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K is a famous writer living in Tokyo with his wife and three children, the oldest of whom was born with a brain anomaly that has left him mentally disabled. A highly cerebral man who ...
K is a famous writer living in Tokyo with his wife and three children, the oldest of whom was born with a brain anomaly that has left him mentally disabled. A highly cerebral man who often retreats from real life into abstraction -- in this case, the poetry of William Blake -- K is confronted by his wife with the reality that this child, Eeyore, has been saying and doing disturbing things -- behaving aggressively, asserting that he's dead, even brandishing a knife at his mother. As the days pass, various events -- K's hapless attempts to communicate with his son, Eeyore's near drowning during a father-son trip to the swimming pool, a terrible hurricane that nearly destroys the family's mountain cottage and the family inside it -- K is forced to question his fitness as a father.
K reconsiders his own life -- his relationship with his father, his rural upbringing, his relationship with a well-known dissident writer who committed suicide, the responsibilities of artists and writers in Japan generally. In the end, in part through his obsessive rereading of Blake, K is able to see that things are not always what they seem, especially where his son is concerned, and to trust his heart as well as his mind. Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is a remarkable portrait of the inexpressible bond between this father and his damaged son, of the disconnect when a beautiful mind must confront crude reality, and of how each mind has its own path to understanding. Bittersweet, hilarious, and inspiring, it is the work of an unparalleled writer at his sparkling best.
|1||Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience||1|
|2||A Cold Babe Stands in the Furious Air||27|
|3||Down, Down thro' the Immense, with Outcry||61|
|4||The Ghost of a Flea||79|
|5||The Soul Descends as a Falling Star, to the Bone at My Heel||121|
|6||Let the Inchained Soul Rise and Look Out||157|
|7||Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!||203|
When I travel out of the country for any length of time, including professional visits, I take one precaution against losing my presence of mind and emotional balance while I am a tumbleweed in an alien landscape: I make certain to take along the books I have been reading prior to my departure. Alone in a foreign country, as I am now, I have been able to encourage myself in the face of fear, aggravation, and despondency by reading on in the books I had been reading in Tokyo before I left.
This spring I traveled to Europe, perhaps I should say careened from Vienna to Berlin with a television crew, along a route that was bare of blossoms on the trees and, except for the forsythia that turn riotous yellow before their leaves appear and the crocus buds thrusting above the ground, without flowers. I had taken along four volumes of the Penguin Classics edition of Malcolm Lowry, whom I had been reading continually for several years. I say reading, but I had also written a series of short stories constructed around metaphors that Lowry had inspired in me. My purpose in rereading Lowry while I was traveling was to allow me to say to myself at the end of the trip, Enough! As far as I'm concerned, I'm done with Lowry! And, as part of that process, I would present each of my companions on the road with one of the Lowry volumes. When I was young, my impatience had prevented me from staying with a single author for very long. As I was leaving middle age, the group of writers I would read attentively in my last years and until I died became visible to me. And so from time to time I felt obliged to set out consciously to finish off one writer or another.
This time, in spite of the busiest schedule I have ever experienced, and managing even so to maintain a pleasant relationship with the TV crew, who moved according to the logic of their work, I read, on planes and trains and in my hotel rooms as we moved about, one after another of the Lowry novels I had underlined in red pencil at various times in the past. One day, just at sunset as our train was about to arrive in Frankfurt, I was reading Forest Path to the Spring, Lowry's most beautiful novella in my view, and felt myself being newly moved by the prayer the narrator had written down in search of encouragement for his work as a jazz musician.
I say "newly" because I had been moved by this passage before and had even quoted the first lines of the prayer in a novel of my own. This time, it was the continuation of the portion I had thought important previously, at the end of the prayer, that caught my eye. After a failed attempt to create a musical theme to convey the feeling of his own rebirth into a new world, the narrator calls out, "Dear Lord God!," and prays for help: "I, being full of sin, cannot escape false concepts, but let me be truly Thy servant in making this a great and beautiful thing, and if my motives are obscure, and the notes scattered and often meaningless, please help me to order it, or I am lost. . . ."
It was this final half line, which I had set down in its original English, that tugged at me with particular force, needless to say in the context of the entire passage. I felt as if I had received a signal, as if the voice of my patron were saying, "Come along now, it's time to leave Lowry's work and to enter another world where you should also plan to remain for a number of years," and gently pointing me in the direction of a certain poet and his work. It was a Sunday evening; the young draftees who had been home on leave since Friday were on their way back to army camp. Standing at the windows in the aisles of the sleeping cars, soldiers who looked like students were blasting a farewell to their city on little trumpets with compression valves; others, still on the platform, were being consoled by their girlish lovers and urged to board the train or, reluctant to take their leave, embracing them a final time. Stepping from the train into this particular crowd seemed to hone the sharpness of my own feelings of taking leave.
As we left the station and headed for the hotel, I had with me the Oxford University Press edition of the Complete Works of William Blake in one volume that I had found in the station bookstore while the crew was loading its cases of equipment. That night, I began devoting my attention to Blake for the first time in several years, no, in more than ten years. The first page I opened to was a verse that ends, "Or else I shall be lost":
Father, father, where are you going
O do not walk so fast.
Speak father, speak to your little boy
Or else I shall be lost.
I had attempted a translation of my own fourteen years ago—it was not until I wrote just now "in several years, no, in more than ten years" that I realized, looking back, that it was in fact much longer ago than that, an experience I frequently have when speaking of the past these days—at a time when I was writing a novella in an attempt to get through a critical period of transition between a handicapped eldest son and his father, myself. Now I found myself drawn once again to the world of a poet who had influenced me under such unusual circumstances, and I wondered if my return to his world had to do with my sense that my son and I were entering once again a critical period of transition. How, otherwise, would I be feeling that Lowry's "or I am lost" led so directly to Blake's "Or else I shall be lost"? That night, unable to sleep in my Frankfurt hotel room though I turned off the bedside lamp any number of times, I returned once again to Blake—on the red paper cover of my book the falling figure of a naked man was printed in India ink—and pondered this and other uneasy thoughts.
The second stanza of "The Little Boy Lost" from Songs of Innocence is as follows:
The night was dark no father was there
The child was wet with dew.
The mire was deep, & the child did weep
And away the vapour flew.
Nightfall was still bringing fog into the streets of Frankfurt—Blake might have said "vapour"—even though it was the end of March. Easter was only a week or two away; until now, the holiday had been just a concept to me, the origin of the braiding together of death and rebirth that underlay the grotesque realism of European folk culture, but now for the first time I felt I understood the eagerness with which it was awaited as a celebration. The giant horse chestnuts that lined the streets were bare of even the youngest buds; standing sleeplessly at the window I watched the fog, glowing with light from the streetlamps, wrap itself around their dark trunks.
When I arrived at Narita Airport, Japan was in full spring, and I could feel the brightness of the air relaxing my mind and my body, but my wife and my second son appeared to be at odds with my feelings. Even after we were in the car the television station had sent for me (normally we would have taken the airport bus to Hakozaki), neither of them said a word. They sat slumped against the seat, as if they had been forced to continue fighting a difficult battle even though they were exhausted. My daughter, in her last year of a private middle school, was overwhelmed by homework and preparations for high school entrance exams and I had not expected to see her, but neither my wife nor my second son had a word to say about why my eldest child had not accompanied them to meet me.
For a time I stared out the window, not searching for lingering flower blossoms so much as simply enjoying the vivacious budding of the shrubbery in the fading light, but soon enough I began to recall uneasily how many times I had been assaulted by the feeling while reading Blake during the last part of my trip, or losing myself between the lines of his poetry, that my eldest son and I, and my entire family along with us, were on our way into a period of critical transition. And I recognized, as I continued gazing out the window in silence at the buds on the trees, that I was preparing to defend myself against my exhausted wife's account of what was in store for me by putting off as long as possible the question "And how was Eeyore?" (as in some of my novels, I intend using the nickname "Eeyore" for my handicapped son).
But the journey from Narita to our house in Setagaya is a very long ride. At some point my wife had to break her silence. And once she began, she could not avoid speaking about the situation that seemed to have enveloped her spirit in pitch-darkness. And so, in barely audible despondency and a tone of voice that sounded helpless as an infant's, she finally reported, "Eeyore was bad! Very bad!" In a manner I could tell was carefully restrained, partly out of concern that the driver might be listening, she then related the following story. Five days after I had left for Europe, as though he had been seized by an idée fixe—fearing that it would strike others as bizarre, my wife would not describe it in the car or even at home until after she had diapered my son and put him to bed—Eeyore had become violent. It was spring break between his first and second year of high school at the facility for handicapped children, and there had been a gathering of former classmates who would now be separating. The students had assembled at Kinuta Family Park, near the school, and presently had begun a game of tag, with each child chasing his own mother. When my wife ran off with the other mothers, she apparently had been able to see even at a distance that my son had become furious. Terrified, she had stopped where she was, and my son had run up to her and kicked her feet out from under her with a judo move he had learned in gym class. My wife had fallen flat on her back and not only gashed her head but sustained a concussion and was unable to stand by herself. The teachers in charge and some other mothers had surrounded Eeyore with demands that he apologize, but he had remained fiercely silent, his legs spread wide and planted, glaring at the ground.
Beginning that day, my wife had observed Eeyore uneasily at home and saw that he was tormenting his younger brother, invading his room and pushing him around. But my second son was too proud to cry out loud or to tell on his older brother; even now, as he listened to what his mother was saying in the car, his body stiffened and he lowered his eyes as though he were ashamed in front of her, but he made no attempt to correct the substance of her story. My daughter looked after her handicapped elder brother in every imaginable way, including helping with his diapers, and her solicitude seemed to irritate him to the point where my wife had witnessed him punching her in the face. This kind of incident had accumulated until my son's intimidated, angry family was no longer troubling itself with him and he was spending his spring vacation at home playing records at an unbearable volume from morning till night.
Then, about three days ago, and this was something my wife waited until late at night my first day home to reveal, the family was gathered in one corner of the dining room eating dinner after my son had finished his dinnertime ritual of stuffing everything on his plate into his mouth at one time and gulping it down when he emerged from the kitchen with a butcher knife gripped in front of his chest with both hands, moved to the curtain in the corner opposite the family, and appeared to lose himself in thought as he gazed out at the darkness of the garden behind the house.
"I thought we might have to commit him! There's nothing we could do ourselves, he's as tall and as heavy as you are!"
My wife fell silent again. And together with my son, who had said nothing, we endured the long car ride that remained, withered as though we were in the shadow of something dark and looming. Although I was still to hear about the chilling episode with the knife, not to mention the bizarre fixation that had my son in its grip, I was already feeling overwhelmed by the accumulated fatigue of my trip to Europe. At moments like this, my first response tends to be avoidance: before I faced squarely what my wife had told me, I chose the detour afforded by consideration of another Blake poem (in defer-ence to my wife, sitting there with my son between us, I refrained from pulling my copy of Blake's poems from the knapsack on my lap).
In Songs of Experience, there is a well-known poem, "A Little Boy Lost," with the indefinite article. Unlike the boy with the definite article in Songs of Innocence, this independent child protests to his father defiantly:
Nought loves another as itself
Nor venerates another so.
Nor is it possible to Thought
A greater than itself to know.
And Father, how can I love you,
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like a little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.
The priest who overhears this drags the boy off angrily and accuses him of being a devil:
And burn'd him in a holy place,
Where many have been burn'd before:
The weeping parents wept in vain
Are such things done on Albion's shore.
Our lugubrious car finally arrived at the house, and as I was carrying my suitcase into the dark entranceway my daughter appeared. As with her younger brother and my wife, there was unmistakable gloom in her expression, but the concern I had been unable to broach to my wife in the car—if Eeyore was on such bad terms with everyone in the family, was it all right to leave the two of them alone in the house together?—was dispelled. We greeted each other with as much cheer as we could manage, and went into the family room. Eeyore was on the sofa, his face buried in a sumo magazine, and he did not even look around. In the black, baggy trousers he wore to school and an old shirt of mine that looked to be too tight, he was kneeling on the couch facing the back, his rear in the air, and in that unnatural position he was poring over a photo roundup of the junior wrestlers who had just finished competing in the spring tournament. Looking at his back and legs, I thought I could see something ambivalent—myself, another self that had been present all the time I was away, and, in the same place, ready and steeled to reject that self of mine, my son. Since his height and weight were identical to my own and even the way he stood with his fleshy back and shoulders rounded reminded me of myself, it was if anything commonplace for me to perceive him as though he and I were superimposed as we lay there reading on that couch—in my case, on my back. Yet this time I could feel him (together with another son who was an identical version of myself) decisively at this exact moment rejecting his father, rejection that was no simple, spur-of-the-moment rebelliousness but determined and deliberate and part of a twisted process that was still winding on. So when I called out, "Eeyore, I'm home! How was sumo? Did Asashio win?" I felt I had been given to understand all over again the weight of the despondency that was oppressing the family. However, I had yet to look into my son's eyes. And it was his eyes that would force me that first night to face directly into the heart of the crisis that was already at hand.
While in Berlin I had bought my son a harmonica. When he didn't respond even when we called him, his younger brother, who had received a Swiss army knife, took it in to him where he lay sprawled on the couch, but he didn't even glance at it. After I had spoken to him a number of times at dinner he finally removed the harmonica from its paper wrapping; but instead of showing the interest any instrument normally evoked in him and trying to make it play, he merely fumbled with it unenthusiastically, as if it were a foreign object that was somehow threatening. Eventually, he did bring it to his lips at an angle and produced a single note like the sound of the wind by blowing into just one hole. It was as if he were afraid that instead of harmony an awful dissonance might sink its teeth into his nose if he blew into two or more holes at once.
I had been drinking the whisky I had purchased at the duty-free shop, but presently I stood up from the dining room table and set out across the room to where my son lay stretched out athwart the couch like a knife thrust into it. Without changing his position, he grasped the harmonica by one edge in both hands, overlapping them, lifted it on end in front of his face like a scepter, and looked up at me from either side of it. His eyes made me shudder. They were bloodshot as though with fever, burning with a yellowish luster as of resin, raw. A beast in rut, having expended itself on impulse in a frenzy of sexual excess, is still rocked by aftershocks of desire. The period of wild activity is meant to give way at once to inaction and lethargy, but deep inside the body something continues to rage. From the look in my son's eyes he was being devoured from the inside by a beast in the grip of that wildness and could do nothing about it, and the rest of his face, his dark eyebrows and finely arched nose and bright-red lips, was slack and blank.
Looking down into those eyes that smote my chest, I couldn't speak. My wife came over from the table to tell my son that it was time for bed, and he obediently took his diapers for that night upstairs. But first he dropped the harmonica beside him as if it were something he just happened to be holding that meant nothing to him. As he passed me he flicked his eyes in my direction and I saw once again the eyes of a beast, of a dog, laughing and laughing in a place absent of people until its eyes had gone red.
"Eeyore gripped that butcher knife the same way he was holding the harmonica just now, staring into the back garden with his head pressed against the wall where the curtain is. The entire time we were eating he didn't move a muscle, it was terrifying!"
When she came downstairs from having put my son to bed, my wife related the episode with the butcher knife and added a report of his bizarre remarks. Now that I was actually home, he was not defying his mother, and all she had had to do was tell him she was on the way to meet me at the airport and he had stayed at home and maintained a policy of nonintervention toward his sister. It was therefore only natural that she should have said to him when he began to act up that she would report his misbehavior to his father when he came home. At the time Eeyore had been listening to a Bruckner symphony on FM radio with the volume turned way up as usual, and he had shouted, in a voice easily heard above the blaring music, "No, no, Papa is dead!"
My wife was stunned, but managed to get hold of herself and tried to correct my son's mistake. Father wasn't dead; he had been away before for other long periods of time, but he had been alive in foreign countries, not dead. And just as he had always come home in the past when his trip was over, he would be home this time, too; in the loud voice that must have been required to vie with the Bruckner—as I listened despondently I opened the FM radio guide on the table to see which Bruckner had been playing and ascertained that it had been the Eighth Symphony in C Minor—my wife had tried to disabuse my son, but he had continued to protest stubbornly: "No, Papa died! He really died!"
In the context of his conversation with my wife, my son's responses, while bizarre, did have a certain logic of their own: "I'm sure you don't mean dead? Don't you mean away on a trip? You know he's coming back next Sunday!"
"Is that right? Is he coming back on Sunday? Even if he is, right now he's dead. Papa is really dead!"
The Bruckner Eighth continued endlessly, and as my wife shouted back and forth with my son she sensed that fresh blood was beginning to ooze from the cut on the back of her head and felt sick with exhaustion. Imagining a situation that might easily occur in the future, when her husband had really died, and she was attempting to coax her son into believing he was still alive in order to control him, she was further disheartened.
Nevertheless, the morning after I returned, I discovered a route to communication with my son that enabled the whole family to make up with him. Although I had been unable to sleep until nearly dawn, I sat at the table with the children while they were having breakfast. Eeyore sat obliquely to the table, apart from everyone, and ate slowly, using his chopsticks as though weights were attached to his arms (since he had begun taking the antiepileptic drug Hidantol, his movements were sluggish until midmorning, and he gave no indication of hearing anything we said to him). When we had finished and the children had returned to their rooms—it was still spring break—I went to sleep again on the sofa that my son had monopolized until the day before.
Presently a memory from my youth, or rather the recreation of an actual incident from a specific time and place when I was young, filled me with a feeling of nostalgia so powerful and undiluted it was palpable and woke me, trembling, from my sleep. I was on the verge of tears. Seated on the floor next to the skirt of the sofa, my son was stroking my bare foot that protruded from the blanket with the fingers of his cupped right hand, gently, as if it were constructed of something soft and fragile. And he was whispering words of concern in a soft, calm voice. These were the words, alive with familiarity and nostalgia and shivering like a living jelly that I had heard on the way out of my dream: "Foot, are you all right? Good foot, nice foot! Gout, are you all right? Nice foot! Nice foot!"
"Eeyore," I whispered back, "foot is fine. There's no gout, so foot is fine."
My son looked up at me, squinting into the light, with eyes that had returned to looking as they had before my departure, and said, "So it's all right? What a nice foot! What a really very excellent foot!"
After a while, my son moved away from my foot and, taking up the harmonica that lay where he had tossed it down, played some chords. Before long the chords were accompanying a melody. He played a simple, beautiful tune that I knew only as one of Bach's sicilianas, in several keys, and seemed to have understood that he could play a chromatic scale by using the holes on both sides of the harmonica. I made spaghetti carbonara for lunch and surprised myself at how much pleasure it gave me. When my younger son and daughter were seated at the table, I called out to my eldest son, and he replied in a voice so clear and beautiful and extraordinarily calm that my wife gave a little laugh.
"I'd given Eeyore a definition of foot," I told her. That's what opened a passage between us and gave us a handhold on the day. The trouble is, I promised I'd define everything in this world for him. But so far "foot" is the clearest definition I've come up with and that wasn't even my own invention; it was gout that made that possible.
Definitions. A book of definitions of everything in the world. By way of demonstrating that the presentiment I described above had already come to pass, that I was moving back toward Blake or perhaps approaching him from a new direction, I want to begin by saying that when I was still formulating a book of definitions that was to begin with a retelling of Japan's constitution in simple language, a good ten years ago in other words, I was calling it, after Blake, "Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience." And though I attempted to create this book in the form of children's stories with illustrations, I had a terrible time making it happen. Seven or eight years ago, in a public talk I gave on children and imagination, I said the following. By that time I had already made frequent attempts to begin in earnest and had been forced to acknowledge that the project I had in mind would not be accomplished easily. But I must have been hoping, and I believe I can read this feeling behind my words, that by speaking about it in public I could lever myself into moving forward.
I began thinking about writing a primer to help children like my son and his classmates at the special school for handicapped children live their lives as adults. I wanted to convey to them in words they could understand what the world, society, and mankind were all about, and to say to them, "Go out and live your lives fully now but pay attention to these particular points." For example, what is life, a short, easy description. I wouldn't have to do it all myself; a variety of friends would help. The composer, T, for example, could be counted on to write something about music for my son. These were my thoughts as I sat down to work, but I found the project to be dizzyingly difficult. The difficulty in attempting to write about the clearest and simplest things in vibrant language that will stimulate the imagination is that in virtually every case the reality that must be conveyed does not permit that kind of description.
As I copy the above passage I notice that I was being dishonest in my speech. According to what I was saying there, I am at work on a book of definitions of the world, society, and mankind for my own son and his comrades in the special class for handicapped children. The constitution will be central to my theme. But the current reality under the constitution makes writing about it in concise, accurate, evocative language impossible. I am not suggesting even now that this is altogether contrary to the truth. Nevertheless, to be honest about it, the crux of the problem was not so much on the outside as internal to me. To put it more courageously, it was my laziness. To be sure, lurking behind my laziness was a sense of futility tinged with fear that had its own source in my misgivings about my talent. I had conceived this idea even before my son entered school. I began writing it for a child who had scarcely been out of his house, and as my son went to elementary school and then entered the special section for handicapped students at the middle school, gradually adjusting my style I created drafts for each stage of his life. Now I was writing for a young man about to enter the second year of the high school program at the special school, and the only solid definition I had provided him with so far was for foot, "nice foot," and I had only managed that thanks to an attack of gout.
When I came down with gout I was ruled entirely by the fiery red swelling at the base of my left big toe: as even the weight of a sheet was unbearably painful I lay in bed at night uncovered—sleeping only a little without the help of whisky—and sprawled on the sofa in the same state during the day, crawling to the bathroom with one leg in the air. At the time, Eeyore had just entered the special class at middle school, and, watching his father, who dwarfed him in height and weight, reduced to helplessness for days on end, made a deep impression. He did his very best to be useful to me. As I crawled down the hall obliged to learn how painful a shin bone could be, he would scamper after me like a sheep dog in pursuit of a stray sheep and more than once, tripping over his own chubby, clumsy body, would fall on my gout-ridden foot. I couldn't help screaming aloud, but the way he withered right before my eyes at my suffering was enough to fill me with a phantom doubt that perhaps I was a savage father who beat his son. And that thought incised itself into me like a wound. As the attacks gradually subsided, my son would stroke the rose-colored swelling at the base of my toe with slightly bent fingers—supporting himself with his other hand to keep from leaning his weight on me—and would speak aloud, addressing my foot, "Nice foot, are you all right, what a very nice foot you are!"
"There's no question that Eeyore was very bad, that he behaved badly, but I think that what was really going on was that he was understanding for the first time that his father would die," I said to my wife after some reflection. "The part that's hard to understand is that he seems to be thinking that people who have died will return, but if we observe carefully I have a feeling we'll come to see what's behind that notion, too. Because Eeyore doesn't say things off the top of his head. Besides, when I was a child I think I had the same thought. At any rate, when I go away on a trip and stay away for what seems like forever isn't it natural that his thoughts should jump ahead to after my death? His father goes away to some distant place and the feelings he experiences are the same as if he had died, and on top of that, his mother attempts to run off and leave him behind—no wonder he was frantic. It was just a game, but to a child, games are models of reality. I thought about the knife, too, and I think the way he was holding it was meant to be defensive; maybe that's also why he was peering out into the garden. I wonder if he wasn't standing guard against an enemy in order to protect the family in my place now that I was dead?"
I continued, silently, not to my wife but to myself, as follows: Since my son had begun to ponder with his own kind of urgency what would happen following my death, was I not obliged as his father to prepare him, unflinchingly and without falling into idleness, for his relationship to the world, society, and mankind after that inevitable moment had arrived? As to whether I was capable of actually writing a complete guide to the world, society, and mankind in language he could easily understand that would keep my son from losing his way along the road of life following my death, I had the feeling it had already been made clear to me that this was in fact not possible. Nevertheless, somehow or other I must do what I can to attempt a book of definitions intended for him. Let me think of it not so much as being for him as for myself, a book of definitions that would cleanse and encourage me. My experience with gout provided my son with a precise definition of "foot," and through his understanding I had been made aware of what constituted "nice foot." Carried along by the momentum I had achieved on my trip, I was continuing to read Blake intensively—why couldn't I overlap my reading of the English poet with the writing of a book of definitions? And why not write it as a novel, this time without worrying about using language my son and his comrades could understand, about the experiences that had provided me with the definitions that were critical to my sense of self and about my longing to pass them on to innocent souls?
I had a fantasy once, and wrote about it, that on the day of my death the total accumulation of my experience would flow out of me into my son's innocent spirit. And if my fantasy should come to pass, when he had buried the handful of bone and ash that his father had become, my son would read the book of definitions I had yet to write. With this childish fantasy as something to cling to, in hopes of finding shelter from myriad thoughts about the difficulties my son would encounter in the outside world after my death, it seemed possible that I might sit down to work on this book of definitions.
River—the experience that gave me the definition is etched in my memory as vividly as the discovery of "nice foot" that I had shared with my son. It was a definition so precise and clear that the man who provided it scarcely needed words. At least ten years ago, I was on an airplane traveling east from New Delhi with the veteran writer, H. He had appeared to be asleep when suddenly, catching my attention with a brisk movement that made it clear that he was not, he pointed out the pressurized window at the river cutting a deep arc like a surgical scar across the clay-colored plain below. An instant later, he had sat back in his reclined seat and had closed his eyes again and I was leaning across his lap to survey the view through the window. (Before we boarded the plane there had been what I took to be a confrontation between us, and, though we had resolved it, his words and attitude just now had further heartened me.) As it happened, the plane was just banking into a turn as it began its descent: my field of vision was filled entirely by what could only be called the quintessential river in India, the true river among rivers. Until then, my archetype had always been the limpid river that ran through the valley in the forest in Shikoku where I grew up, but from that moment on I retained a second image of the essential river: clay-colored, just a shade paler than the color of the ground, doubtless flowing toward what must be a clay-colored sea but imperceptibly, in what direction, it was impossible to know. From the slightest movement of Mr. H's wrist and finger a minute before, and from the fluttering of his lip as he spoke as though it were a continuation of his silence or perhaps did not speak, I received and retain in memory to this day, together with the incidents that occurred before we boarded the plane, what I still consider to be the best possible definition of "river."
On the day we traversed the Indian continent in a plane, Mr. H and I had spent a good ten hours waiting for our flight, the only Japanese among the Indians. In that entire time, other than the word "river" that may have been just the fluttering of his lips, and an invitation to read an article in the International Herald Tribune—"You might be interested in this"—and, before that, in the taxi on the way to the airport, an episode about dirty eyeglasses, he had not spoken a word to me. And until just before our flight to Calcutta finally departed, I had been feeling that his silence was due to anger at me for my compulsiveness about time and my ignorance of how things were done in India. The truth was, if it hadn't been for my jumpiness, Mr. H might have spent the ten hours relaxing in our hotel instead of waiting around on an autumn day with nothing to do in an airport as drab and deserted as a warehouse.
In what I took to be his indignation, Mr. H was unapproachable as a fortress. Born into a merchant family that had been shipping agents on the Sea of Japan for generations (the only one of his brothers who had turned his back on the world of commerce, he had been the one to inherit what might be called the essence of his family's accumulated humanity), he had set out just after the war for the chaos that was China, as though in search of hardship, and had found what he was looking for. On his return, he had become an author and an intellectual with a style of his own, though very much in the postwar school. But there was something about him that had nothing to do with his family background or his lifetime experiences, an inherent personality that included stubbornness about his feelings that made it impossible for anyone to divert him once he had set his course. Particularly not the person responsible for his anger.
Before it had become plain that he was fuming, Mr. H had removed his International Herald Tribune from its paper cover and shown me an article whose contents I can convey vividly: it was about the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich's attack on the suppression of free speech in the Soviet Union. Still in Russia at the time, Rostropovich was dedicating himself to defending his comrade Solzhenitsyn, and I had copied his remarks in the flyleaf of the book I was reading that day: "Every human being must have the right to express without fear his own thoughts and his opinions about what he knows and has experienced. I am not talking about simply regurgitating with minor modifications opinions that have been fed to us . . ."
As Mr. H's anger gradually revealed itself, I sensed that it was not only directed at my blunder and at the airline but also related to censorship and civil rights violations in Russia. I was led to this by the anecdote he told me about eyeglasses. We were in New Delhi at the time to attend a conference of Asian and African authors, but there were also a large number of Soviet writers present, including a woman poet who was an old friend of Mr. H's. The previous night, he and the poet, whom I shall call Madame Nefedovna, a smallish woman his age, in her mid-fifties, whose utter lack of intellectual restraint and cosmopolitan, Jewish-looking features made her appear ten years younger, had sat up arguing until late. As Mr. H was a veteran of too many international battles to be careless or indiscreet in a conversation with political overtones, I refrained from asking questions, but I judged that the argument had reference to the declaration by Rostropovich in the paper and was about the current civil rights issue in Russia. While Mr. H was on familiar terms with the cultural bureaucracy, he had always been clear about identifying emotionally with the artists and scientists whom Rostropovich was defending. The criticism he continued to voice at the African-Asian writers' conference, tenaciously but with great tact and strategy, addressing the Russian representatives in the calmly delivered English that suited him, was on their behalf. If, however, it was the case that Madame Nefedovna was overdoing her actual involvement in the civil rights movement in Moscow, she would have been well advised to reconsider, for if this was noticed, she would find herself as a Jew not only unable to make trips abroad like this one but also prevented from pursuing her activities at home—apparently Mr. H had tried hard to persuade his friend that he was correct. But "that unrepentently stubborn Russian female intellectual," as he called Madame Nefedovna, had rejected his admonition out of hand, with the familiar ease that came from having met him at writers' conferences for fifteen years. Mr. H had been wearing glasses since his youth, but Madame Nefedovna had only recently begun using reading glasses, which she carried in her handbag. She needed them for the fine print in the volumes she pored over in her research—a distinguished poet, she was also a recognized Sanskrit scholar—and, like many people who do not wear their glasses all the time, she rarely cleaned them. Mr. H was in some respects a fastidious man, and it was accordingly his custom to clean them for her, but that night he had instead pinched some lint from his pocket and dusted it on her lenses.
Such was the story Mr. H had told me in the taxi on the way to the airport. When we arrived, he installed himself at the counter of a newly opened bar and began drinking beer or something stronger, ignoring me entirely. Our flight had been scheduled to leave at 7 A.M., and in my uneasiness about separating from the Japanese writers' group and setting out alone on a journey with Mr. H, there was no question that I had overdone my insistence on the accuracy of the timetable. Moving back and forth down the hotel's roofless corridor that faced a courtyard garden like a small forest, I had gone to awaken him repeatedly—I recall an unbearably desolate tree, the giant black trunk and fallen leaves of golden brown more like minerals than plants, a tree impossible to imagine outside India, which remains on my mind because I do not know its name—and later, when it appeared that he had no intention of getting up, I had tipped a bellboy to drag him from his room. What I had neglected to do was phone the airport to inquire whether the flight was on time. We had finally raced to the airport in a taxi, arriving just before scheduled departure time, and found that the flight had been delayed, and the delay had been extended hour after hour with no explanation, and then it was the afternoon and still there had been no announcement that the flight would be departing.
It occurred to me that Mr. H, who understood how India worked and had even written a book based on his experiences in the country, might have known all along that an on-time departure was out of the question, and that his anger at me was therefore more than justified. While he sat at the bar drinking by himself, I waited near the electronic board on which departures were posted, listening for an announcement about our flight, and read a book about wild animals in India that I had purchased at the gift shop in our hotel. A memoir in dead earnest by a plantation owner named E. P. Guy, the book was written in a prose style that mirrored the rectitude of its author's character and life, yet was filled with details that were bizarrely amusing and made for perfect reading on the road. I have this book with me even now as I write, with Rostropovich's remarks copied on the inside cover. Based on eyewitness accounts from friends in the region of Kashmir, Guy described the following bizarre phenomenon at the time of the partition of Pakistan in 1947. As Hindus, who viewed cows as sacred animals, crossed the new border into India from Pakistan, and Muslims, who eat no pork, moved in the opposite direction, the wild animals in the region instinctively sought their own route to survival. Whole herds of wild oxen in Pakistan migrated to India, and wild pigs in similar numbers crossed into Pakistan in search of a safe environment.
It was now late in the afternoon. We had been waiting that long and, even so, thinking I might make Mr. H laugh with the animal episode, I sat down on the bar stool next to his and ordered a beer. The bartender's attitude seemed, for want of a better word, Indian: with a dusky disagreeableness that might have been directed more at life in general than at his customers, and an expression on his face that seemed to say "So now we have a second Japanese alcoholic," he passed me a lukewarm bottle of beer. When I told my animal story after drinking the beer, Mr. H listened without the slightest show of interest, his gaze never moving from the sorry shelf of bottles and the large map of India on the wall across from him. This left me helpless, with nothing to do but order another beer and stare at the same shelf of bottles and map on the wall. As I sat there, drinking one beer after the other, I felt the onset of an impulse that was by no means unfamiliar to me.
When I first became aware of this impulse at age seventeen or eighteen—as I think of it, my son's current age—I named it "leap," using the English word, a name that I continue to use though clearly it was a youthful invention; and when I feel a leap approaching I do what I can to distance myself so as to avoid being taken over. But there are times when I have behaved in odd ways that have carried me forward as though to welcome the leap. If I include drunken behavior, leaps of one degree or another possess me about once a year, and it may be that their accumulated impact has twisted and bent the course of my life. Or, possibly, leaps have made me the man I am today.
In this particular instance at the New Delhi airport, the leap I took, not so much rude or nasty or anything I can think of other than dangerous, was to ridicule an author I had admired for years by writing a poem that portrayed him in a ridiculous way as a man past middle age who was suffering the pain of an unhappy love, and to show it to him as he sat drinking at my side with his anger on display.
I began by copying the map of India on the wall onto the back of a coaster. When I had marked various points on the map with asterisks, I then composed a poem in English, incorporating the place names I had starred. The title was "An Indian Gazetteer." The only thing I remember clearly about my pseudo-English poem was a man getting on in years brooding over his sake cup about his similarly aging lover going off to the provincial city of Mysore. This part has stayed with me because the point of my scheme was to use a pun on Mysore as the basis for an insinuation. That very day, Madame Nefedovna had in fact departed, in her case by train, for a conference on linguistics being held in Mysore.
My sore: in the small dictionary on my desk as I write, I find the following definitions for "sore": 1) a place that is tender or raw, a wound, an inflammation; 2) inflictions or hardships of a mental or emotional nature (including sorrow or anger), unpleasant memories. To be honest, it had never occurred to me that the friendship Mr. H and Madame N had sustained across years of meeting at international conferences had anything to do with love. Those of us who had been influenced by Mr. H and his generation of postwar writers during our college years sometimes indulged in carrying on like naughty children in his presence; O, for example, another young member of our Japan writers' group, had frequently teased him by treating Madame Nefedovna as though she were his lover. But O shared my respect for Mr. H and Madame N as veteran intellectuals who had always insisted on their own individuality, and had no more intention of pigeonholing them as lovers than did I. Nevertheless, I slid the coaster inscribed with my doggerel innuendo into Mr. H's field of vision as he stared down at the bar (he had removed his glasses and hung his head, the shape of which put me in mind of a distinguished warrior from a powerful clan in the Middle Ages). If you think you're angry now, I thought to myself in the grip of a leap I could not control, have a look at this! If you can indulge your feelings for hours on end, why should I pussyfoot around you!
Without changing his position, Mr. H appeared to read the coaster, his eyes narrowing with the effort. Then he put his glasses back on and I could tell from the tightening between his temples and his eyes that he was slowly rereading my brief verse a second time, and then a third. I had begun to feel regret at once, as though the world were going dark, and then he slowly turned his face in my direction and the look in his eyes struck a blow that took my breath away.
I described my son's eyes the first time I looked directly into them on returning from Europe as the eyes of a rutting beast still rocked by aftershocks of desire following sexual frenzy, as unbearable eyes that looked as though he were being devoured from within by a ravening beast. What I failed to note and wish to add here was the bottomless grief that was revealed above all else in the yellowish resin luster of those eyes. Reports of my son's unmanageable behavior while I was away and his response to the harmonica I had brought him, not to mention my own travel fatigue, had frayed my nerves and deprived me of the emotional leeway I needed to read and register his grief.
Writing this now it is hard to imagine how as a father I could have failed to see that massive grief in the desolation of my son's eyes. And I can't help feeling that, healing the rift with my son, I became aware of his grief through the agency of a Blake poem, "On Another's Sorrow," which includes this stanza:
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrows share,
Can a father see his child,
Weep, nor be with sorrow fill'd.
One of the "Songs of Innocence," the poem concludes with the following verse:
O! he gives to us his joy,
That our grief he may destroy
Till our grief is fled & gone
He doth sit by us and moan
I was able to read the grief in my son's eyes even more directly, as though it were in my own experience, because I was equipped with a definition of grief that had appeared for just an instant in Mr. H's eyes that day at the bar in the New Delhi airport.
Excerpted from Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! © Copyright 1986 by Kenzaburo Oe, English Translation © Copyright 2002 by John Nathan. Reprinted with permission from Grove/Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Posted December 19, 2013
No text was provided for this review.