Perhaps the best of several fictionalizations of life with his brain-damaged son Hikari, this moving 1986 novel (previously untranslated into English) by Japan’s 1994 Nobel laureate ranks with such triumphs as Oe’s The Silent Cry (1975) and Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1969).
The narrator is K., a middle-aged Tokyo writer whose understandably obsessive relationship with his adult son, born with a deformed head and thereafter subject to both irrational borderline-violent behavior and terrifying seizures, dovetails in his imagination with the consolations and clarifications found in the poems and paintings of William Blake, which K. has devoutly studied since his youth. Each chapter here is prefaced by a quotation from or allusion to Blake’s enormously rich oeuvre, and K.’s often discursive ruminations make telling connections between Blake’s themes and preoccupations and emotions stirred by the strange boy-man whom his parents and younger siblings continue to call “Eeyore.” For example, the subject of Eeyore’s dreams evokes references to Blake’s poetical treatment of the phenomenon of dreaming and his dreamlike paintings; Eeyore’s experiences with occupational therapy are counterpointed to Blake’s interpretation of the US Declaration of Independence. There’s much more: Eeyore’s panicky fear of death leads to memories of K.’s vigil for a former school friend dying of leukemia; teaching his son to swim brings K. into contact with athletic young men reminiscent of the paramilitary acolytes of Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima (who committed ritual suicide); and, most intriguingly, Eeyore’s inexplicable musical gift (Oe’s son is, against enormous odds, a successful composer), one of whose by-products is a highly praised collaboration between father and son. The result is a dazzlingly unconventional fiction, alive on every page with deeply considered ideas and restrained emotion, that’s capable of frequently reducing the reader to helpless (albeit grateful) tears.
Oe has been afflicted, and blessed, with a great theme that’s entirely his own—and has made it the cornerstone of an irresistibly compelling body of work.