As Kenzaburō Ōe’s 1958 novel opens, a group of Japanese reform school boys are being evacuated to a small village where they will wait out the war. The boys are set to work burying bodies of animals that have died from a plague that eventually infects some of the people in the community. When the villagers decide to leave the town, they leave the boys stranded with no medical assistance or adult guidance. Before long, the boys have created their own society and seem to be doing rather well. Of course, this cannot last. The plague, the outside world, and other factors interfere with the smooth running of their community, and the results, while not entirely obvious, are also no great surprise.
This obvious comparison to this short novel is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, published in 1954. But Ōe’s novel is different in some striking ways. Most striking for me is the distinction between the individual and the community. Although Golding is certainly interested in societal structures, the dramatic emphasis of the novel seems to be on the individual boys and how they each react to their situation. Ōe, on the other hand, seems more interested in the community as a whole. Only two of the boys in Ōe’s novel even have names, and only two others have clear identities. The rest are just a sort of mass, and they act as such. We only get into the head of one of the characters, the first-person narrator. The end effect is that the book felt rather like a fable, albeit an extremely dark one.
I found the book to be an easy enough read, although the subject matter is, obviously, difficult. As translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama, the language is clear and spare, and the descriptions of contagion, rot, and filth are almost too clear. This is not a book for the weak of stomach! However, although I found the story compelling, I can’t say I was enthralled by it. It was short and easy—that’s what kept me turning the pages. The fable-like quality and lack of individualization kept me from being invested in the characters.
Still, I did find the book interesting, and I’m still puzzling out aspects of it a week after reading it. I thought that Ōe’s ideas about fear and injustice were easy enough to parse out, but the story does take some turns that add complications. For example, the boys make a tragic decision toward the end of the book that may or may not be based on wrong information. If they were right, they perhaps did the right thing; if not, they were unnecessarily cruel. I’m not sure, however, that Ōe sees any ambiguity in their actions. He seems to present it as an out-and-out tragedy. Certainly, it’s depicted as an action based on fear, not unlike the earlier actions of the villagers. But I suppose the pragmatist in me wonders what the right choice was. At any rate, there is a clear sense that fear is the great disruptor of peace. The difficulty of the boys’ situation raises the possibility that peace simply cannot be maintained in a world where death exists.
I’m also mulling over Ōe’s use of sex and sexuality throughout the book. There are a few aspects of his use of sex that took me by surprise. Not every character follows the course I had mapped out in my head. There’s one character who appears to be openly homosexual, and the boys are very matter-of-fact about it. I was pleasantly surprised by that, although I’m not sure what to make of a moment late in the book that touches on the same issue.
In a similar vein, when a girl appears in the village, I expected one outcome and got something else. Still, I was left with some niggling questions. I may be reading too much into a couple of odd moments and an unfortunate word choice that may be a translation issue, but I’m not sure the girl’s situation is as idyllic as the narrator would have us believe. (The word in question is dry, and in a sexual context, it seemed suspicious.) But is the narrator intentionally deceptive or just lacking knowledge? (And what about the book’s 23-year-old male author?) This is not a major thread in the book, but it’s one that really left me wondering.
So although this book was an easy read, it’s not an easy book to think about. What looks clear becomes murky on closer examination. Any book that keeps me thinking this much was worth reading.