Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Seventeen by Kenzaburo Oe

Earlier, I wrote about Yukio Mishima's "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" and the way the novel documents "the angry loner" who often seems the source of political terrorism and myriad acts of motiveless violence. Mishima's novel grew from a real event in Japanese history, much as did "Seventeen," by Kenzaburo Oe. The winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, Oe creates a character that seems at times a caricature and an accurate depiction, which says something about the nature of his art and his subject.

Oe stands, uneasily, at the other end of the spectrum of Japanese politics from Mishima, who died in what is often termed an attempted rightist coup. "Seventeen" was based on the case of Otoya Yamaguchi, a teenaged rightist who assassinated the Socialist leader Inojiro Asanuma on live television during a speech in 1960. Yamaguchi went on to commit suicide in prison.

Oe wrote two works based on the story, the first being the novella "Seventeen." Its sequel, "A Political Youth Dies," has never been translated outside Japan and deals with the actual assassination its storyteller carries out. In reading "Seventeen," one feels like the narrative is interrupted at the precise moment in which the character has arrived at what he perceives to be his destiny. It is like someone has excised about a third from Don DeLillo's "Libra" and left a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald which ends with his misadventures in New Orleans in the summer of 1963.

Oe does not name his storyteller, whose story begins on his seventeenth birthday. From the first page, the youth's self-loathing is understood and reinforced with every sentence. He is obsessed with his inconsequentiality. He feels unobserved, and fears his life has already seen its happiest moments. To illustrate this, Oe has the boy describe over and over in detail his habit of masturbating. For half of the novella, in fact, which grows tedious early on. It is tempting to think that Oe is merely offering commentary on the political thoughts that will later seize the boy - that they are a sad, lonely exercising of the same ideas, over and over, with the same result each time, only growing smaller and less satisfying. Such an explanation redeems the book for a point that more probably is meant to insult the rightist politics the boy later embraces.

At the same time we learn about his lack of sex life, we witness multiple embarrassments and humiliations. The boy makes a mild embrace of leftist politics in his home and is dressed down by his older sister. He loses a foot race at school. He is left with a blood lust he indulges in the privacy of his room, with his hidden sword. We realize with the hand-me-down leftist phrases he parrots back to his sister, the boy isn't interested in politics so much as feeling the satisfaction of being right about something. He wants to make someone pay for the way he believes his life has turned out.

The turning point comes when he is recruited to go stand and applaud during a rightist rally. The boy embraces the idea and the occasion, and even as he sees through the speaker, he identifies with his anger and impotence, a word and attitude that figures heavily in "Seventeen" and in "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion." Impotence can be seen as the natural outgrowth of a man robbed of his own importance, or of Japan following its defeat at the end of the Second World War. And as in Mishima's earlier work, Oe's "hero" makes various mentions of hell - the hell of surrender, not on a national but a personal level.

"Unconditionally, I forgive myself," the boy thinks at the rally, and the underpinning for all his future work has arrived. His loathing is now held in check, and a sense of destiny and superiority rises within him. His family now is glad to see him involved in something to give him self-worth, and his friends see some of his inexplicable behavior in the past as having had a covert, political edge. His identity is now set as well, and the shame he felt and perceived among others - or The Others, as he referred to them - is gone. His political arguments are only weapons he trots out for power. He is transformed. "To my golden vision I promise a bloodbath," he vows, at the story's end. As with Mizaguchi in Mishima's work, the angry loner doesn't care what philosophy he clings to as long as it gives him a feeling of being someone of world historical importance, a feeling that cannot be taken away and is only reinforced by the insults and retaliations of others.

The wholeheartedness with which he embraces this destiny is explained in a short, earlier section, wherein he confesses his fear that death, will not, in fact, be the end:

"The death I fear is like this: After this short life, I'll have to endure billions of years in unconsciousness, as a zero. This world, this universe, and all the other universes, will go on being for billions of years, and all that time I'll be a zero. For all eternity!"

In receiving his own forgiveness, he extends to himself grace to do whatever his will imagines, with disastrous consequences. Our hero feels singled out at both ends of his metamorphosis, by a higher power that seems both to designate him for punishment and then for distinction, with the reader to assume that the later end will also lead to the former, and just whom that higher power may be.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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