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A Voice of Postwar Japan Wins Nobel for Literature : Asia: Kenzaburo Oe's prose marks a departure from traditional aesthetics.

October 14, 1994|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Kenzaburo Oe, a Japanese enfant terrible who gave voice to a generation set adrift by the destruction of their values and dreams after World War II, won the Nobel Prize for literature, the Swedish Academy announced Thursday in Stockholm.

Oe, 59, whose fiction is staunchly modern in both style and substance, marks a clear break from Japan's traditional aesthetics, represented by such celebrated writers as Yasunari Kawabata. The nation's only other Nobel laureate in literature, Kawabata won the award in 1968 for such masterpieces as "Snow Country" and "The Izu Dancer" and has defined Japanese literature to the rest of the world for the last 25 years.

Oe, however, infuses his prose with such Western techniques as long sentences dense with adjectives, shunning the delicate simplicity favored by Kawabata and others. He also rejects the elements of Zen mysticism and other trappings of ancient culture found in their works, instead tackling such contemporary topics as nuclear destruction and the cultural dislocation of postwar Japan.

He has described his writing as a way of exorcising Japan's past. He is outspoken in his criticism against racism, Japan's military buildup and a national lack of responsibility in the world, especially toward Asia.

"Kawabata represented what came to be packaged as Japanese tradition as exotic differences for a Western reading audience," said Norma Field, a University of Chicago professor of East Asian studies and author of the highly acclaimed "In the Realm of the Dying Emperor."

"You don't have rice fields in Oe. You are able to begin thinking of Japan and postwar society without the immediate baggage of Japanese aesthetics, the special relationship to nature and ancient traditions."

Ian Hideo Levy, the first Westerner to write a novel in Japanese, who won the prestigious Noma Prize for New Writers last year, said Thursday's award marks a milestone in Western literary understanding of Japan.

"While Kawabata is great, it always struck me as a crime against Japan that the writer who was grappling with modern society was not recognized," he said. "In a sense, this award signifies Western recognition of Japan as a modern culture for the first time."

In announcing the prize, which carries a cash award of $930,000, the Nobel committee hailed Oe's works for "creating an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament."

The novelist, who has often said he writes not for the world but for his fellow Japanese, thanked his literary colleagues in brief remarks outside his home in Tokyo's upscale Seijo section.

"I think the Nobel Prize committee appreciated the achievements of (all) Japanese writers," Oe said.

Oe was born Jan. 31, 1935, in a village on the southern island of Shikoku as the third of seven children from a distinguished family. He received a degree in French literature at the University of Tokyo in 1959.

He burst onto Japan's literary scene in the late 1950s with a series of short stories. Oe was the first Japanese writer to draw heavily on American literary traditions, in contrast to the European bias of most of his contemporaries, Levy said.

His favorite American authors were those whose heroes search for "personal freedom beyond the borders of safety and acceptance," according to his translator, John Nathan. His greatest inspiration has been Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn."

In 1958, Oe was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for his novella "The Catch," about the experiences of a Japanese boy with a black American pilot shot down and captured by villagers. The prize catapulted the then-23-year-old into fame as Japan's most important young writer.

Two events in life most dramatically shaped him and his literature. The first was on Aug. 15, 1945, when then-Emperor Hirohito--whom Oe and his contemporaries regarded as divine--announced over the radio that Japan had surrendered to the Allies.

"How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?" Oe wrote plaintively in his "Portrait of a Postwar Generation."

The obliteration of his nation's values virtually overnight, as the Allied occupation firmly demystified and secularized the nation's supreme spiritual symbol, was to become a major theme of his work.

Oe also became known as a staunch leftist, actively demonstrating against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

His second transforming event was the birth in 1964 of a brain-damaged son, Hikari (Light). The tragedy inspired him to write one of his best-known novels, the dark and poetic "A Personal Matter," about a man faced with the existentialist choice of killing his deformed child to win his freedom. The book's protagonist gets fired from his job for drunkenness, takes a mistress and plots his child's death.

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