Two intimate views of Oe family drama
Book review by Geraldine Sherman

(The Globe and Mail November 23, 1996)

A Healing Family
by Kenzaburo Oe (translated by Stephen Snyder)
Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 146 pages $30.95

A Quiet Life
by Kenzaburo Oe (translated by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall)
General Publishing, 242 pages $31.95

FOR Kenzaburo Oe, the line between fiction and fact disappeared long ago. His earliest stories were based on village gossip and folktales he picked up on the remote Japanese island where he was born. He studied French literature at Tokyo University, married, and fathered a son born with a huge growth on his brain. Doctors urged the parents to let the baby die, predicting that he would be a "human vegetable."

In an early novel, A Personal Matter, Oe described his own reactions: He fled from his deformed child, abandoned his wife, and fell into a terrible depression. In life, as in fiction, the Oes permitted the doctors to perform lifesaving surgery on their baby, Hikari. He lives today, a 35-year-old with a plastic plate in his skull, autistic, epileptic, and the composer of two CDs of impressionistic music.

A Healing Family, a collection of 15 essays, is the first book Oe's published since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. It retells Hikari's remarkable achievements -- how he could not speak for years, how his mother constantly played a recording of bird sounds to him, how at 5 he said his first words while walking in the woods: "It's a water rail." Now Hikari, too, uses his personal life in his art: Requiem for M is a memorial to his surgeon, and Summer in Kitakaru a tribute to happy times with his younger sister and brother.

Perhaps addressing the large audience reading him for the first time in translation, Oe writes: "The central theme of my work, throughout much of my career, has been the way my family has managed to live with this handicapped child. Indeed, I would have to admit that the very ideas that I hold about this society and the world at large are based on and learned through living with him."

The lessons have been painful, as these articulate and beautifully translated essays reveal. Oe is no saint. He gets angry at his son and resents the time he spends caring for him. Although Hikari is a decent and humorous man, he will never manage life on his own.

As an intellectual, Oe seeks understanding of his personal dilemmas in the work of writers as diverse as William Blake, Flannery O'Connor and Simone Weil, all of whom suffered and found God. Oe himself often serves as an example for others. He's a frequent guest on Japanese talk shows, speaking on behalf of the disabled. He's aware of the ethical issues raised when he exposes the intimate details of his family's life, and tries to answer some questions: How could he have permitted a television crew to film his son in an epileptic seizure? Is it true he allowed Hikari to beat up his younger sister and brother? Why did he add to the family's burdens by having his wife's mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, move in with them?

Even his brother-in-law, the renowned filmmaker Juzo Itami, told The New York Times that "these people are a bit masochistic." Oe even reprints, and tries to answer, an anonymous letter which asks: "If Hikari Oe weren't the son of Kenzaburo Oe, would his works be performed at all?"

Oe scrupulously deals with these controversies, but there are questions the essays don't answer. To complete the picture one can read, in English, his 1990 novel, A Quiet Life. The narrator is the author's daughter, a remorseless critic of her distant, self-absorbed father. Because Oe is "in a pinch," which probably means he's depressed, his wife accompanies him for a year at Berkeley, leaving Ma-Chan, their daughter in her early twenties, in charge of her brothers -- the handicapped Eeyore, Hikari's nickname, and O-chan, who's cramming for university.

While Oe the essayist never mentions his son's sexuality, Oe the novelist is frantic about Eeyore's "sexual outbursts," especially when a pervert stalks their neighbourhood. While Oe the essayist talks abstractly about his son's future, Oe the novelist has his daughter say she will never marry and that Hikari will be her lifelong responsibility.

The translation of A Quiet Life is so abysmal that assessing it as literature is nearly impossible. Still, one is charmed by the conceit of a novelist who has his daughter discuss what it's like to appear in her father's fiction. She complains to O-chan: "It's a pain in the neck, don't you think, even if it's been done favourably, that he writes about us from his one-dimensional viewpoint? It's all right with my friends who know me, but it depresses me to think that I'm going to meet people who, through his stories, will have preconceived ideas about me."

Reading Oe's essays followed by his novel, is like attending a great lecture, then hearing a challenging debate.

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1996

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