As once suggested by Mario Vargas Llosa, a novelist’s craft can be described as the reverse of a stripper’s act: The fictionist dons, rather than removes, layers of imagined lives and worlds in order to bare a truth. This description certainly fits Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel, its title, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age, a line from William Blake. Here the Nobelist brings his real-life relationship with his mentally handicapped son to center stage, and adds political, social, and literary layers as he reimagines that relationship.
Dense, intense, erudite, the book centers on the narrator-father K’s relationship with his 19-year-old, brain-damaged son, nicknamed Eeyore—the name of a well-known A.A. Milne character. Eeyore, however (like Oe’s son), is blessed with perfect pitch and composes music. Such congruence initially bothered me. I kept thinking that Oe was engaged in transcription rather than creative exploration. Wondering how Oe would pull this off, I thought of Ingmar Bergman, who draws so clearly from his own life and produces profound cinema. Oe shares this great ability to grasp his characters’ psychology, supremely assured in his own artistic gifts to allow the inner drama of Eeyore’s life speak for itself as it evolves under the care of K. Something as mundane as K’s attempts to teach his son to swim becomes an occasion for a major victory when Eeyore, after nearly drowning, resolves cheerfully: “From now on I’m going to swim. I’m ready to swim now!”
An earlier section prefigures this incident. K remembers when, as a kid swimming in a river, he got stuck in an underwater cave and was saved from death when someone pulled him out, leaving a scar on his head, a clear parallel with Eeyore’s damaged head. K notes: “If I had remained there in the cave I would have no wound in my head, I would have stayed on as I was in the valley, naked as the day I was born like a fiend hid in a cloud, without tasting labor and sorrow, not learning and not forgetting—in the grip of these often repeated and familiar sentiments, I trace the line of the scar with my thumb. . . .” The phrase “a fiend hid in a cloud” is from Blake; throughout the book, such links between K’s deep fascination with Blake and his obsessive care for Eeyore add a dimension of density. (Like the book itself, all the chapters have titles taken from Blake’s poetry, e.g., “A Cold Babe Stands in the Furious Air” and “Let the Inchained Soul Rise and Look Out.”) At one point, K even dreams of Eeyore as a beautiful Blakean figure, his body having the “tempered muscles of a youth [that] ripple beneath the radiant skin of an infant”—an image inspired by Blake’s painting Glad Day.
Within this framework K implicitly poses several questions. How does one deal with oppressive conditions, whether of the body or the spirit? What role should a writer play in society? And, most touchingly, how does a father like K love a son like Eeyore? As Oe’s alter ego, K is faced with the task of interweaving his love for Blake with that for his son. The choice of Blake isn’t simply a clever intellectual device. This visionary artist believed devoutly in the struggle of the human imagination to surmount the constraints placed upon us by social and spiritual oppression.
Another writer whom K refers to, as a counterpoint to Blake, is Yukio Mishima, or “M.” Oe did know the right-wing older writer, who is famous for his writings as well as the image of his severed head (damaged in extremis), which was plastered on front pages everywhere—the grisly result of his committing hara-kiri in 1970. Mishima, who favored a return to the old imperial order, symbolized extreme activism, taking the leap from the page to the stage of political involvement, unlike Blake. K, a liberal and an academic, lies somewhere in between but, because of his son, gravitates towards Blake. No other intense engagement in his life is possible except his own writing and his son’s care.
One major reason K devotes himself to Eeyore’s development lies in his sense of guilt. Referring to the story of Abraham and Isaac (his source here is the Koran, which couches the episode in terms of a dream), K writes:
I am confronted by a thought which I can only let pass through me like a storm with my face red and my head bowed, a thought that will circle around me my entire life. For five weeks or so following my son’s abnormal birth, I had longed for his death, in other words, to destroy him. My longing was not based on a revelation from Allah appearing in a dream, nor on the agreement of my son. It was merely my egotistical desire to protect a future for myself and my wife, who still knew nothing of her baby’s abnormality, a longing of searing urgency like hot coals beneath my feet!
What has brought K forward, from that point of the considered annihilation of his own flesh and blood to the juncture at the novel’s end, where Eeyore, on the verge of his 20th birthday, now wishes to use his formal name Hikari (which means “light”), has been his faith in the redemptive powers of the artistic imagination. Not only has this sustained his relationship with his son, but more importantly has hinted at how that very relationship illuminates the tangled path of his own life. In this fluent translation by John Nathan, Oe’s novel stands out as a dark jewel, its maker, its master ecdysiast, hiding as much about himself as he reveals.