Brotherhood, Death, and Japan

Japanese storyteller and writer Kenzaburō Ōe has established himself a force to be reckoned with in the world of literature. In 1994, he became just the second Japanese writer to win the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. In a literary career that spanned over six decades, he was heralded for creating “imagined worlds” that, with vivid literary strokes, captured the harrowing picture of “human predicament today.” He demonstrated this in his 1967 tale, Man’en gannen no futtōbōru (The Silent Cry). 

Set in the early 1960s, The Silent Cry relates the story of two brothers – Mitsusaburo and Takashi. The older, Mitsusaburo, or Mitsu for short, has one functioning eye. He is the disenchanted husband of an English professor, Natsumi. Their child was born physically and mentally disabled and was thus forwarded to the care of an institution. Just when he thought his life is starting to change, Mitsu’s friend committed suicide and Natsumi started to turn to the bottle for comfort.

With the sudden return of Takashi from the United States, Mitsu left his job and travel with his brother and wife to their native village, set in a hollow in the forest in Shikoku, one of the main islands of Japan. The brothers’ family used to be one of the leading families in the village but their years of absence resulted into a shift in local power. Their lone inheritance – a piece of land with a traditional residence-storehouse – was in disarray. With the upkeep and maintenance costing a fortune, Takashi agreed to sell their property to the “Emperor”, a rich Korean magnate who originally arrived at the village as a slave but has recently rose in economic prominence.

“Now I was just a transient in the valley, a one-eyed passerby too fat for his years, and life there had the power to summon up neither the memory nor the illusion of any other, truer self. As a passerby I had a right to insist on my identity.”

~ Kenzaburō Ōe The Silent Cry

With these developments, the usually passive Mitsu was slowly and reluctantly being drawn into the complicated mess of the village’s current political atmosphere. Takashi also began getting involved with the village’s affairs. He started by wielding influence over the village’s youth, organizing them into a group for a football training. However, he also used this influence to arrange actions that have dire consequences. As the village’s dark past surface to clash with the present, the plot descends into a turbulent whirlpool of secrets, untruths, and shocking revelations.

The winner of the prestigious 1967 Tanizaki Prize, The Silent Cry draws two brothers who are each other’s antithesis. Mitsu is introverted, servile, and unassertive. He wants to move on from the past and considers himself unappealing. His younger brother, on the other hand, is extroverted, domineering, and popular. Takashi is unafraid of the past and is constantly obsessed and intrigued by it. However, their differences go beyond their personalities; they also interpret and see things differently, in particular, their family’s history.

With the two brothers forming the backbone of the narrative, the novel’s primordial notion rises to the surface – the constant search for truth and the consequences that arise from this search. Hard and real truths were difficult to obtain in the story. They constantly hover on the fringes but they rarely, if ever, reach the surface. Mitsu and Taka related two distinctly varying versions of their childhood; they constantly corrected each other whenever the subject of their childhood comes into light.. One further contention for truth is the 1860 uprising with each brother earnestly believing and relating different versions of it.

As the brothers delve into the past in their search for answers, several questions rise to the surface. With each question surfacing, the shames of the past takes prominent shape. These shames of the past has been deeply embedded into the brothers’s veins, and by extension, that of the village and Japan. The immersion into the truth made Ōe explore the Japanese concept of honor and shame. When samurais are captured, they resort to seppuku or ritual suicide in order to restore honor to themselves or their families. This has trickled down into other parts of Japanese culture as well, deeply ingrained into the psyche of the devout. The only way to remove the stains of dishonor is through a public demonstration, or even violent acts.

Death cuts abruptly the warp of understanding. There are things which the survivors are never told. And the survivors have a steadily deepening suspicion that it is precisely because of the things incapable of communication that the deceased has chosen death. The factors that remain ill defined may sometimes lead a survivor to the very site of the disaster, but even then the only thing clear to anyone concerned is that he has been brought up against something incomprehensible

~ Kenzaburō Ōe The Silent Cry

Staying true to his personal brand of literature the Nobel Prize recognized him for, Ōe highlighted one humanly predicament, that of an existential crisis. Whilst Takashi was filled with ideas of revolution, the disillusioned Mitsusaburo was inclined to reflect on his life. Death is another pervasive element in the narrative; suicide was also repeatedly mentioned. There was a preoccupation with those who have passed away, and some were even accorded with approbation.

Other relevant themes abound in the narrative as well, from racism (specifically to Koreans) to the thrills of revolution. Albeit being published five decades earlier, The Silent Cry depicted populist leaders, echoing the qualities of today’s Duterte, Putin or Trump – the fascination with violence and virility, the obsession with machismo, and the skewed inclination to ideologies rather than intellect.

With the relationship of the two brothers the central theme upon which the narrative revolved, it is no surprise that it is the most compelling and touching facet of the story. They have the power to extricate each other from dire straits but they are unable to do so because they belong to two distinct worlds with discordant views. The two brothers are also subtly symbolic, with each brother an allusion to the two prevailing attitudes in post-war Japan. One side is nonchalant, preferring to step back and stick with tradition, while the other side is dynamic, wanting to institute changes in order to move forward.

Ōe’s atmospheric writing also helped propel the narrative. His writing possesses a dreamlike quality which shrouded the story a veil of mystery and enchantment. This extensive use of dreamlike imagery gave the narrative a different complexion. The Silent Cry thrived on a gripping but nightmarish atmosphere but it was also this dark and bleak complexion that made the narrative compelling. This also made each element symbolic in the grander scale of the narrative.

Everything around me — the dark brown stretches of withered grassland where the snow had completely vanished, leaving the soil parched and powerless as yet to put forth new life, even the somber evergreen heights of the forest beyond the groves of great deciduous trees — had an air of indefinable loss, like the dead ruin of a human being, that awoke an obscure uneasiness in me as my gaze roved across the hollow.

~ Kenzaburō Ōe The Silent Cry

The Silent Cry is a multilayered narrative propelled by chaos and dark and heavy emotions – anguish, regret, and a deep foreboding. It is candidly powerful, with vivid imagery that evokes a bleak but ironically beguiling world. Ōe regaled the readers with his keen insights on the human soul, delivering a narrative that is filled with uncomfortable truths. He was rarely reluctant in dealing with the depressive, the dark, the morose and the bleak; he thrives in them. The narrative was deliberately slow but it never dragged. The Silent Cry was not designed for pleasure or enjoyment; it was meant to be relished and experienced.

Kenzaburō Ōe placed the proverbial microscope on the human condition and human experience in the story’s descent into a chaotic world. In intersecting the past with the present, he grappled with several truths and untruths, masking them in a cloak of unpleasantness and sorrow. But hidden deep inside this cloak of darkness is a spark of hope, a spring of redemption where a room for contemplation and reflection is present. With characters that are imperfect – depressed, alcoholic, delusive – but compelling and colorful, The Silent Cry is a startlingly riveting literary concoction written by a master storyteller.

Rating

82%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

The Silent Cry was my first venture into the world of the 1993 Nobel Laureate in Literature Kenzaburō Ōe. I’ve heard quite a lot about him, including the fact that he is one of Haruki Murakami’s vocal critiques. Ōe has a very dreamlike writing, at least in The Silent Cry and he has a distinct way of unraveling one’s philosophical and personal intersections. It wasn’t always an easy experience, however. The complex emotions and ideologies portrayed were, at times, challenging to get in to. It is certainly not a book to be enjoyed but rather a story to be experienced. For my first Ōe, it was memorable, reminding me of my admiration for Japanese writers and their brand of literature.

Book Specs

Author: Kenzaburō Ōe
Translator: John Bester
Publisher: Kodansha International
Publishing Date: 1981
Number of Pages: 274
Genre: Fiction

Synopsis

The Silent Cry traces the uneasy relationship between two bothers who return to their ancestral home, a village in densely forested western Japan. While one brother tries to sort out the aftereffects of a friend’s suicide and the birth of a retarded son, the other embarks on a quixotic mission to incite an uprising among the local youth. Ōe’s description of his this brother’s messianic struggle to save a disintegrating local culture and economy from the depredations of a Korean wheeler-dealer called “The Emperor of the Supermarkets” is as chillingly pertinent today as it was when first published in 1967. Powerful and daring, The Silent Cry is a thoroughly compelling classic of world literature.

About the Author

Kenzaburō Ōe was born on January 31, 1935 in the village of ‎Ōse in Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku, Japan to a family of wealthy landowners.

Ōe attended high school in Matsuyama. At the age of 18, he made his first long train trip to Tokyo. A year later, in 1954, he enrolled in the Department of French Literature at the Tokyo University. He received instruction under the tutelage of  Professor Kazuo Watanabe, a specialist on Francois Rabelais. His brilliant writing was apparent at the onset and he was hailed as one of the most promising writers.

Ōe started writing in 1957, capturing attention with Shisha no ogori (Lavish Are the Dead), published in the magazine Bungakukai. In 1958, he won his first major literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, for Shiiku (The Catch). During the same year, he published his first novel, Memushiri kouchi (Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids). He accomplished all of these while still a university student; he graduated in 1959.

Among his other seminal works include Kojinteki-na taiken (A Personal Matter, 1964) in which he pens his personal struggles, and eventual acceptance of, being the father of a disabled child. For Man’en gannen no futtōbōru (The Silent Cry, 1967), he was awarded the 1967 Tanizaki Prize. He has also received a score of accolades for his works and writing career but the most notable among them is his 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature victory.

He currently resides in Tokyo.