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Strange Beauty Amid Horror, Grief


By Kenzaburo Oe, Translated from Japanese by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama

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Marion Boyars, 189 pp., $22.95

ONE of the leading lights of Japanese postwar literature, Kenzaburo Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994, just as he was announcing his intention to write no more fiction. His novels and stories, as he explained, had been driven by his desire to speak on behalf of his handicapped son who, after years of struggle, had finally found his own means of self-expression through the beautiful music he taught himself to compose.

Giving up fiction, however, does not necessarily entail giving up all forms of writing. Oe's creativity and his deep concern for his country's future, poignantly expressed in his Nobel acceptance speech, may well find other outlets. In the meantime, publishers have been busy issuing and reissuing earlier works by this powerful writer who has trained his eyes on darkness the better to see the light.

Born in a small village on the island of Shikoku, Oe grew up in the shadow of World War II. Even as a child, he began to harbor doubts about the nature of the war and about a system that demanded blind obedience to authority. Oe studied French literature at Tokyo University and, in 1958, made his literary debut with a prizewinning short story, ''The Catch,'' and a darkly disturbing first novel, ''Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.''

''The Catch,'' recently reissued by Kodansha International along with war stories by three other Japanese writers, is a harshly vivid account of the relationship between a Japanese boy and the black American airman being held prisoner in the boy's village. ''Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids'' also takes place in a rural landscape menaced by war -- and the fearful, brutalizing mentality that war can breed.

The setting is at once timeless and dreamlike, yet filled with vivid physical details: the beauty of the countryside, the cold, the hunger, the squalor, the taste of food, the smell of pestilence. The novel has the effect of a surrealistic fable.

We watch as a small group of reform-school boys, evacuated to the countryside during wartime, are ostracized by the locals and left to fend for themselves when the villagers flee their homes to escape a mysterious plague. The boys' struggle to behave with courage and decency is grimly touching.

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Oe's 1967 masterpiece, ''The Silent Cry'' (translated into English in 1974, now reissued by Kodansha in paperback) is a particularly potent distillation of the somber themes that haunt his work. The narrator, father of a retarded child, is driven to deeper despair by the suicide of his closest friend. Returning to his native village with his charismatic but dangerously destructive brother, the narrator confronts issues of personal, familial, and cultural identity.

Convinced that Japan's moral and cultural future depends on its continued renunciation of its militaristic, imperial past, Oe himself supports the antinuclear movement. He criticized the influence and example of Yukio Mishima, who committed suicide in 1970 after calling in vain for an uprising by Japanese armed forces to restore the national honor.

Oe's view, set forth in his Nobel address, is that his country's future lies in the ''idea of democracy and the determination never to wage a war again -- a resolve adopted not by innocent people but people stained by their own history of territorial invasion.'' This, he also feels, is the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Oe's interviews with nuclear survivors are the substance of his 1964 book, ''Hiroshima Notes.'')

Oe's reflections on the nature of art, his analysis of the current state of culture in Japan, and his complex understanding of cross-cultural influences are set forth with admirable lucidity in his Nobel address and in the other three lectures included in the same volume. Japan's rapid embrace of consumer culture, he fears, is rendering serious literature ever more marginal -- an anxiety shared by artists the world over.

A writer who took the title of this recent trilogy -- ''The Blazing Green Tree'' (1993-95) -- from an image in a poem by W. B. Yeats, Oe cites as his role model the eminent Japanese scholar Kazuo Watanabe, who translated Rabelais into Japanese and cherished a dream of grafting the best of Western humanism onto the Japanese stock of sensitivity to beauty and nature.

Oe's fiction, often dealing with ugliness, grief, and deformity, achieves a strange kind of beauty that comes from his willingness to look unflinchingly into the face of horror while affirming his belief in what George Orwell (another of his touchstones) called simple human decency. Although written specifically for and about his fellow countrymen, Oe's works have, understandably, taken their place in the global pantheon.

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