February 23, 2009

"Atarashi hito" no ho e by Oe Kenzaburo

In 2005, I reviewed Oe Kenzaburo's first volume of essays written for children, "Jibun No Ki" Shita De. The second volume, "Atarashi Hito" No Ho E, was published in 2003 in Japan and published in 2005 in Taiwan. It is one of the many books written by Oe available in Chinese translation but not available in English translation.

Oe takes the task of writing for children very seriously. One student wrote to him to say that he was inspired to read Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Oe responds with a twelve-page essay in which he outlines a limited portion of the book for the young reader to begin with, and he shares his own feelings and insights from reading the book. It's remarkable to read from someone who so clearly believes in the power of reading that they would go to the trouble of writing such an essay. The themes of the book are the importance of honesty, learning, and reading.

Oe tells some fascinating stories from his childhood and the lessons that he learned. When he ventured into a dangerous part of a watering hole to get a look at some fish that he had only heard of by rumor, he became stuck in a crevice and almost died. Someone pulled him free, but he never learned who. His parents, and especially his father, were not the type of people to bring it up, and Oe didn't have the courage to ask. He admitted that as he was stuck, he imagined himself turning into a fish and living on in the water. Perhaps his parents were disappointed in his failure to strive to save himself.

One of the chapters of the book retells the story told in the New Yorker as "For a Lousy Battery." The abstract is available online, but a paid registration is required to read the full text. (After the article was published, Oe learned that the ending of the story as he remembered it was not true.)

Oe stresses that we need to force ourselves to read slowly. His motivation to read more carefully came from his mother when he was a child. "I finished reading all the books in the civic center. This village had no more books I could read. When I told my mother this, she took me back there and pulled one book after another off the shelves. She asked me, what does this book say? She saw that I couldn't answer well. 'Do you read books to forget them?' she said with an expression of disappointment. After that, when I read a book, I developed the habit of writing what I read on a notecard or in a notebook." For more detail on his reading methods, see my previous book review.

Oe passes along the advice on reading that he received during college from his professor of French literature. "You can decide on an author, a poet, or a thinker, and spend tree years reading his books and books researching those books.... Because you want to be a writer of fiction, you don't need to become a specialized research scholar (meaning I could not become one). In the fourth year you can advance on a new topic." This method of reading has clear benefits for writers, but I was disappointed that there was only little explanation of the benefits to non-writers.

One surprising revelation from this book is that Oe, while not a Christian, seems to believe in the resurrection of Christ. The name of the book in Chinese is For the New "New Man" (給新新人類), where "new man" is inspired by Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
In explaining his appreciation of the concept of becoming a new man, Oe writes, "I just think that Jesus Christ--who died on the cross and became a new man--his return to life, that is his resurrection, and his working hard to pass his teachings to his disciples, is the most important event in the history of mankind. I believe the heart of this is in 'being a "new man" and being able to live on.' The essence of this image is in the 'new man' who is able to live on eternally."

One of the only faults of the book is the translation. In one of the essays, Oe writes that long sentences that keep going on without a period make it look as if the author is trying to hide something. He believes that shorter sentences are more straightforward and honest. Perhaps because of this, many sentences appear in the translation that are fragments of a thought. Many times, the paragraph is the unit of a complete thought, and you need to read the whole paragraph to be able to interpret any of the sentences. I wouldn't be confident in my assessment of Chinese writing, but I read the comments of a Chinese reader that felt the urge to rewrite some of the sentences as he/she read the book.

The description above meshes well with Oe's description about reading difficult texts, especially books in translation. In addition to Japanese, Oe is a great reader of French and English. He describes reading a difficult passage this way:
Even when the meaning is unclear, you continue reading along with the momentum of the text. When you read this way, the part that was unclear suddenly becomes clear and you understand it all. It is like when you're climbing on a misty mountain road. When the mist suddenly clears away, not only does the road where you are standing become clear, but also the road you just climbed.
I have to agree that this is a nice feeling that comes more often when reading in a foreign language.

One of the ideas in the book is the importance of faithfully recounting the statements or ideas of other people. During conferences, when a colleague says something that Oe would like to quote, he writes down what he hears and then checks with the speaker that he has quoted him correctly. He does this both when is supportive and when opposed to the statement. This post is already over a thousand words long, but I feel like I have just begun to faithfully recount what is worth hearing in this book.



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