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A Portrait of a Woman Who Transcends Culture

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, Japan's Kenzaburo Oe has distinguished himself not only as an innovative artist but also as a voice for humanitarian values. He consistently tackles difficult and troubling subjects without flinching, but with an attitude of careful deliberation and open-mindedness, whether he is dealing with the dehumanizing effects of war (as in his novel "Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids") or the anguish of a parent of a handicapped child (as in "The Silent Cry").

A child of World War II and the father of a retarded son, Oe tends to write about what he has experienced. In "An Echo of Heaven" (published in Japan in 1989, appearing now in English translation), he tells the story of a Japanese woman, Marie Kuraki, who endures an overwhelming tragedy but who, despite her personal despair, lives on to become an inspiration to other people, spending her last days working alongside poor rural folk on a cooperative farm in Mexico.

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The book opens after Marie's death, when the author/narrator - Oe - is approached by some men who want to make a film based on her life, to serve as a continuing inspiration to the farmworkers, many of whom already regard her as a saint.

Oe proceeds to relate, in a matter-of-fact, seemingly spontaneous and unorganized fashion, what he knows about Marie Kuraki. Although he remarks more than once that his version of her story will actually be his own story, one acceptable to him, it might be more accurate to say that his account of her life is most notable for his conscientious refusal to merge her identity with his. As a friend and a witness, Oe's role is more like that of a chorus or commentator than an actor in the drama. This is Marie's story, not his, even if it is, unavoidably, filtered through his perceptions.

Oe sets forth what he knows of Marie's background, how he and his wife first met her, and the various encounters that make up what he knows about her. Marie, we learn, was a slim, attractive woman with a free-and-easy manner, a sometimes unsettling outspokenness, an independent attitude, and a warm, wide Betty Boop-like smile accentuated by bright red lipstick. Like Oe, she has a retarded son, as well as a younger boy, very bright at school, who becomes crippled in a cruel accident. Having borne up bravely under these two challenges, Marie loses all sense of meaning in life when her two boys commit suicide.

An enterprising woman who has always been interested in literature, philosophy, and the varieties of religious experience, Marie tries to find solace in Western-style mysticism. Although not a believer, she is drawn to Christianity, and joins a religious community led by a Western-style guru called Little Father. Her spiritual quest eventually leads her to Mexico, where she is recruited by a Mexican of Japanese descent to serve as a kind of living icon to the workers on a communal farm. Despite her willingness to explore so many spiritual avenues, Marie cannot bring herself to believe that the deaths of her sons can be part of any meaningful, larger scheme.

Marie is a thoroughly modern woman - sexually active and aware of her attractiveness. On one level, her treatment of her divorced husband looks altruistic (she takes the retarded child, allowing him to have the normal child). But on another level, many of her decisions and actions, however noble, might also be seen as ministering to her own needs for independence, atonement, and redemption.

While the filmmakers who approached Oe plan to commemorate Marie Kuraki's life by presenting her as a timeless icon, Oe commemorates her by recalling the particular person he knew. Indeed, his account of her could be called a demystification - not in the sense of debunking a myth or providing a wholly rational explanation for a mystery - but rather in his refusal to overlook the oddities that made her who she was.

Eschewing the literary techniques that can be used to endow a subject with an aura of timelessness, mystery, and miracle, Oe locates Marie firmly in the postmodern world of cross-cultural influences, gurus, filmmakers, and Japanese-Mexican farm co-ops. He fills in the details of her specific personality and personal history, her changing moods and circumstances.

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Marie Kuraki emerges as an admirable woman: by turns carefree and guilt-stricken, foolish and thoughtful, despairing and courageous, confused and resolute. Whether or not she was the saint that some people saw in her is left an open question. Nor can Oe say for certain whether she ever found for herself the kind of faith she managed to inspire in others.

Tone is a difficult quality to gauge from a translation. Sometimes, the reader may wonder if Oe's account of a given incident is meant to be straightforwardly objective, ironically deadpan, gently mocking, or respectfully bemused. Margaret Mitsutani's translation suggests a well-tempered blend of sympathy and objectivity as the narrator's attitude toward his subject, an open-mindedness based on humility rather than credulity.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

An Echo of Heaven

By Kenzaburo Oe

Translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani Kodansha International

204 pp., $25

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