her work shows a far more palatable Japan, a country more suited to women, and more accessible for foreign readers, which Sherif believes may account for her success.

As you can imagine, a book like this covers a lot of ground, with a fair deal to take in and absorb, which makes it hard to come up with overarching ideas.  However, having finished the twelve essays, there are a few ideas that floated to the surface, chief among which is the fact that twenty years on there’s so much here that remains untranslated.  Many of the key works discussed are still unavailable in English, and that includes major novels by the big-name writers, such as Ōe’s The Burning Tree trilogy.

It’s also interesting to reflect on how these writers have fared in English in the twenty years since the appearance of Ōe and Beyond.  Ōe himself is still going strong as the grand old man of J-Lit, and Endō’s reputation is holding up, helped by the recent movie adaptation of Silence.  While Haruki’s fame has probably passed its zenith, he’s still an undeniably successful import, and even Ryū Murakami has his moments.

Disappointingly (and unsurprisingly), it’s mainly the women who are still relatively unknown in English.  The gender split in the collection is balanced, but with the exception of Yoshimoto (who has only actually had a couple of books from her extensive back-catalogue appear in English in the past decade), none of the female writers seem widely available in English.  By contrast, apart from Shimada, perhaps, the men are much better represented – and I can’t see that changing any time soon…

Nevertheless, Ōe and Beyond is an interesting book for anyone with more than a passing interest in Japanese literature, providing fascinating insights into the works of old friends and new (to me) names.  Having finished it, though, I can’t help wondering how much the situation has changed since the book was first published.  If the editors were to produce an updated version for a new generation, which writers would be included this time around?  If you have any views on that, please let me know – and if anyone fancies commissioning a version with some new writers, I’d be more than happy to read it 🙂

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