Monday 21 September 2009


Nobel prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe was only 23 when he wrote his first novel, but Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids reads neither like a first attempt nor like the work of someone barely out of their teens. But then all the teens I've met didn't live through their country's defeat at the end of a World War, the disintegration of their nation's faith in their emperor as god-like, and the occupation of their country by US forces.

The 23-year old Oe was a very mature young man, and saw clearly what the war did to his country as well as what his country decided to use the war as permission to do, on both national and individual levels.

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is about the individual level, telling the story of a group of reform school boys being evacuated out of Tokyo. On their way to an un-named location in the mountains, they are meant to stay a week or so in a rural village along the way. Upon arriving in this village, they are abandoned almost immediately by the villagers due to an outbreak of the plague; the villagers, to try to stop the contagion, block the boys in and threaten to kill any boy who tries to escape. The boys spend 5 days alone in the village, during which time, they form a sort of cohesive community amongst themselves almost completely free of the petty fears and violence of their adult caretakers.

Soon, however, their paradise begins to break apart as the plague is shown not to have left with the villagers. As well, the villagers return and through threats of death and abuse if the boys don't keep quiet about how they were abandoned, their fragile community shows just how tenuous it really was.

According to the translator/editor of this book, this story also functions as a loose allegory for Japan's treatment of its citizens and soldiers during the war:
Nip the Buds presents its hero as an absolute outsider, a delinquent ostracized by the unbelievably brutish and callous villagers. Oe's anger against his elders' sheeplike complicity in the disastrous militarist adventure, against the generals who led the people to the end of the road only to abandon them, against the craven reversal of [national political] ideologies, is venomously evident [in this novel]. (p.8)
Yes, "venomously evident" is, I think, the appropriate phrase. Even if the allegory isn't detectable by those unfamiliar with the specifics of Japanese history, the bitterness with which Oe describes his young characters' abuse at the hands of those who hold them in their power certainly is. His utter disrespect for the way in which fear and self-preservation dictate every move of his adult characters is no less vicious. As such, this was a very difficult book to read, even as I found myself deeply admiring the imagery and the writing throughout.

Oe studied French literature at university and his admiration for the French realists I think shows itself quite clearly here; however, I would say that his rejection of the more traditional aspects of Japanese literary practice (i.e., the emphasis on sincerity and true sentiments) in favour of harsh realism and ideas (p. 10) far outstrips the French models that influenced him in his early career. The visceral nature of the realism here would simply not have made it into any of the 19th century novels I've ever read - but then, I haven't yet read Zola so it may be that I'm about to get schooled. And when I say "about to get schooled" I probably don't mean that something by Zola will be my next French book.

I need something light and happy after 2 books in a row on the horrors of war. And I don't think Zola = light and happy.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like you might be up for The Housekeeper and The Professor, which, if not light and happy is at least not dark and depressive. ;)

However, I really enjoyed your review. I always wondered about this title (shoot the kids?), and I've believed in the amazing abilities of those younger than adults. It's too bad that they seem to have been overcome by manipulative grown ups.

I liked the analogy of this to how the Japanese treated prisoners during WWII. In a way, it reminded me of When The Emporer Was Divine, a fantastic book about a Japanese family in an internment camp. While heavy, of course, there was hope in the end.

You write fascinating reviews, Bookphilia, giving us lots to think about.

Mel u said...

I just read my first works by Oe last week-"Price Stock" and "The Day He Himself Will Wipe Away My Tears"-I was blown away by them-thanks for sharing your review of another of his works-

Unknown said...

Ah, Mr. Oe, one of many authors on my list of writers whose work I'd love to get around to (but am unlikely to in the near future). It's annoying the way life gets in the way of reading ;)

Heidenkind said...

Uh, no, Zola isn't light and happy, so you should probably avoid him for a while. ^_^ From your description, though, I would say that your guess is correct and he's not as "realistic" as Oe (although I try to avoid using that term with books).

Bookphilia said...

dolcebellezza: I've been wondering about The Housekeeper and The Professor. I'll keep it in mind the next time I go to the library.

mel u: Glad you've enjoyed your first forays into Oe's work. My favourite of his is still A Personal Matter - check it out if you have time!

Tony: We should punch life in the neck so it'll bugger off and just let us read already!

heidenkind: Maybe we should capitalize "realistic" when using it in discussions of lit to distinguish it from what's actually real from the literary device? It is a fraught term to use in relation to fiction, no matter how firmly based in history said fiction is.

Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to read Oe for so long but just haven't gotten around to it yet. It's interesting to know he wrote his first novel at 23.