In the ambit of contemporary Japanese literature – a part of the literary world that has produced some of the most renowned names and literary titles – Kenzaburō Ōe is a name that stands out alongside equally prominent names such as Yasunari Kawabata, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Natsume Sōseki, and his contemporary Haruki Murakami. With a literary career that spanned decades, he has become a prominent presence in Japanese and world literary circles. He has published novels, short stories, and essays that grappled with a plethora of contemporary social and political concerns, including nuclear weapons, the tragedies of war and colonialism, and existentialism.
His prose blossomed during the latter half of the 20th century. Apart from being a prolific and renowned writer of immense talent, Ōe was a prominent voice of activism and a literary critic. For his complex body of work, Ōe has earned several accolades but one stands out. He would earn the distinction of becoming just the second Japanese writer to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994; Kawabata was the first Japanese writer to earn this distinction while several other writers have been repeatedly nominated, such as Tanizaki and Mishima. In its citation, the Swedish Academy lauded Ōe for creating “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today“. This distinction has virtually consolidated Ōe’s legacy as a writer.
Unfortunately, Ōe passed away on March 3. He left behind a rich heritage not only as one of Japan’s foremost writers but also as a profound storyteller who explored the frailties of humanity. For sure, in a part of the literary world that is brimming with stellar talents who wrote some of the world’s most memorable and studied works of fiction, Ōe managed to stand his ground. Without a doubt, he is one of the world’s most important contemporary writers. He managed to sweep the world over with his compelling and memorable works such as his debut novel, Memushiri kouchi (芽むしり仔撃ち, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, 1958) and Man’en gan’nen no futtobōru (万延元年のフットボール, The Silent Cry, 1967), both of which are dark tales with brothers and small villages as focal points. Both books also stand out in his oeuvre for their exploration of the frail conditions of our humanity.
“What lies beyond us is not, I think, a choice of one or the other. Rather, it’s been arranged for us to choose of three. Heaven and purgatory can be lumped together as one. Then you have hell. And the third choice is absolute nothingness. Now, should you go to the third place – absolute nothingness – over heaven or hell, which fortunately already exists – well, then, you end up at a place that’s tantamount to your not being born.”~ Kenzaburō Ōe, A Quiet Life
Ōe has mastered storytelling but he is also renowned for his mastery of the I-novel (私小説, Shishōsetsu, Watakushi Shōsetsu). The I-novel is a literary subgenre that has become prevalent in contemporary Japanese literature. It is a genre that juxtaposes fictional elements with autobiographical elements. His mastery of writing the I-novel was on display in his novel Shizuka na seikatsu (静かな生活). Originally published in 1990, it was made available to the anglophone world in 1996 with the English translation of Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall. The translated novel carried the title A Quiet Life, the literal translation of the book’s original title.
At the heart of A Quiet Life was Ma-chan who was also the book’s main narrator. She was the twenty-year-old daughter of K, a famous Japanese novelist, and scholar. At the start of the novel, we learn that K was about to leave for the United States. He was invited to be a writer-in-residence at a university in California and spend a year there. In a way, this was a form of escape for K. He was experiencing one of his “pinches”, the onset of a spell of depression. It was getting so bad that he felt the need to flee from Japan. Because of this, his wife felt the need to accompany him abroad. Their three children, however, had to be left behind and fend for their own. Ma-chan was the second born of the novelist’s three children. She had two brothers: Eeyore was the firstborn and was four years older than Ma-chan. O-chan was the last born.
Under normal circumstances, taking care of the family home and looking after his siblings would be left on the shoulders of the firstborn. But the family is anything but normal. Eeyore, unfortunately, was born with a disability. He was born with a part of his brain developing outside of his skull. He grew up exhibiting signs of autism. However, he cannot be left to fend on his own. This leaves the responsibility of being the temporary head of the household on the shoulders of Ma-chan. This is on top of looking after her brothers. Ever the conscientious daughter and sister, she understood the circumstances. She naturally took on these roles, including being the caretaker of her older brother. O-chan, meanwhile, recently graduated from high school and was preoccupied with studying at a cram school in preparation for his university entrance exam.
The novel took on the form of a diary written by Ma-chan, a student of literature. She formally called her diary “Diary as Home. It covered primarily the events after their parent’s departure. It was anything but uneventful. Not long after their parents left, a man assaulting young girls in the area where Eeyore was studying music – despite his limitations, Eeyore was a musical prodigy who can compose and loves playing the piano – was apprehended. Ma-chan initially suspected it was her brother. The two older siblings would also attend a funeral in the countryside where their father was born. Ma-chan was not remiss in keeping her parents abreast of what happening while they are away.
“These words themselves petrified me. They had been uttered in a manner no different from the way he usually speaks, playfully unconcerned and aloof. But when I looked up, I saw on his face, and in his eyes, which were fixed squarely on the thick staff paper he held in his hands, the ebb and flow of so distressed an ire that a chill came over me. Frightenened to the bottom of my heart, I waited for his next words.”~ Kenzaburō Ōe, A Quiet Life
I-novel is something that Ōe has truly mastered. His short novel, Kojinteki na taken (個人的な体験, A Personal Matter, 1964) is a classic example of this genre, a literary work that has become synonymous with his name. In the book, Ōe digs deep into his psyche as he examined his own feelings surrounding the birth of his firstborn, Hikari. Hikari was born with a brain hernia. Ōe was candid enough to admit that he struggled to accept his son’s condition. Not only does a brain hernia require surgery but also meant that Hikari would grow up with learning disabilities. Ōe and his wife, Yukari, embraced the difficult task of raising their son. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to understand that Eeyore was the representation of Hikari in A Quiet Life.
With his mastery of the genre, one cannot be faulted in fearing that the voice of Ōe would merge would that of his daughter, that Ma-chan was essentially a smokescreen for her father. That was, however, not the case as Ma-chan loomed above the narrative and her dairy was her primary device. We learn about her desire for a quiet life and the profound struggles of a young woman, more so as she was raised in a traditional society that had set expectations for women of her age. The diary detailed Ma-chan’s challenges in looking after her brother, from driving him to his workshops to enrolling him to his swimming lessons to dealing with his epileptic seizures. O-chan could not be bothered as he was preoccupied with his incoming examinations. The diary was also an astute device for it provided the readers an intimate glimpse into Ma-chan’s psychological profile.
The focal point of the story was the relationship between brother and sister. Ma-chan was struggling to come to terms with her brother’s affliction. This was exacerbated by the difficulties she experienced while looking after him. The exploration of sibling dynamics is not new in Ōe’s oeuvre; a pair of brothers were the main characters in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids and The Silent Cry. The exploration of sibling dynamics extended into a grander subject related to the dynamics of dysfunctional families. Because of his disability, the care of Eeyore was the primary concern of K and his wife. They poured their energy into his welfare. There were moments when they flinched but their resolve to raise their son was admirable and commendable.
K, while a prominent presence and absence as well, managed to make his presence felt. He was too focused on his work and was aloof toward his two younger children. His and his wife’s focus on Eeyore, moreover, created a chasm between the parents and the two younger children. Ma-chan and O-chan can’t help but feel like they were intruders in what was supposed to be a heartwarming portrait of a family of five. Ma-chan felt like an abandoned child: I think I can trace this sentiment back to my childhood, when I saw I’m always preoccupied with Eeyore and felt that he wasn’t really interested in either me or O-chan. The subject of abandonment was recurrent in the story. The second chapter was titled Abandoned Children of this Planet. Sutego, a composition by Eeyore, literally translates to “abandoned child.” Not only was the novel an intimate exploration of a young woman’s examination of her own feelings but it was also a father’s reckoning with his own shortcomings toward his younger children.
“The moment you hear the first few notes of some of these versions, you think they’re going to be up-tempo. And sure enough when you’ve listened until the end, you tell yourself you were right, and remember them this way. Then there are those you remember as being slow, the way you remember the versions of Furtwängler or Toscanini we usually hear.. But very often, these memories become distorted through your own stubborn imagination.”~ Kenzaburō Ōe, A Quiet Life
Ōe’s writing was seminal in weaving the novel’s fine elements together. It was simple but it was enough to send the book’s message across. It was at its most affectionate when it explores the complexities of Ma-chan’s psychological profile. Her doubts, her concerns, and her fears were vividly fleshed out by Ōe. The status of being one of the world’s most esteemed writers, however, does not guarantee infallibility. As the story moved forward, the novel’s flaws started to manifest. For one, Ōe buffered the story with plotlines that never fully developed. They neither added value to the story nor did they move it forward. There were also blunders toward the end of the story that drove it to a premature ending. While the story had bright spots, it was, overall, uneven.
Flaws and blunders aside, A Quiet Life is a welcome addition to his diverse oeuvre. It was a deviation from his typical work. Ōe, an activist at heart, does not shy away from challenging established literary conventions in order to produce a compelling work. He does not let himself be shackled by the constraints of writing and storytelling. A Quiet Life is a testament to the vast network that Ōe has cast over his prolific literary career. It was the story of Ma-chan and her own pinch, her own rough patch, her own misgivings. However, the story extended beyond her as it was also the story of Eeyore, of K. It provided an intimate glimpse into a dysfunctional family striving to look into the bright side. It was not always perfect but it provided a glimpse into the diverse world of Ōe’s oeuvre.
Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 15%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 9%
To best honest, I was quite reluctant about reading any of the works of Nobel Laureate in Literature Kenzaburō Ōe. I eventually relented; my curiosity is bigger than my apprehension after all. In 2020, I finally took a leap of faith and read my first novel by Ōe, The Silent Cry. It was a dark tale of two brothers and a village but I was deeply impressed. Two years later, I completed my third novel by Ōe. I have an interesting anecdote about A Quiet Life. I actually thought that A Quiet Life was a different translation of a different Ōe novel, A Personal Matter, which is a deeply personal book about his son. Nevertheless, my realization was late as I have already started reading A Quiet Life. Both books, however, share similar elements as they both borrowed elements from the writer’s life. A Quiet Life, however, was conveyed through the perspective of his daughter. While it explored a theme I encountered in my first two novels by Ōe, A Quiet Life was distinct. First, it is set in Tokyo. Second, the main character was female. The book was middling, not as impressive as The Silent Cry or Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids but it provided a different dimension of Ōe’s prose. Now, I am looking forward to reading A Personal Matter.
Author: Kenzaburō Ōe
Translators (from Japanese): Kunioki Yanagishita, William Wetherall
Publisher: Grove Press
Publishing Date: 1996
Number of Pages: 240
Kenzaburō Ōe is one of the most original and important writers of our time, and nowhere is his genius more evident than in his mastery of the Japanese “I”-novel – that uncanny blend of the real with the imagined, memoir with fiction, the reconstruction of the history with the evocation of the inner life.
A Quiet Life is narrated by Ma-Chan, a young woman who at the age of twenty finds herself in an unusual family situation. Her father is a famous and fascinating novelist; her older brother, though mentally handicapped, possesses an almost magical gift for musical composition. The lives of both father and son revolve around their work and each other, and her mother’s life is devoted to the care of them both. She and her younger brother find themselves emotionally on the outside of this oddly constructed nuclear family. But when her father leaves Japan to accept a visiting professorship from a distinguished American university, Ma-Chan finds herself suddenly the head of the household and the center of family relationships that must begin to redefine.
About the Author
To learn more about the recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, Kenzaburō Ōe (大江 健三郎), click here.