Up until recently, my entire experience with Japanese fiction was limited to the works of Haruki Murakami. He’s a hard act to follow, but I’ve broadened my horizons by recently reading two other Japanese authors. These two books, 69 by Ryu Murakami and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe, are about as different as two books can be. All the same, both were wonderful stories written by authors who I will certainly read again.
69 by Ryu Murakami
A blurb on the back cover pegs this book as a Japanese Catcher in the Rye. While many might consider this an enormous compliment, it actually put me off. Having found Catcher in the Rye to be, at best, an unbearable bore and, at worst, the literary equivalent of fingernails screeching down a blackboard, I was tempted to give 69 a miss. But, it is short (less than 200 pages) so I picked it up – and I ripped through it in a single sitting.
Rather than channeling Holden Caulfield, Kensuke Yazaki, the precocious narrator of 69, reminds me more of Nick Twisp from C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt. In fact the two books parallel each other quite well – a hormonal teen-age boy recounts the crazy shenanigans he instigates in the pursuit of an idealized girl. And both books are uproariously funny. As with Nick Twisp, the narrative voice of Kensuke deadpans its way through outrageous situations with just the right combination of irony and sincerity to leave the reader in stitches. In a particular scene that nearly resulted in me spraying a mouthful of Sprite all over the guy sitting in front of me on the airplane, Kensuke describes how he sneaks out of his house using an old gravestone as a step. He then recalls how one of his grandfather’s friends used to get drunk and urinate in cemeteries – until the day he dropped dead. This man, Kensuke concludes, had been hexed by the dead for desecration of their eternal resting place.
So, whenever I slipped out to the all-night porno flicks or whatever, I’d press my palms together as I stepped on the gravestone and say Forgive me, Forgive me, Forgive me, over and over again. I prayed this time too, but it was different now. I wasn’t going to a dirty movie; I was going to barricade the school. Revolution. Surely the spirits of the dead would let this one slide.
As with Youth in Revolt, this novel probably isn’t for everyone. As you’d expect in a novel narrated by a teenage boy, the language is rough and the content can be bawdy. But, for readers who don’t find this problematic (or who can overlook the most objectionable passages), this book is a hilarious romp, well worth the two and a half hours it takes to read.
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
This short novel by Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe draws immediate and inevitable comparisons to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It’s the story of a group of reform school adolescents during wartime who are abandoned in a small village after the outbreak of a mysterious plague. At first, the boys relish their new freedom. They break into houses, pillage for food, hunt, play games. Ultimately, however, their illusions of happiness and solidarity are shattered.
Where this books veers from Lord of the Flies is in its ending, and by extension, it’s implications. When the boat rescues the children at the end of Golding’s book, the madness and mayhem cease; civilization is restored. In Nip the Buds, the return of the villagers only results in further brutality. While blame in Lord of the Flies rests with the innate savagery of human nature itself, Oe places guilt squarely on the shoulders of his story’s authority figures.
This is a cruel book. There’s very little found within the pages which could be considered uplifting in any way and the ending, while ambiguous, doesn’t allow for the possibility of a happy outcome for any of the characters. Still, it’s a thought-provoking read and, although simple in style and language, challenging in its ideas and themes.
I have copies of Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami and A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe. Also, a copy of Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino. Are there any other Japanese authors or books I should be looking for?