Exquisitely Mundane

Kenzaburo Oe

A Quiet Life

Grove Press

ALL FICTION IS fundamentally autobiographical. All serious fiction, that is. Right? To a genre hack who spins yarns about detectives or spaceships or heaving bosoms, personal history may be irrelevant. But a serious writer, a true artist, begins by looking in the mirror, proceeds by rummaging through the bin of Memory, and ends by painting a thinly disguised self-portrait. Of course a few adjustments must be made, in case anyone should doubt the author's creativity. Change the names; replace what actually happened with what ought to have happened; and most importantly, focus the reader's attention on the exquisite sensibility of the author-protagonist.

This seems to be our current theory of narrative, manifested not only in a glut of autobiographical novels but also in a sudden plague of memoirs. Most of these efforts strike me as narcissism in fancy pants, written by people who couldn't invent a telephone number. In the old days, I mutter darkly, a life was a life and a fiction was a fiction and you could tell the boys from the girls. But then I am reminded that some of the greatest works ever written--The Way of All Flesh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, all sorts of post-Romantic poetry--are assembled from semi-digested chunks of raw experience. So there's nothing wrong with the procedure itself; whether it results in art or in navel-gazing depends on the writer.

Kenzaburo Oe is a relentlessly autobiographical writer who, despite winning the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, has yet to win much of an audience in America. I can think of three reasons for this. First, he's Japanese, and therefore of little interest to us burger-munching cowboys on this side of the Pacific. Second, he's heavily influenced by Western literary modernism. He's fond of knotty sentences, complex symbolism, and narrative tricks; his books are not especially easy to read. Third, he's a remarkably protean writer, bringing new styles and strategies to bear on each project. When you pick up a book by Oe, you never know what you're going to get.

But there is one thing that you can expect from him. His novels are always, to one degree or another, based on personal history; and the aspect of his life that he fictionalizes is always the same, ever since 1963. That year saw the birth of his first child, a boy with brain damage. In book after book Oe re-opens this wound, trying to force it to yield a meaning that he can live with. Until recently he had always treated it from the father's perspective--a highly subjective jumble of thoughts, emotions, sometimes hallucinatory ravings. In A Quiet Life, however, he finally steps out of his own feverish psyche in order to try on a more serene soul.

Like many other autobiographical works, this recent novel (published in 1990, now translated into English by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall) centers on a family. The father, K, is a famous writer; the mother, his self-effacing helpmeet. Father and Mother have three children: a brain-damaged son, nicknamed Eeyore (after the melancholy donkey in the Pooh stories), age 24; a daughter, Ma-chan, 20; and another son, the teen-age O-chan. As the novel begins, K has plunged into one of his periodic spiritual crises. He seeks relief in residence at a California university; his wife accompanies him. The novel unfolds back home in Japan, where the meek Ma-chan has been left to care for her needy older brother. A Quiet Life purports to be Ma-chan's diary of the year that her parents spend abroad.

Except for the names, this state of affairs corresponds in every detail to Oe's real-life situation in 1987-88. And everything that happens in the novel--which is to say, nothing much--has the feel of mundane reality, as if Oe did not permit himself a single invention. Ma-chan worries about Eeyore; he does fine. Ma-chan sees a movie and reads a book, each of which seems to shed some light on her family's troubles. Ma-chan discusses her father with his wise but critical friend, Mr. Shigeto.

Sounds dull, doesn't it? Well, you'll have to read it, then, because actually it's fascinating. Oe purges his storytelling of Western frippery; for the first time in his writing career, he approaches the traditional Japanese aesthetic of eloquent simplicity. Each chapter is a perfectly shaped, self-contained little narrative, setting up a problem involving Eeyore and coming to a fragile resolution. But the greatest triumph of this novel lies in Oe's rendering of Ma-chan. He must have written A Quiet Life, at least in part, as a tribute and apology to his daughter. Imagine her predicament, growing up in a household dominated by her father's powerful personality, and he so obsessed with another child as to hardly notice that she's there. That's exactly what Oe seems to have done: imagined her predicament, and at long last pitied and appreciated her. Autobiographical novels often have hidden (or even quite overt) agendas--usually the desire to punish somebody. A Quiet Life has a more admirable agenda than most.

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