A friend suggested to me the other day that I might be suffering from some form of PTSD. I actively avoid the tv news and newspapers. I’m reticent to open letters. I flinch when someone knocks at the door. I came to believe, an early age, that the world is a grotesque place, and my behaviour, she said, is that of someone who does not wish to have his judgement backed up with further evidence. I withdraw into books, she said, because I’m wary of what exists outside of them. I withdraw into books that, in most cases, contain fictional worlds far removed from the grotesque one in which I live. Indeed, I once abandoned Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird after reading only a few pages. I was unwilling to take the weight of the child’s suffering upon my shoulders.

“Had it been possible for me to fix the plane permanently in the sky, to defy the winds and clouds and all the forces pushing it upward and pulling it earthward, I would have willingly done so. I would have stayed in my seat with my eyes closed, all strength and passion gone, my mind as quiescent as a coat rack under a forgotten hat, and I would have remained there, timeless, unmeasured, unjudged, bothering no one, suspended forever between my past and my future.”

I do not know, therefore, what compelled me to pick up Steps  – which is often described as disturbing and brutal – by the same author. It wasn’t, as I know it is for some, the recommendation of David Foster Wallace, whose work I have only a begrudging admiration for. Perhaps it was the comparisons to Kafka and Celine, two writers I count amongst my favourites, even though these kind of comparisons are often wide of the mark. Certainly, I did not see much of either in Steps, but there is a compellingly odd, almost weightless atmosphere, which reminded me not of Kafka but Ice by Anna Kavan. As with that book, there is a lack of basic, concrete information. Everything is vague. No character is named. At most they are given a title, such as the ski instructor. Places are not identified either, except in terms like ‘the island’ or ‘the village.’ The settings could be anywhere, at any time. The only real reference points are mentions of ‘the war’ and concentration camps.

What this creates is a sense of unreality, and, consequently, a feeling that anything is possible. And when it does occur, this anything is, as promised, almost without exception violent and/or unpleasant. There is, for example, one scene, or entry, in which a ‘demented’ woman is found by the narrator in a cage in a barn in a village. She had been, it is told, repeatedly raped. In another, a man feeds bread with broken glass in it to children. Often the violence is random, almost motiveless, and sadistic. A nightwatchman is killed with a glass bottle. A army sniper takes out unarmed passersby. The violence is not, however, disturbing, not even for someone who is as sensitive to it as I am, precisely because it takes place in a world that is not, except in superficial ways, recognisably ours; it is Kosinski’s own dream-like alternate reality. It also helps, in this regard, that his style is not voyeuristic or pornographic. He does not linger over the particulars, so that, for example, one does not witness the witless woman’s rapes.


As one or two of the previous examples suggest sex plays a significant role in a number of the entries. Even the first, in which there is no sexual activity at all, but in which the narrator convinces a young girl to run away with him by flashing his credit cards, sex could be said to be the motivating factor. Indeed, this entry introduces one of the book’s primary preoccupations, which is the human predatory, often sexually predatory, instinct. In one piece, the narrator is called a ‘hyena’ for preying on a dying woman in order to gratify himself; in another he is himself preyed upon by two overweight women, when he finds himself trapped on an island without money or food or any means of escape; in yet another the narrator cold-heartedly hopes a gang-rape victim will recover soon so that they can begin to ‘make love’ again, while reminding himself that he would have to be gentle [a thought he finds ‘unwelcome.’]

What is interesting about the book, however, is that, although women are sometimes abused – the worst being the bestiality incident – they are, on numerous occasions, shown to be both strong and independent. When the narrator is photographing patients within a mental institution, a women working there is said to be able to ‘endure for years an environment I found unbearable even for a few days.’ Moreover, the women are most often less emotionally needy, more mature in their outlook than the men in the book. One, who is unfaithful, states that ‘intercourse is not a commitment unless it stems from a particular emotion and a certain frame of mind.’ Another is said to refuse to have a steady companion. Of course, this could be seen as some sort of literary wish fulfilment on the part of the author, but it did not strike me that way. One of my favourite passages in the book is when a woman is describing the unique appeal of oral sex, and her power over the man is emphasised:

“It’s a weird sensation having it in one’s mouth. It’s as if the entire body of the man, everything, had suddenly shrunk into this one thing. And then it grows and fills the mouth. It becomes forceful, but at the same time remains frail and vulnerable. It could choke me — or I might bite it off. And as it grows, it is I who give it life; my breathing sustains it, and it uncoils like an enormous tongue.”

I mentioned the war previously, but Steps is not a war novel. In fact, most do not call it a novel at all, but, rather, a collection of short stories. However, I am reticent to describe it as such myself, and I certainly did not read it as a number of standalone pieces put together in one volume. There is, admittedly, limited continuity or consistency. At times the narrator is a soldier, at others he is a vagrant, or an archeologist assistant, and yet I think Steps works as a whole in more significant ways than the occupation of the person relating the action. I return again to atmosphere of unreality that dominates the book. If our ideas about what is possible are suspended, then it is ok for a narrator to take on multiple, conflicting, roles, especially when, in terms of style and tone, it seems clear that it is the same man narrating each entry, much like how the girl in Ice can die multiple times and still be alive on the following page.



When, in the 1920’s, George Mallory was asked why he persisted in trying to climb Mount Everest his famous response was “because it’s there.” A pretty fucking brilliant retort, even though it isn’t clear what exactly he meant by it. Did he mean I’m doing it because I can? Or because it [climbing] is what i do? Or was he just taking the piss? The beauty of his response is how enigmatic it is, how insouciant. If I had to give my own interpretation of Mallory’s words, if I had to make a guess as to what is at heart of a desire to climb Everest, I’d say that what it truly comes down to is man’s conquesting spirit. That spirit is evident in many things – sex, war, business etc. Reading too. Why do so many people make repeated attempts to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. Because it’s there, right!? Sure, you could read The Great Gatsby but that takes no balls, no commitment; it involves no possible sense of achievement, no risk. The Great Gatsby? 170 pages? No, no, every so often one must step into the ring with a true heavyweight.

Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy weighs in at something like 1400 pages, broken down into three volumes. It is not a book to trifle with. It will punish your wrists; and while it may not be, like Ulysses is, difficult to read, it will, at times, test your patience, your endurance. As will this review, most likely. Before I get to all the things I have loved about the first volume, They Were Counted, I ought, because there is really only one issue or problem of note to discuss, get the negative out of the way. There is quite a bit of obscure politics in the book. Not so much that it becomes unbearable, but certainly enough for those of us who are not fascinated by the finer points of Austro-Hungarian historical political conflict to occasionally switch off. Truth be told, a good deal of that stuff not only left me cold [and I am a man who enjoyed the farming discussions in Anna Karenina!], but actually confused me. Banffy, probably not expecting his work to have a large international audience, appeared to assume that the reader would know and understand what he was writing about. Therefore, very little is explained in layman’s terms.

However, even if these sections are confusing or sometimes tedious, it is clear that the main thrust of the conflict was the independence of Hungary. Yet more importantly Banffy’s aim, his point, is also clear, which was to satirise and wag his finger at the Hungarian aristocracy and politicians. While the book is more popularly referred to as The Transylvanian Trilogy, Banffy actually titled his work The Writing On The Wall. My understanding of this title is that it is a judgement. Nearly all of the political sections of the book descend into farce, with egg-throwing or violence or general idiocy or silliness. The author appeared to be saying that these people, who cannot take this most serious of subjects seriously, are doomed, that they are, in fact, doomed because they are too frivolous, or silly or corrupt etc.

In any case, political conflict is only one of the three main narrative strands; and the other two are, thankfully, far more engaging. These involve the relationship between Balint Abady and Adrienne Uzdi and the ups and downs of Balint’s cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy. I won’t say too much about Laszlo because, while I very much enjoyed all his bits, there is nothing out of the ordinary about his tale. He falls for a girl, he loses the girl, he drinks, he has sex, and he gambles heavily. He’s a good man, but he is weak; and, more importantly, in terms of understanding his behaviour, he has a big chip on his shoulder about his status as an orphan. This inferiority complex makes Laszlo needy, both for affection and acceptance. It is the need for acceptance that leads him to gamble, and his need for affection, for constant reassurance, that leads to him ruining his chances of happiness with Klara.

If Laszlo’s story is pretty standard [but enjoyable!] fare, Balint’s and Adrienne’s relationship is, on the other hand, one of the most extraordinary and moving I have ever encountered. It is revealed early on that the pair had a friendship and perhaps a mild flirtation in their youth. Eventually Balint went away and Adrienne, desiring most of all her freedom, married Pali Uzdy even though she didn’t love him. When Balint returns the couple meet and rekindle their friendship, which develops into a love affair. So far, so predictable. However, when Balint tries to push his luck and get in Adrienne’s knickers she recoils. The reason for this gradually becomes clear to Balint over the course of They Were Counted, but from the very beginning it dominates their relationship. What is the reason? That her husband has been raping her since the start of their marriage.

Banffy handles the whole thing with admirable subtlety and sensitivity and, bearing in mind that rape within marriage is a controversial topic even now, bravery. Not only that but he, incredibly, manages to wrest beauty out of it. For example, there’s a wonderful scene when Balint asks Adrienne for a kiss. While he, being experienced, expects a passionate open-mouthed kiss, she responds with a closed mouth. She doesn’t do this because she is unwilling, but because she simply doesn’t know how to kiss properly. This kiss is a pivotal moment in their relationship. At first, Balint is astonished, confused. Previous to this incident he had thought that she was being physically standoffish, or prudish, or playing games; yet after the kiss he comes to realise that isn’t the case, that she is merely artless, like a child, because she has never been given the opportunity, due to being married to a brutal and violent man who cares nothing about intimacy, to learn. Honestly, there was a little lump in my throat. I actually knew a girl who kissed in the same way, in short bursts with a closed mouth. Unlike Banffy’s character she was sexually very open and willing, but it was obvious to me that, despite her age, she had never been kissed passionately by someone who cared about her enjoyment. It was very sad.

Adrienne is an amazing creation. I believed in her completely. In fact, in my opinion, she absolutely dominates the book. Her journey is one of self-discovery, of sexual enlightenment and empowerment; she literally becomes a woman before our eyes. For me, Balint is almost irrelevant in this, he is merely the conduit, he allows her to find herself. Yet, I do not want to give the impression that she falls into bed with him and all is wonderful. The first volume is over 600 pages in length; her journey is a long and often painful one. Adrienne spends a large part of the novel pushing her lover away, refusing to allow him to touch her. I have known more than one woman who has been the victim of rape and, although I am obviously no expert, Banffy captures the fear, shame, anger that, in my experience, they often feel; he also, crucially, captures the great strength of character as well as the vulnerability. I was so, so impressed by all this. In fact, nearly every female character in the book is wonderful; they almost all have great depth, which is not true of the male characters. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I am of the opinion that the abuse of women is one of the book’s major themes. The Countess Abonyi is ill-treated by Egon Wickwitz, who steals her money; Egon also cynically manipulates Judith Miloth; Balint’s mother is being hoodwinked and taken advantage of by her employee Azbej; Fanny Beredy is essentially used by Laszlo; a young maid is raped and made pregnant by the Kollonich’s butler; and so on.

Of course, I am less than halfway through the book, having only completed one volume. So it is possible that these ideas and reflections will not hold true for the whole of the series. I can, obviously, only write about my experience of the work at this stage. In any case, there is no question of me not carrying on, of not reading the next two volumes. Because they are there? No, because I expect them to be equally as brilliant as this one.


Vladimir Nabokov called Don Quixote a story of hideous cruelty. While I think that this statement is horribly reductive and does the great and beautiful and moving novel a huge disservice, one can still understand where he was coming from; on face value, the knight of the mournful countenance is a mentally disturbed old geezer who is beaten and tricked and taken advantage of. There is a strain of literature, perhaps beginning with Cervantes, that deals with the naive or foolish being put through the wringer. For our entertainment, no less. Indeed, this isn’t specific to novels, or even fiction. Look at TV programmes like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and its ilk; the most engrossing aspect of those shows is the opportunity to watch a bunch of idiots [who, we at least like to think, clearly underestimated the situation they have signed up for] being physically and mentally tortured.

Other notable examples of literature as hideous cruelty are Voltaire’s Candide, Honore de Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and the novel under review here. In fact, The Sot-Weed Factor is essentially what you would have if you had asked Voltaire or Cervantes to rewrite Lost Illusions, which, like Barth’s novel, deals with a budding poet being introduced to the savage ways of the world. I don’t think that is a coincidence; Barth was clearly paying homage to these great writers, not only by stealing their content but, perhaps most impressively of all, by aping their style:

Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?

So, yes, like Candide et al, the unfortunate Ebenezer Cooke encounters just about every form of misfortune within the pages of this book. The Sot-Weed Factor is near 800 pages long and so the misery and pain he suffers becomes as attritional and relentless as the sort served up in some kind of art house movie [Requiem for a Dream, maybe. Or Miike’s Audition]. And, yet, I must confess, that far from eliciting my sympathy I thought Cooke, in the beginning at least, a near insufferable, gratingly supercilious moron, and cynically licked my lips at the prospect of his downfall. This is maybe where Barth’s character differs from the characters we have been comparing him to; one roots for Quixote and Candide because we can relate to their aims, because we find them charming and romantic. Lucien is not quite so likeable, but, unlike Cooke, he doesn’t consider himself superior and is prepared to involve himself in the world [which ultimately leads to his ruin]. Ebenezer, on the other hand, is largely unsympathetic because he is so precious; and therefore one wants him to fail, one wants him to see the light, or recognise the truth of the world.

And then he does, and, miraculously, my opinion of the book and the character changed. It was somewhere around the halfway mark I realised that I was for the hapless poet, that I felt for him and his plight, that far from making him bitter, or even more pompous, the disasters that befall him make him more humane, more likeable, and ultimately heroic. What is most satisfying, most original, about The Sot-Weed Factor is this journey, is Ebenezer’s transformation, which is actually the inverse of Lucien’s; the more awful the world reveals itself as being, the more he wades into the slough of life, the more Ebenezer is normalised. In Lost Illusions, however, Lucien starts out full of optimism and humility, only to become corrupted. I liked Barth’s take on this more than Balzac’s; I like the idea that the reality of the world doesn’t have to leave you cynical and mean, but that experience, good and bad, can actually help to shape you in a positive way.

It would have been nice to have ended my review on that positive note, to be able to laud John Barth for bestowing upon America a novel that fills in, to some extent, a space on its bookshelf. Indeed, he has, to a large extent, given us the American novel that it had until this point lacked [with the notable exception of Huck Finn]. However, there is one aspect of the book that caused me some consternation, and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. There is, unfortunately, a lot of rape in The Sot-Weed Factor, and I have a hard time understanding its purpose. Certainly, the rape isn’t gratuitous, but that is almost worse; it is tossed off so frequently and matter-of-factly that I was made to squirm more than if he had laboured over it. At least when a rape scene is gratuitous the author is saying this is significant. Barth appears to use it as a kind of comic prop, and that bothered me immensely, because never, in my opinion, is rape funny. Rape has no comic potentiality. I really don’t give a fuck if that makes me seem humourless or overly-serious. I don’t buy, either, the argument that the author was merely showing us how life was in the 17th century. Was everyone running around madly raping each other in the 17th century? No. Barth was clearly having too much fun, creating scenes in which women are caught  – arse invitingly displayed – in the rigging of a ship, for that argument to convince.


Fucking hell. This has to be a contender for the most miserable novel of all time. In fact, only Germinal by Emile Zola could legitimately wrench the title from its grasp, and that book is so monumentally bleak that there are probably Goth kids right now reading it backwards. Tellingly, both Germinal and The Assistant deal with poverty. Of course there are a lot of really terrible things that can happen to a human being, but the constant worry, shame and ill-health caused by having no money is a particularly potent kind of misery. I know, i’ve been there. I was raised without prospects, in dire poverty. It was the kind of situation where if we ate well – my brother and I – then our mother could not, because she couldn’t afford to; if she bought us shoes, she went without. A lot of the time I was unhappy, and scared. Everything was strained. I lived constantly on the look out for the next disaster…bailiffs trying to kick the door down, the flat we lived in going up in flames, my mother being arrested. There was always the heavy, sour smell of hopelessness in the air.

So I know how the characters in this novel feel. In fact, of all the books I have read this one perhaps hit me the hardest. I kind of ached, due to force of that blow, all the way through. It’s therefore a tough book to review. Morris Bober, Helen Bober, and Frank Alpine felt extraordinarily real to me. Part of that is due to uncontrollable associations, i.e. who I am and my experiences, and part of it – the larger part – is down to Malamud, the author. The Assistant is brilliant. I would hope I would think it brilliant even if I had grown up in a mansion somewhere, with millionaire parents. Yet on the surface, the book couldn’t be less appealing. Just ignore the misery for a second, because I know some of y’all will dig that kind of thing anyway, and consider the basic plot: The Assistant is about a Jewish grocery store owner, Morris Bober, whose business is failing. One day he is robbed at gun point. One of the assailants, Frank Alpine, to some extent due to a guilty conscience, returns to the store and starts working there. That’s it, pretty much.

You may think I have given too much away, but I haven’t really. Frank’s involvement is clear, even, surely, to the most dim-witted reader. What is special about the book, however, is not the plot, but the characters and their relationships with each other. in a way, Bober and Frank represent two types of attitude towards poverty and bad luck. I have seen these types myself, have been one of them. There is the Bober-type, who suffers almost heroically. He takes and takes, everything. Willingly, albeit not happily. Frank is a different sort; he is my sort. Frank can’t accept his lot, can’t press on stoically into the oncoming blizzard of misfortune that claws at his face; no, he writhes under the pressure. He has to change his luck, has to force a change. And this makes him skittish and restless, which leads to poor judgement. Frank is wild, he is in agony; and yet he wishes he were the Bober-type, he wishes he could accept his fate. He tries, but he can’t control his anguish, and so he does wrong, consistently. And always regrets it. People like Frank, people like myself, always do.* Helen Bober, Morris’ daughter, is a little bit like her father, and a little bit like Frank. She too is restless, she too wants to change her life or change her fate. Unlike Frank, however, she is not wild, she has strong values; she wants to make a change by educating herself. Helen’s story is probably the most heartbreaking of all.

The Assistant, I imagine it is quite clear by now, is a book about suffering, but it is also, perhaps more interestingly, about making amends, about forgiveness and redemption. Helen, Frank and Morris: these three characters need each other, if not literally, then symbolically. Morris sees Frank as his saviour, because when Frank starts working at the store the takings improve. Helen sees him as her saviour also, but not in the same way. not financially. She believes that his love will save her, that by loving him and helping him to better himself she will free herself from her awful situation. Frank, on the other hand, looks first to Morris, then to Helen, as a saviour; by helping the grocer he thinks he can prove that he is a good man and not a low-down hoodlum, by loving Helen that he is, in fact, capable of love and capable of a genuine, nice and normal relationship. This complex web of relations, and hopes and dreams, is almost comical, because none of them have any basis in reality. No one can save Morris’ business, no one can redeem Frank, and there is no white knight coming to lift Helen up on his horse and ride off with her for new, more prosperous and happier lands.

All of this talk about salvation and redemption might give the impression that The Assistant is a religious text. It is, in a way. But not overtly, never in a heavy-handed manner. Malamud certainly has something to say about Jewishness, but not necessarily Judaism. Frank is openly, in the beginning, an anti-semite, but his dislike of Jews is racially-motivated, rather than born out of religious conflict. Malamud, to my mind, does seem to be suggesting that Morris is a typical Jew, i.e. eternally suffering, but the grocer isn’t a practicing Jew, he doesn’t go to synagogue etc. Redemption and salvation are religious concepts, but they are human issues. The Assistant is an unrelentingly human book. In terms of the prose, it is not flashy or eye-catching, but it is wonderful. The first couple of pages alone throw up numerous gems, like when Morris lets a woman have some items without paying but doesn’t want to tell his wife he has done so. Malamud writes:

he found a pencilled spot on the worn counter and wrote a sum under “Drunk Woman.” The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida [his wife] would nag if she noticed a new figure so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace  – the little he lived with – was worth forty-two cents.

There are even times when Malamud manages, to my relief, to wring some comedy out of the excruciating, suffocating horror. It’s a grim, black kind of humour, sure, but it is humour nonetheless.

Despite all of my gushing The Assistant is not a perfect book, there are one or two issues or, if you like, boom moments. To speak about them, however, would mean revealing important details, so if you wish to avoid serious spoilers then stop reading here. There is a rape scene in the book, which involves Helen and Frank. I hate rape scenes in anything, but it is not gratuitous. The problem is that Frank saves Helen [there’s that salvation stuff again] from being raped, only to then, seconds later, rape her himself. I really didn’t like that. It made no sense. Malamud was setting Frank up to be flawed, yes, but to rape someone you have saved from being raped is monstrous; it is difficult to feel anything but repugnance for Frank after that, when one felt at least some sympathy for him before. Having said that, maybe that was Malamud’s intention; maybe he wanted to show that a man cannot change his character, that a bad man will always be bad, but I really don’t think so. I think he just took the misery, the life-is-a-bitch schtick a step too far. Furthermore, I am in two minds about Frank’s conversion to Judaism, although, again, I guess I kinda get it, I get that Malamud was making a point about Jewish suffering and about identifying with victims etc. In any case, these two incidents could not spoil what was, for me, a truly fucking great book, an awful gut-wrenching masterpiece.

*I would like to point out that I have never done anything even close to as serious or reprehensible as the two crimes committed by Frank, one of which i consider to be absolutely unforgivable.


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!