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Dynamite Dangling on a Thread : SEVENTEEN & J. By Kenzaburo Oe (Translated from Japanese by Luk Van Haute) (Blue Moon Books: $16.95, 194 pp.)

August 11, 1996|RICHARD EDER

Splitting doesn't always weaken; it can transform and empower. Think of the atom, or the Japanese novelist and Nobelist Kenzaburo Oe. The vision that torments and lights him up emanates from a brutal divide.

Born in 1935, Oe was churned in the tide and riptide of a history that had him pledging, as a child, to slash open his belly whenever the emperor required it. As a youth in the 1950s, it carried him into the combative left, repudiating both the old warrior mystique and the new national accommodation with the United States.

Finally, after a personal tragedy beyond such dialectics--for three decades he has nurtured the life and talents of a brain-impaired son--it led him along a precarious high pass between two abysses. Or, as he puts it in several of his writings, it made him "a grave tightrope walker."

An American reader may find Oe hard, but not because of his style. If anything, his writing bewilders by its odd simplicity, considering the load it transports: dynamite dangling on a thread. What is hard is the sensibility.

In one way, Oe loathes his country--its fanatical right-wing tradition and a prosperous, accommodating present that has denatured the tradition yet somehow secretes and is deformed by it. Opposite to the loathing, though, is a sympathy that is quite as specific to his art. Sympathy and loathing are in no sense reconciled, any more than the split parts of the atom are--instead, they ignite a displacing charge.

The two brief novellas, "Seventeen" and "J," were written a year or two apart in the early 1960s. Oe was 25, already celebrated for a first novel but at the start of a moral and artistic transition that is still going on. If a statue is ever raised to him, it will abandon its pedestal and wander off somewhere.

"Seventeen," written with rough urgency, and "J," also rough but more complex and accomplished, are embattled works. "Seventeen" caused such scandal and aroused such violent threats from the far right that Oe, still shaken, has allowed republication of only its first part.

"Seventeen" is based on the fatal stabbing in 1960 of the head of the Socialist Party by a young right-wing fanatic, who subsequently hanged himself in jail. "Seventeen" imagines the mind of such a young man. It is terrifying and brilliant despite the roughness.

The narrator is an adolescent suffocating at home. His father is a school principal, liberal but preternaturally calm and unexpressive, his older brother a top student who had been a promising TV producer and suffered a breakdown and now spends his time assembling model airplanes. The narrator, himself a high school star, has slumped and lost his chance for the university fast track that is virtually essential for success in Japan.

An impacted anger boils beneath the breakdowns and beneath the father's liberal impassiveness. In the boy, it erupts. He describes his compulsive masturbation in repellent detail. Women are not even fantasized; he is obsessed with his erect penis. It is a sword of destruction; later the destruction will become real.

Besides anger there is shame. The boy thinks of himself as a leftist but is humiliated when his conservative sister outargues him. He loses control of his bladder in class, and again on the athletic field. Anger and shame find relief when, at a fascist street meeting, he hears vented in public the poison that was consuming him in private. He joins a strong-arm cadre and beats up left-wing protesters.

Here the story is truncated. The second part, published only in its initial magazine form, is summarized here in the editor's introduction. It tells of the assassination and, before the boy's jail suicide, a beginning of insight.

What we have of the young narrator's voice is venomously repulsive. Oe himself later regretted making it so crude. Yet, horror aside, there is an oddly touching note to it and, more oddly still, a touch of comedy. Oe is an admirer of Huck Finn, and once in a while we seem to glimpse a raft, even if it is floating down the Styx.

The message, in any case, is by no means simplistic. The boy's anger and shame, feeding on each other, represent something larger. To Oe, Japan's former fanatic militarism and its present ethos of economic expansion and social passivity are two sides of a single fear. Within the second sleeps the dragon of the first. Terrified by the unpredictable possibilities of the nation's soul, each side has confined and repressed them.

"J" makes a similar point, as outrageously in a way but with greater artistry. Once again, a materialistic and decadent society gives rise to an act of grotesque extremity.

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