‘Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!’ by Kenzaburō Ōe (Review)

After looking at a novel by one of Japan’s literary Nobel Laureates last week, today I’m returning, after a long absence, to the work of the other one.  For some reason, even though I’ve had a few of Kenzaburō Ōe’s books on the shelves for a good while now, I never quite seem to get around to them.  Fortunately, I’ve made time for one this #JanuaryInJapan, and it made for an intriguing read, a book (as you’ll see) that blends a rather personal matter with world events and… poetry?  Come this way…

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! (translated by John Nathan) is a 1983 book consisting of seven related chapters.  The unusual title comes courtesy of English poet William Blake; in fact, all of the seven chapter titles are taken from his work.  This is no coincidence as the book sees the writer/narrator (Ōe’s very thinly veiled alter-ego) devoting much of his reading time to Blake, seeking advice in this verse for his own life.

While this does refer to his fiction, he’s also looking for help with his family life, and the second main influence on the book is the writer’s son, ‘Eeyore’.  The disabled boy born in A Personal Matter is now all grown up, almost a man, and this new stage of life brings new problems.  The book starts with the writer returning from a trip to Europe, only to be greeted by a family frazzled by what the boy got up to during his father’s absence.

Nathan’s afterword offers welcome perspective, with more information about Hikari, Ōe’s son and the real-life inspiration for Eeyore.  The premise of the book, as the writer himself says, is as follows:

I have braided my life with my handicapped son and my thoughts occasioned by reading William Blake into a series of short pieces.  My purpose, on the occasion of my son’s twentieth birthday this coming June, was to survey the entirety of our – mine and my wife’s and his younger brother’s and sister’s – days together with him until now and into the future.
p.203 (Grove Press, 2002)

He also mentions his (futile) attempt to write a guidebook, simplifying life’s complexities for his son, hoping in this way to prepare him for life without his father, should that time eventuate.

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is one of many Ōe books featuring his son, and there’s a sense that, just as is the case with Osamu Dazai, much of his work is an attempt to work through his life and thoughts in a semi-fictional setting.  Here, the writer is in his late forties, coming to terms with both his own age and his son’s entry into adulthood.  He can’t help but be concerned with what will become of him, especially given the hints of violence he perceives, and suggestions of a growing sexual awareness.

The best parts of the book come when father and son interact.  Theirs is a special relationship, even if things do go wrong at times, and Eeyore’s voice, lifted from the text by italics, has a certain breezy style.  One example comes from a discussion on the music he is being asked to write for a school play:

“Oh boy: That’s a big foot!  That’s a good one.  Is it papa’s foot?  I can’t write music for a story so long.  It’s a major work, wouldn’t you say?  I can’t do this one.  I always forget everything!” (p.147)

Nathan’s work is always excellent, but it stands out here with the youth’s distinctive voice shining through.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t always as enthralled when the writer’s attention, as it often did, turned to Blake.  Poetry is not really my area, and in these seven chapters, Ōe devotes a lot of time to analysing Blake’s work:

Today, I know that Blake is a poet I shall continue reading until I die; this amounts to a feeling that Blake may enable me to construct a model for living my own life as I move toward death. (p.124)

In fact, on several occasions he reveals his use of Blake’s work as a starting point, the impetus for much of his own fiction.

More interesting for me were the new insights into Ōe’s life.  In my mind, Ōe has always been an old man, the face of a genial pensioner you see in the familiar Wikipedia and cover photos.  Here he’s my age, and often described as anything but an old man.  Quite apart from his 1000m swims at the local pool, we learn of his wife’s fears that he will hurt someone when they insult his son – a writer who threatens both with the pen and the fist when his family is in the picture.

There are also echoes here of earlier work in mentions of his political views (c.f. The Pinch Runner Memorandum), such as the tour of Europe where he campaigns against the nuclear age.  The political scene of the time is interesting, to put it mildly, and one stand-out part is a meeting at the writer’s home, with students with very strong views.  In one intriguing chapter, which describes the narrator taking Eeyore swimming, we’re introduced to a group of strong young men at the pool in a private session.  We later learn that they’re preparing for an anniversary, ten years since the suicide of the writer M.  Hmm – I wonder who that could be

I’m willing to admit that I didn’t enjoy (or get) everything about Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!  However, it’s a work that’s well written, and translated, and very enjoyable at times, especially when focusing on the father-son bond.  Having read a few books written before and after this one, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that it marks a turning point in Ōe’s work.  As readers, we’ve been taken from the birth of the writer’s disabled child in A Personal Matter to the young man’s entry into the adult world here.  Who would have thought that the child struggling to even stay alive in the earlier book would make it to the end of this one in such high spirits…

2 thoughts on “‘Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!’ by Kenzaburō Ōe (Review)

  1. I think I’d actually like the parts about Blake a lot. I like novels in which a character returns to the same writer or work of fiction. And I’m fond of Blake. I realized that I also always think of Oe as old.


    1. Caroline – Yes, anyone with an interest with Blake will probably love this book. For me, those parts were sections to patiently go through, waiting until the real action returned…

      Liked by 1 person

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