Thanks to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4, I have the chance to explore the intricate world of Kenzaburo Oe (pronounced ‘oh-ay’, 大江 健三郎 ), Japan’s second Nobel Laureate for Literature (1994), after Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成) received the Prize in 1968.
Like his earlier work A Personal Matter*, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is an autobiographical novel dealing with the author’s experiences of raising a handicapped child. A Personal Matter was written when Oe was young, describing an ordeal still raw from the initial shock of the birth of his brain-damaged child. Rouse Up was published in 1983, almost twenty years after A Personal Matter.
Rouse Up chronicles a more mature protagonist, the writer K, who has gone past the stage of denial and escape, to come to terms with the reality of fathering a handicapped child. Through the arduous journey, the writer has gained insights and pleasure from his relationship with his son Hikari, whom he nicknamed Eeyore in his novels.
Oe starts off the book with K’s plan to write a dictionary of terms for his now maturing son, to prepare him for his entry into the real, adult world. This turns out to be a learning task in itself. How do you explain to a brain-damaged person what the word ‘foot’ means? Or ‘river’, ‘life’, or ‘death’? He needs to deconstruct the realities of his everyday life before he can grasp the essence and meaning of his encounters.
It’s interesting to see how K get through to his son in defining ‘foot’. Eeyore understands it in relation to ‘gout’ from which his father once suffered. After the healing of the pain and swelling of the gout, it has turned into ‘a nice foot’. So, the understanding of ‘foot’ comes in light of the pain it had experienced. K soon realizes that the definitions are more for himself as for Eeyore.
The author’s long journey of acceptance and self-discovery owes mostly to his love for the works of William Blake. Rouse Up is a smorgasbord of selections if you are a Blake scholar. So admittedly, I have had a hard time ploughing through Oe’s use of parallels from Blake’s poetic and artistic symbolisms to reflect on his own predicament. In certain parts, Oe’s writing is just as esoteric as Blake’s mythical depictions. However, one thing is clear. My enjoyment of this novel is no less, and the poignancy of a father-son relationship no weaker as I find my way through the Blake maze. The book requires and deserves multiple reading.
Despite its complexity and denseness, the essence filters through Oe’s meticulous descriptions. Further, John Nathan’s translation navigates effectively through Oe’s nuanced and sensitive narratives. I’m just curious as to what the original Japanese version looks like since there are numerous references and quotes from Blake. Are they in English or in Japanese translation?
Two lines from The Four Zoas seem to have outlined K’s personal journey:
“That Man should Labour & sorrow & learn & forget, & return
To the dark valley whence he came to begin his labours anew.”
It’s a perpetual striving, not unlike Sisyphus’s effort, and yet still leads from one path to the next, prompting a renewed acceptance and offering novel discoveries on the way.
Aside from the esoteric passages of Blake’s visions, some very simple lines shine through, and they are the ones that are most moving for me:
… healing the rift with my son, I became aware of his grief through the agency of a Blake poem, “On Another’s Sorrow,” which includes this stanza:
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrows share,
Can a father see his child,
Weep, nor be with sorrow fill’d.
One of the “Songs of Innocence,” the poem concludes with the following verse:
O! he gives to us his joy,
That our grief he may destroy
Till our grief is fled & gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
In his attempt to know more about Eeyore, K explores the power of dreams and the imagination. Using Blake’s mythological poetry and artwork, he tries to understand Eeyore’s internal world. Both he and his wife know Eeyore does not dream, but that does not preclude he does not have imagination.
Subscribing to Blake’s conviction that: “The Imagination is not a State: It is the Human Existence itself.”, K strives in earnest to cultivate Eeyore’s imagination. Eeyore has an almost instinctive response to bird calls, distinguishing them even before he adopts human language. As he grows older, he is drawn towards the music of Bach and Mozart. His imagination soon finds a channel of expression in composing, an amazing accomplishment nurtured by a highly supportive and loving family. In real life, Oe’s son Hikari is a composer.
Adopting Blake’s vision, K sees a future for father and son together in a state of grace, from Blake’s Jerusalem:
“Jesus replied Fear not Albion unless I die thou canst not live
But if I die I shall arise again & thou with me
This is friendship & Brotherhood without it Man is Not
So Jesus spoke! The Covering Cherub coming on in darkness
Overshadowed them & Jesus and Thus do Men in Eternity
One for another to put off by forgiveness, every sin.”
From coming to terms with the tragic reality of fathering a brain-damaged child, to ultimately, almost symbiotically, sharing his life with his son, is a process not short of a personal epiphany. At the end of the novel, Eyeore has grown to be a twenty-year-old man. While still having a limited mental capacity, Eeyore has his way of exuding his own humor, love and care for those around him. The story is a poignant tapestry weaving real-life and the visionary, through which an imagined world of reality is beautifully conceived.
As for the source of the book title, it comes as a moving episode at the end of the book. I should keep that for you to discover. A heart-warming finish to a poignant chronicle.
John Nathan’s Afterword is an eloquent tribute to the father, son, and the nurturing family. It is also a helpful annotation of the novel.
Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe, translated by John Nathan, published by Grove Press, NY, 2002. 259 pages.
* A touching review of A Personal Matter has been posted recently by Claire at Kiss A Cloud. Also, Mel U’s A Reading Life has posted extensively on Oe and other Japanese writers. Of course, there’s Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza, who has hosted Japanese Literature Challenge all these years, now in its fourth term. I thank them all for their inspiration.