A Japanese variation on Lord of the Flies
Book review by Geraldine Sherman

(The Globe and Mail June 3, 1995)

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids
by Kenzaburo Oe (translated by Paul St. John MacKintosh and Maki Sugiyama)
Marion Boyars, 189 pages $35

The Nobel Prize for literature that went to Kenzaburo Oe last year has brought into English his chillingly brutal first novel and given us a chance to watch a Japanese master begin his literary ascent. Originally published in 1958, when Oe was only 23, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids introduces concerns he returned to in later books - the struggle for power, the sad fate of unlucky children, and, above all, the decline of moral authority.

To escape incessant air raids during wartime, a ragtag pack of reformatory boys are sent on a forced march through dense forest, seeking shelter in a remote mountain area. What they find is a village infected by plague, where "Dogs, cats, field mice, goats, even foals; scores of animal carcasses were piled up forming a small hill, quietly and patiently decomposing." The boys are ordered to bury the animals, but it's too late - contagion has spread among the residents. During the night the healthy ones bolt their doors, lock the boys in a storehouse, and head for a neighbouring village, posting a guard to shoot anyone trying to escape.

The outline recalls William Golding's Lord of the Flies, but in this Japanese variation the stranded boys sense that their survival depends on group solidarity. In the beginning they rejoice in their freedom from adult domination. Their situation remains bearable as long as they feel like occupiers rather than prisoners. They break into houses and steal food. They're taught to hunt by a young Korean from a nearby encampment. They're joined by a deserting soldier who confounds their sense of honour because he refuses to kill.

The story is told by a nameless delinquent who watches over his younger brother and makes rough love to a local girl. Five days later, when the villagers return and the idyll ends, both brother and lover are dead. Betrayed by his companions, made bold by his remorse, our storyteller flees into the forest and an uncertain end. Oe makes it clear that the guilt in this cruel story belongs not with the boys who are forced to become traitors but with the adults who were in charge.

Oe's generation, children in wartime Japan, experienced the humiliating collapse of authority when their emperor, once regarded as a living god, revealed himself a mere man when he broadcast his nation's defeat in 1945. This novel could be read as a parable on the decline of tradition and the loss of faith in national leadership. As a member of Japan's small group of left-wing intellectuals, Oe has criticized the postwar preoccupation with the West and the "grotesquely bloated consumer society."

But his own interests are Western. He studied French literature at Tokyo University, wrote his thesis on Sartre, and admits the influence of French intellectual fashion from existentialism to deconstruction. The power of this early novel lies, in part, in its freedom from imported literary contortions.

In their introduction to this book, the translators write that Oe himself was particularly proud of his debut novel, calling it his "happiest work." It may be hard to imagine the joy in creating such a bleak fable, but it becomes understandable when we consider the central event in his later life - the birth, in 1963, of a brain-damaged son. This emotionally charged experience animates A Private Matter and The Silent Cry, both previously published in English.

These books provide a challenge for non-Japanese readers. The language seems, to use one of Oe's favourite expressions, "clotted." We are told in the introduction to Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids that the mature Oe usually wrote a straightforward Japanese sentence, then went over it two or three times, "making it more refractory, highly worked and polysemic." As a result, much of his writing lacks the immediate impact of this first novel.

If interest in Kenzaburo Oe remains strong, other translations should follow. Of particular interest to readers of this book will be the sequel he wrote in 1980, The Trial of 'Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.' Here the outcast of the first novel returns to put the entire village on trial, and, employing a postmodern trick, re-enacts some of the original events. It will surprise none of Oe's readers to learn that, once again, justice is not served.

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1995

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