Thanks to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4, I have the chance to explore the intricate world of Kenzaburo Oe (pronounced ‘oh-ay’, 大江 健三郎 ), Japan’s second Nobel Laureate for Literature (1994), after Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成) received the Prize in 1968.
Like his earlier work A Personal Matter*, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is an autobiographical novel dealing with the author’s experiences of raising a handicapped child. A Personal Matter was written when Oe was young, describing an ordeal still raw from the initial shock of the birth of his brain-damaged child. Rouse Up was published in 1983, almost twenty years after A Personal Matter.
Rouse Up chronicles a more mature protagonist, the writer K, who has gone past the stage of denial and escape, to come to terms with the reality of fathering a handicapped child. Through the arduous journey, the writer has gained insights and pleasure from his relationship with his son Hikari, whom he nicknamed Eeyore in his novels.
Oe starts off the book with K’s plan to write a dictionary of terms for his now maturing son, to prepare him for his entry into the real, adult world. This turns out to be a learning task in itself. How do you explain to a brain-damaged person what the word ‘foot’ means? Or ‘river’, ‘life’, or ‘death’? He needs to deconstruct the realities of his everyday life before he can grasp the essence and meaning of his encounters.
It’s interesting to see how K get through to his son in defining ‘foot’. Eeyore understands it in relation to ‘gout’ from which his father once suffered. After the healing of the pain and swelling of the gout, it has turned into ‘a nice foot’. So, the understanding of ‘foot’ comes in light of the pain it had experienced. K soon realizes that the definitions are more for himself as for Eeyore.
The author’s long journey of acceptance and self-discovery owes mostly to his love for the works of William Blake. Rouse Up is a smorgasbord of selections if you are a Blake scholar. So admittedly, I have had a hard time ploughing through Oe’s use of parallels from Blake’s poetic and artistic symbolisms to reflect on his own predicament. In certain parts, Oe’s writing is just as esoteric as Blake’s mythical depictions. However, one thing is clear. My enjoyment of this novel is no less, and the poignancy of a father-son relationship no weaker as I find my way through the Blake maze. The book requires and deserves multiple reading.
Despite its complexity and denseness, the essence filters through Oe’s meticulous descriptions. Further, John Nathan’s translation navigates effectively through Oe’s nuanced and sensitive narratives. I’m just curious as to what the original Japanese version looks like since there are numerous references and quotes from Blake. Are they in English or in Japanese translation?
Two lines from The Four Zoas seem to have outlined K’s personal journey:
“That Man should Labour & sorrow & learn & forget, & return
To the dark valley whence he came to begin his labours anew.”
It’s a perpetual striving, not unlike Sisyphus’s effort, and yet still leads from one path to the next, prompting a renewed acceptance and offering novel discoveries on the way.
Aside from the esoteric passages of Blake’s visions, some very simple lines shine through, and they are the ones that are most moving for me:
… healing the rift with my son, I became aware of his grief through the agency of a Blake poem, “On Another’s Sorrow,” which includes this stanza:
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrows share,
Can a father see his child,
Weep, nor be with sorrow fill’d.
One of the “Songs of Innocence,” the poem concludes with the following verse:
O! he gives to us his joy,
That our grief he may destroy
Till our grief is fled & gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
In his attempt to know more about Eeyore, K explores the power of dreams and the imagination. Using Blake’s mythological poetry and artwork, he tries to understand Eeyore’s internal world. Both he and his wife know Eeyore does not dream, but that does not preclude he does not have imagination.
Subscribing to Blake’s conviction that: “The Imagination is not a State: It is the Human Existence itself.”, K strives in earnest to cultivate Eeyore’s imagination. Eeyore has an almost instinctive response to bird calls, distinguishing them even before he adopts human language. As he grows older, he is drawn towards the music of Bach and Mozart. His imagination soon finds a channel of expression in composing, an amazing accomplishment nurtured by a highly supportive and loving family. In real life, Oe’s son Hikari is a composer.
Adopting Blake’s vision, K sees a future for father and son together in a state of grace, from Blake’s Jerusalem:
“Jesus replied Fear not Albion unless I die thou canst not live
But if I die I shall arise again & thou with me
This is friendship & Brotherhood without it Man is Not
So Jesus spoke! The Covering Cherub coming on in darkness
Overshadowed them & Jesus and Thus do Men in Eternity
One for another to put off by forgiveness, every sin.”
From coming to terms with the tragic reality of fathering a brain-damaged child, to ultimately, almost symbiotically, sharing his life with his son, is a process not short of a personal epiphany. At the end of the novel, Eyeore has grown to be a twenty-year-old man. While still having a limited mental capacity, Eeyore has his way of exuding his own humor, love and care for those around him. The story is a poignant tapestry weaving real-life and the visionary, through which an imagined world of reality is beautifully conceived.
As for the source of the book title, it comes as a moving episode at the end of the book. I should keep that for you to discover. A heart-warming finish to a poignant chronicle.
John Nathan’s Afterword is an eloquent tribute to the father, son, and the nurturing family. It is also a helpful annotation of the novel.
Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe, translated by John Nathan, published by Grove Press, NY, 2002. 259 pages.
* A touching review of A Personal Matter has been posted recently by Claire at Kiss A Cloud. Also, Mel U’s A Reading Life has posted extensively on Oe and other Japanese writers. Of course, there’s Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza, who has hosted Japanese Literature Challenge all these years, now in its fourth term. I thank them all for their inspiration.
7 thoughts on “Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!”
Oe has been on my mind as someone to read for a while. You certainly make this book sound interesting! I may start with A Personal Matter or one of the other ones, though.
Rouse Up is my first Oe. I have only read about A Personal Matter to know how drastically different it is from Rouse Up, in terms of the maturity of the protagonist to deal with his predicament. By I’m sure it’s just as poignant considering it’s semi-autobiographical too about a father facing a very difficult ordeal.
Oh Arti, it sounds incredible. A few people are called upon to achieve transcendence. It sounds as though that is what Oe has done. And K/Eeyore too. Well I guess the latter is the teacher. Just beautiful.
You’re right about Eeyore being the teacher, in many unexpected circumstances.
As to K. achieving transcendence, well, I’m afraid Oe has taken to heart the mythological elements of Blake’s work to create an imaginary, idealized world rather than literally embracing the Christian symbols as reality, as Kierkegaard said, taken that leap of faith.
Nevertheless, the book is a very moving account of his twenty years of raising Eeyore and the development of an endearing relationship.
The story of father and son sounds remarkable and worth exploring, but the story-telling sounds very unappealing. Isn’t that a terrible thing to say about a Nobel prize-winner, and especially without having read the book?
I know that one of the off-putting elements is the use of Blake, whom I’ve never had any use for.
And words like “esoteric” and “dense” are like warning signs for me just now. I mean that not as a criticism of the work, but only as an indication of where I am personally. In a year or five, I could read this review and be ready to buy the book tomorrow!
On the other hand, I’m fascinated by the dictionary of terms, and would be willing to read the book right now to hear more about that! I’ve been thinking a good bit about vocabulary as a precondition for learning, and it sounds as though Oe is exploring a vocabulary for human existence.
So, I’m both attracted and a bit put off by this one – which means it will stay on the TBR list!
You got it… reading the subtext here. Despite its depiction of an endearing relationship, this is not an easy read. Actually ‘esoteric’ is the word Oe used in the book regarding his take on some of Blake’s works. It’s not your tear-jerking, emotional book of father-son relationship. It’s what you call an intellectual, deconstructionist approach if you will of dealing with the issue. But there are moments I just love, especially the ending. If you’re a Blake fan it’ll be more enjoyable. But even if you’re not, I think it can still speak in a poignant way.
Arti, You already know how differently I feel about this book as compared to A Personal Matter. The comment above you state, about this not being a “tear-jerking, emotional” one but “an intellectual, deconstructionist approach” is exactly why I was so taken with this book. The moments you mention are like soft sparks of light. I wasn’t such a Blake fan myself but after having read this I wanted to read more Blake.
Thanks for your eloquent sharing.
Yes, it’s interesting to see how Oe uses Blake’s work to interpret his own personal reality and extends his vision. And from there, I could appreciate the universal appeal of literature for all cultures. Despite the backdrop of political events and threats from right-wing groups he received for his stance, such universalism found in art and literature is much needed I feel to counteract political extremism. I can see how different this book is in describing a mature father from A Personal Matter as you’ve reviewed.
Arti – First the title of the book, then your engaging review – great combo promoting a winner. Can it please come with a quiet little island, a hammock under the trees and unlimited drinking water? sigh. To read such books in the Japanese challenge (did it last year – NORWEIGAN WOOD and EMMA (manga which I also learned to love!)) requires no small amount of time dedicated to the book.
And to “switch” cultures if you will. I love the difference in the use of language, the perception of words, pictures words, so different from our own, in fact and thus, enjoyed the definition of “foot.” And that’s just the beginning. Such flavor found in language as well as the univeral human experience.
also, btw, I am still looking for the movie i mentioned in one of my blogs where the woman makes pictures using cutout magazine pictures but by the end of the movie, she is creating her own very startlingly good paintings. I have searched through movie catalogs, etc and not yet found it….but I perservere!
… and so do I. Anytime you remember the movie title, just let me know.
And yes, isn’t the JLC a challenge indeed? I admit I haven’t read enough books in translation to compare, but reading Oe’s Rouse Up doesn’t require much ‘switching’ because it’s Western literature and music that K and Eeyore are immersed in. If they were Japanese lit and music then it probably would be quite different. But Oe’s writing is very meticulous and nuanced, and the political backdrop needs prescribed knowledge to appreciate.
I’ve never thought of reading Manga for the JLC… how cool is that!