The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe

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The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: This 1967 classic of Japanese literature features rioting, looting of shops and anger at immigrants suggesting that this story is as relevant today as the day it was written. It's a deeply introspective and thoughtful book that may be slow to develop, but which is well worth the effort.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846688072

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Featuring rioting and looting of corporate supermarkets and anger against immigrants, this is a timely re-issue of Nobel Prize for Literature winner’s Kenzaburo Óe’s 1967 classic The Silent Cry which was cited by the Nobel committee as his key work.

The Serpent's Tail Classic series includes several books which may have, for whatever reason, not been as widely read as they deserve. While at times it may be a stretch to award these titles 'Classic' status, that is certainly not true of this book which genuinely deserves that title. One of the quotes on the back of the book observes that there is a 'touch of Dostoevsky' in this work which is an accurate comment. If you are a fan of the big Russian classics, then you will find much to enjoy in Óe. The book is introspective and minutely detailed. It's not a book that is easy to dip into. It is irritatingly slow to evolve if you take this approach. Far better to devote a chunk of time to immersing yourself in Óe's world when the hope and despair of his protagonists reveals its full magnitude. There's no doubt it is a dense read, compounded by the fact that the style of presentation is very 1960s - small print, densely presented.

The story is narrated by one of two brothers who together return to their childhood village in rural Japan. We learn that the narrator, Mitsu, has fathered a handicapped son who has been taken away to an institution. He is still dealing with the inner feelings of guilt about this when his best friend commits suicide in strange circumstances involving a cucumber stuck where cucumbers are not usually found. There is often a dark and almost grotesque humour that threads through the tragic events in Óe's story. The book also features, for example, 'Japan's fattest woman' whose obesity is portrayed in all its magnitude.

Mitsu also suffered an accident as a child which has left him with only one working eye. He envisages the other eye looking inward to his soul, which suggests that even before his recent double tragedy, he was given to introspection.

His brother, Takashi, by contrast, is a man of action - albeit often misguided. Takashi is the more charismatic of the two and he persuades Mitsu and his wife to accompany him back to their childhood village in the depths of a Japanese winter. There Takashi starts out on a mission to reclaim the local, traditional ways of life from the modern developments of a Korean businessman who is dubbed the Emperor of the Supermarkets in a chilling reflection of their own ancestors' parts in the civil uprisings of 1860s and the anti-Korean sentiments of the post war period.

It is in the relationship between the two brothers that the story positively soars and as the truth about their ancestors starts to emerge, and you are never sure how it will turn out. The isolation of the village, cut off by the winter snows, creates an oppressive background for the story to unfold. Just when the you feel that the story is collapsing under its own introspection, it positively soars as the relationship between Mitsu and Takashi unfolds.

I found it a demanding but ultimately highly rewarding read. The depiction of rural Japanese life is beautifully portrayed and the book is insightful in the psychology of how one man can insight the masses to bend to his own aims.

It's not a book to suit all tastes, but for fans of literary fiction, you'll wonder why you hadn't heard more about this book before.

Our thanks, as ever, to the kind people at Serpent's Tail for sending us this latest addition to their excellent Classics series. We also have a review of The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe.

For more beautiful, introspective writing in this publisher's series, check out the remarkable The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, while for a more modern take on the impact of apparent progress on rural life, this time in the USA, Nightwoods by Charles Frazier is also very highly recommended.

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