The Silent Cry, by Kenzaburo Oe

by Robert A. Parker

As soon as I began this 1967 novel. I realized I was in the hands of a master. I understood why Oe had won the Nobel Prize, and wondered why I had allowed this work to sit on my shelves for so long. Because here was an interesting family situation, with a story that involved past history and present-day Japan. And because the overall perspective reflected the Western approach to literature. There was also a beautiful style, even in translation, with continuous imaginative and appropriate metaphors. And I could not wait to see what would happen when this family explored its past.

And then, the master began to fail me. I could not accept some of the developments, particularly as the author introduces his explanations for the actions of the hero’s younger brother. The narrator Mitsu, weak-willed and an intellectual, is distraught because his young son has been born deformed, and his best friend has just committed suicide. So he allows his younger brother Taka, emotional and assertive, to persuade him to move back to their native village so they can start a new life together.

But Taka also has an ulterior motive for moving back. He identifies with family lore, and is haunted by a village revolt that occurred in 1860, and was led by his great grandfather’s younger brother. The revolt failed, many were killed, and his ancestor fled and was never heard from again. Taka identifies with that other younger brother, and wants to redeem the family honor by redressing current injustices, especially those he traces to a local Korean shopping center mogul.

There are further complications to this family history. Another brother has been killed in a kind of retribution for an assault on local Koreans, and it is not clear whether or not he sacrificed himself to balance an earlier death of a Korean. In addition, a sister has committed suicide. Also, Mitsu’s wife has become a drunkard and is estranged from Mitsu following the birth of her deformed baby.

Oe’s major mistake, I believe, is in trying to tie many subsequent developments together. For Taka is involved in his sister’s suicide, and also seduces Mitsu’s wife. And then Mitsu learns the true fate of his grandfather’s younger brother, but it is too late to affect the fate of Taka. Indeed, all of these events reverberate from the opening suicide of Mitsu’s close friend, a suicide that introduces issues concerning the ending of various character’s lives.

What Oe attempts to do at the end is suggest that Mitsu is responsible for the fate of his brother Taka. But for me this is less ironic than a manipulation by the author. For just as I was not willing to accept some of the earlier actions of Taka, I was not now persuaded by the psychologically complex relationship that Oe tries to establish between the two brothers.

The silent cry in the title refers, I believe, to Taka’s pent-up emotion as he tries to atone for his family’s conduct both more recently and a century ago. His character is the opposite to the cool, insecure Mitsu, for Taka boils inside as he attempts to atone for the family by leading a new revolt by the villagers. Of course, we learn that he also wishes to atone for the suicide of his sister.

This novel is built around the contrast of and the conflict between the two brothers. But translator John Bester also notes that “all kinds of themes are hinted at—the quest for identity; Japan’s relations with the outside world during the past century; the breakdown of tradition; the peculiarities of the Japanese mentality—these and a dozen other subjects are touched on, often with a biting irony.”

This is all true, and they do enrich this work, particularly in those early pages that so enthralled me. But this work depends on the relationship between the two brothers, an attempt to balance who is responsible for what, and a resolution that attempts to contrast the fate of the brothers.

I am not drawn to other Oe works, although I do find intriguing his other novel that centers on the impact on the hero of the birth of a deformed son. This is because of my own back history, even if our family’s case was not as deeply consequential.

Overall, this is a rewarding but imperfect work. It is perhaps too ambitious for the given situation. (February, 2014)