Rating: 5 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge
This is an incredible book, but it isn’t a cheerful read. I found it claustrophobic at times, stuck in a snow-bound village with protagonists trying to make sense of themselves and their relationships to each other and the past. It made clear to me how much social upheaval the Japanese people experienced in less than 100 years from Meiji Restoration to US occupation and how people struggled to assimilate that upheaval. Shame and defiance are twin themes in the book, something that still seems to ring through Japanese society today.
Based on some reviews I read online, I was expecting this book to be hard work. Most reviewers complained that the book is miserable, the characters unpleasant and unsympathetic. While there isn’t much in the way of joy or levity in the pages, I felt some sympathy for the main characters. Their lives are hung about with tragedy and hard decisions, and their relations with each other are corrupted as a result. Mitsu and his wife are struggling to make sense of their child’s birth defect. Mitsu’s remaining brother Taka is trying to find a place for himself in the world. He is angry and misguided, and the least likeable of the characters, but he stands as an example of those in Japanese society unwilling to accept their post war subjugation who seek to establish their relevance through violence. Mitsu is weak and floundering in depression. I wanted him to stand up to his brother, but could see why he didn’t, in his self-imposed role of guardian of his family’s heritage and shame. Largely set in the dying village of their youth in winter, the sense of claustrophobia mounts as Mitsu, prevented by snow from returning to Tokyo, retreats into isolation and Taka exploits the pent up frustration of the village’s young men. As events escalate, Mitsu seems on the brink of losing everything, but then Taka makes an unexpected move.
From this novel, the only one of Ōe’s I have read so far, it is clear to me why Ōe was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, while his contemporary Mishima wasn’t. Ōe’s prose, in comparison to Mishima’s, is poetic and graceful. While there are political messages in the story, they aren’t thrust down the reader’s throat. The novel is an exploration of human fragility, of our responses to uncontrollable events, of the choices we make in life. It examines the stories we tell ourselves and the way we manipulate memory to both form our self-image and justify it. It considers the nature of truth and whether we ever truly know it or speak it. It documents events that demonstrate social compliance and the fallout when such compliance is exploited for ill. The Nobel judges cited The Silent Cry as a key work in the imagined world Ōe created across his writing, ‘where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament’. Although it was a difficult read at times, I loved it.
I can also see in this book where Haruki Murakami takes some of his influences from – a man climbs into a pit and sits with a dog to contemplate his life. His brother’s friend gives him the nickname Rat to signify that he is a man who has lost faith with the world. He is floundering and directionless since twin tragedies struck his life. He works as a translator and gives up work to pursue a quest. Murakami is annually tipped by bookies as the next Nobel Prize winner. As much as he is one of my favourite authors, and as much as I think his books are brilliant, now that I have read Ōe I can say that Murakami won’t be a Nobel winner.