July 26, 2005

Book Review: “Jibun No Ki” Shita De

"Jibun No Ki" Shita De
By: Oe Kenzaburo (大江健三郎)
ISBN: 9571337269

If you have read Oe Kenzaburo's A Silent Cry, and its blunt description of a grotesque suicide, then Oe would probably not be the first person that you would want to talk to your child about suicide. But suicide and the education of children are two major themes of his works, and in this collection of essays written for children he does not shy from talking about the topics he feels are important. The topics explored include schooling, reading, writing, life, planning for the future, and morals. The title of the Chinese translation of the book, “Why should children attend school?” which comes from the first essay of the book, sounds dry, but Oe's deep analysis of life naturally goes beyond easy or obvious answers. As with his fiction, he looks for meaning in both history and imagination, and comes up with rich answers that reward multiple readings.

Oe describes his method of reading, developed when he was a child and practiced until the present. When he comes across a passage that he likes, he will copy the text onto another piece of paper. Then he will memorize the passage until he can recite it without error. He then files the copied passage. He created this method when he was a child in a very poor family in a village with access to few books and money to afford even fewer. Even as a child he dreamed of being a scholar of literature. He claims to be able to recite passages that he memorized as a child. His reading plan also has a couple more features of note. He reads with a pencil handy, writing notes in the margins, notes that he finds very useful when he rereads the book. Each time he rereads a book he uses a different colored pencil. I would love to know what kinds of things he writes, but he does not go into detail. Another part of his reading regime is to create an environment and a plan to tackle difficult literature. As a child, the solitary environment of a tree house allowed him to read books that he felt were important, but were difficult to read without special concentration. As an adult, the subway ride to and from a swim club is his special reading time. He sees Japanese children reading comics in their free time and encourages them to devote time to reading more serious books in addition to comics. He encourages children to keep a list of literature that people have recommended to them, or that they would like to read. Some books on the list will have to be on the list for years, until the reader becomes mature enough to understand them. This idea inspired me to write down all the books on the to-read list in my head.

Oe touches on the topics of revisionism in Japanese textbooks, and penance for Japan's imperialism in China. His treatment of these topics is both sincere and thought provoking. Most children would not want to read a book by anyone who is moral lecture mode, and Oe avoids that through most of the book. There are exceptions, such as when he tells about the evils of rumors, but he illustrates his point with a personal story that presents his vulnerability to attack at the same time as he lectures. When he received his Nobel prize in literature, his handicapped child Hikari accompanied him and his wife. The newspapers criticized him for using his child as a prop. For him, it was a matter of needing to take care of his son, so he resents the newspapers' charge that he was crassly parading his son.

There are many passages so interesting that one cannot be sure that if Oe is teaching a lesson, or letting his imagination and memory loose on the reader. Oe describes himself as someone whose imagination runs wild when is not reading. As a child, one of those dreams was to have a seal as a pet. Although he lived in a small village in a forest, he imagined himself playing with a baby seal, taking it on walks like a dog. He told other kids who understandably ridiculed him for this, but repeating the story only made it more real for him. This story extended into his adulthood, when someone who had heard of him as a child came to one of his lectures, and still thought of him as that crazy kid who dreamed about raising a seal pup.

I have not been able to make sense out of all the stories like this (and the nightmares he had as a child about being involved in the war), but these loose ends invite me back for another read. It's too bad that this book (and many others) have not been translated into English.


Post a Comment

<< Home