THE SILENT CRY BY KENZABURO OE

Chris Rock once asked: whatever happened to crazy?

To which you could legitimately reply: oh, it’s right here, Chris; it’s right here.

I’ve read The Silent Cry three times now. And it has become less absurd, less confusing to me on each occasion. Something is going on: either I am becoming increasingly strange or the more one reads the book the more the layers of crazy drop away to reveal the, admittedly diseased, heart of the narrative. This is, I’ve come to realise, a novel about the tension between old and new culture, about political activism, about how young people are drawn to the romance of violence and mayhem; it is about the romanticising of militant political ideologies, about hiding, about a feeling of baselessness, about guilt, about family. Shit, it’s about a lot of things that are easy to overlook as you gape open-mouthed at the monumental insanity that is cradling these themes.

I am drawn Japanese culture, and one of the things I find most interesting about it is the tension, the dichotomy, between the mannered and the bonkers, the reserved and the seedy. So, on one end one has things like the tea ceremony, origami etc, which are examples of, and expressions of, the side of Japanese culture that is delicate, aesthetic, reserved, beautiful. If you were looking for a literary expression of this side you’d be best served picking up Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters or Kawabata’s Snow Country. Both novels are subtle, graceful and deceptively simple [although, for what it is worth, I prefer Kawabata]. And then there is the darker side, the Kamikazi, the violent, seething, mind-bogglingly weird side of Japanese culture. Take the films of Takashi Miike, such as Gozu, Happiness of the Katakuris, or Visitor Q?. They are brilliant; and outstandingly odd and sexually charged and ultimately unnerving.

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[Gozu by Takashi Miike]

Yukio Mishima is one of my literary heroes [indeed, his ghost stalks the pages of this book] and his body of work pretty much straddles the line between the two aspects of Japanese culture that I am talking about. So, while he wrote things like the lovely Spring Snow he also wrote the strange and intense The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It is worth noting that Mishima formed his own army and infiltrated the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, took the commandant hostage, and eventually committed seppuku [ritual suicide by disembowelling]. These actions serve as a kind of warning for the sort of things one will encounter in The Silent Cry, they give one a glimpse of the psychology of some of the characters. In any case, there is, I can confidently assert, no beauty here; we’re in Miike territory, not Makioka territory.

So, let’s start there, then; let the first pitch be some discussion around the nutso aspects of Oe’s book. Within the first four pages there are two bizarre descriptions of suicide [one failed attempt and one successful]. The man who successfully takes his life paints his head crimson, sticks a cucumber up his anus, and hangs himself. As you do. It is his friend, Mitsu, the narrator, who attempts suicide by grabbing a dog and crawling into a pit in his garden. Once down there he begins to claw at the walls in an effort to cause some kind of landslide which would, of course, bury him alive.  Er, as you do. Amusingly, he is thwarted by a passing milkman who thinks he has fallen down the hole while out for an early morning stroll with his pooch. This narrator, by the way, is a one-eyed weirdo, nicknamed Rat, who has an alcoholic wife and a child with a severe deformity [a kind of growth on his head].

This mention of a brain damaged, deformed, child will be familiar to seasoned Oe readers. In fact, most [if not all, apart from his debut] of his novels feature such a child. It is a touch of autobiography, as Oe himself has a child who was born with some kind of brain damage. In his novel A Personal Matter the focus of the story is Bird’s struggle with fatherhood and his desire not only to avoid responsibility but to actually have his baby killed [I’m not kidding!]. I enjoyed A Personal Matter [aside from the weirdly upbeat ending], as I have all of Oe’s books I’ve read, but one of the things I like the most about The Silent Cry is how far he steps away from his own experience, from his own biography. In this way, The Silent Cry feels like a greater achievement, feels like an author spreading his wings, or gunning for something a bit more universal than the contents of his own diary.

While still on the subject of crazy, I haven’t yet made mention of the child defecating in the middle of the road, Japan’s Fattest Woman, the forest hermit, the beast of the forest, the rape, the brutal murder, the incest, the random violence, the rolling around naked in the snow with an erection [ah, come on, we’ve all done it], and so on and so on. That’s not the full extent of the horror either. Perhaps the most extravagantly plumed feather in Oe’s cap is his ability to imbue ordinary events with unpleasantness. He’s like the anti Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban author who coined the term lo real maravilloso. Carpentier was able to render the workaday world, the banal, beautiful or magical. Oe, as I said, does quite the opposite. He describes a naked woman as like a ‘plucked fowl’, the smell of plants as like ‘the reek of a dog’s slobbering mouth’, the dark eyelids of his wife as ‘evoking another false pair of eyes like the protective markings of certain moths.’ This means that his work trades in an unrelenting atmosphere of eeriness, of revulsion almost. As a consequence, one never feels entirely comfortable while reading his novels; one’s eyebrows are almost permanently raised, one’s mouth slightly open, one’s arse shuffling in your seat. It’s a neat trick, but it does mean that his work is probably not for everyone. Oe won the Nobel prize, principally for this novel, but I can’t imagine that the increased exposure made him popular among middle-brow Guardian readers and those who keep an eye on the booker prize list every year.

Mitsu, the Rat, is to a large extent the novel’s voice of reason. He is, despite his own depression, suicidal tendencies, and unfortunate appearance, the beacon of sanity in the near total and suffocating darkness and chaos. It is, however, Takashi, his brother, who gives the narrative momentum, who most strongly holds your attention, and provides almost all of the excitement [and disgust]. Takashi, like Mitsu in his pit and Mitsu’s wife who tries to lose herself in alcohol, is also trying to hide, first by emigrating to America, and then by venturing back to the village where he grew up [which is located deep in the forest – the dense forest itself acting as a kind of pit or hole in which to hide]. This hiding in family history does not, of course, involve setting up a profile on genesreunited.com. Takashi’s interest in centred around a violent uprising and the ancestors who took part in it. It is his aim to, in effect, recreate this uprising in the village.

On the front of my copy of the book Henry Miller is credited with comparing it with Dostoevsky, and he is spot on [for once]. There are echoes of Crime & Punishment, even The Brothers K, but it most closely resembles Demons, my favourite of his novels. In Demons we have a group of nihilists running amok, causing havoc, directly or indirectly influenced by an enigmatic leader called Stavrogin. In The Silent Cry Takashi’s role is very similar to Stavrogin’s, as is the effect he has upon his followers. What is satisfying, for me, about both Oe’s novel and Dostoevsky’s, is that while on the surface there appears to be a political motivation behind these acts, in reality the leaders are engaged in their own personal existential [im]moral experiments. Both Stavrogin and Takashi want to push their luck, they want to dismiss conventional morality and see just what they are capable of. The idea, it seems, is to be as fucking horrible as possible. This results, of course, in some shocking scenes. I don’t want to give away what these shocking scenes are, only to say that Takashi pretty much crosses off his list most of the major taboos, except cannibalism. I’m pretty sure he’d have had a go at that eventually, too, had he had the chance.

I wrote earlier about there being a number of themes in the novel, and the first two times I read The Silent Cry I completely missed that most ubiquitous Japanese theme of all, certainly in terms of great literature, which is old vs new or, if you prefer, traditional vs modern. I mention it now because it is worth noting that while Oe is, in a lot of ways, a thoroughly modern writer, The Silent Cry does deal with some of the issues that have played on the mind of many of the best Japanese writers who preceded him. Takashi’s uprising, his revolution, is primarily aimed at a supermarket owned by a Korean businessman. Which is kind of hilariously brilliant. Our resident lunatic [at least on the surface – see previous paragraphs] wants a return to some kind of ancient militant culture by bringing down the equivalent of Tescos. Down with microwave meals! Down with buy-one-get-one-free! Down with supercilious check-out girls called Becky!

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