Do you know what I’m thinking? Of course you do. My dissertation reading list is pretty damn long.
Granted it’s probably not that long considering this is a year long project, but it feels bloody long when I see the books that I need to read all together. I’m only about half way through some of them, too. I should probably read faster. Especially since this year is almost over.
One I recently finished is ‘Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids’ by Kenzaburo Oe. I should mention that this will probably cover spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading.
It’s a fairly short story set during the war and focusing on the experiences of a group of evacuees who are ostracised and eventually abandoned by the village that briefly takes them in, after a plague starts to sweep the place. They seem like pretty nasty people, hm? I still can’t work out why they are acting like this. The only thing that comes to mind is that these boys are fresh from a reformatory institution. In fact, even the villagers at the start of the story hate these kids and are quite happy to beat them within an inch of their lives. The narrator’s brother is stoned and spat upon for taking an interest in (read: staring at) the initial village’s children. He hasn’t even done anything wrong. His father just couldn’t find a decent place to evacuate him to, and so throws him into the same pit as his older brother. I suppose that could be referred to as ‘a necessary evil’. The ‘initial’ villagers are often compared to or treated as guard dogs, because when one of the boys tries to escape is it they who catch them and punish them for it. Also, Minami describes his attackers as ‘foaming at the mouth’, something which (to me) is at the least animalistic and at most, rabid.
My guess is that the warden let the villagers know that the kids were trouble, because seriously, these guys outright say to the kids ‘ you are vermin. Never forget that you are vermin’. Seems a little harsh, but if they look down on troublemakers it makes sense that they’d say that. Their treatment becomes even crueller when they are given nothing to drink (keep in mind that hydration is far more immediately important than nutrition) for their first night in the mountains. I can understand being given little to eat since starvation is a major song in the requiem of War, but I find how a little water being too much confusing. It’s not like they’re at sea. There is a river, and a well.
The key thing here is how Oe refers to the war as ‘a time of madness’. This actually works pretty well at explaining the actions of the villages local to the institution and the one where they are abandoned, forming the main setting of the novel. The boys need to be punished and reformed, but most of these people take it to far I get the feeling a major theme of ‘Nip the Buds’ is how people are failed by others, even if they had it coming. I’ll explain later in a little more detail.
The thing I find interesting is how non-present the villagers feel. They’re not around for very long and the only one who ever really talks is the blacksmith. Then there’s the village kids, who just stand around and watch them work. Everything feels very ghostly, with the villagers giving off a very ‘spirit’ feel. They’re there and then gone before we have a chance to properly know them. Even the village itself feels ghostly – the trees treated like something chaotic, both liquid and solid at once. Tree leaves being compared being a sea is not an uncommon simile, but the description in this case adds a duality to them that feels dangerous. Even the houses feel alive and viscous.
‘The sound of frozen bark cracking deep in the forest, the rustling of small beasts’ stealthy flight, the shrill cries and sudden wingbeats of birds assaulted us and often made us cringe in alarm. The night forest was like a quietly raging sea. … Not even our most reckless boys had the courage to dash into that vast forest, which raged and grew calm like a sea.’
‘The houses were crowded together, shut in gloomily next to each other like trees in the black valley. They huddled together in silence like night beasts, ranged from the valley’s low rim to its deep hollow, interspersed with gaps then running on again.’
What type of forest or sea can rage quietly? All of the noises are implied to be unexpected and startling. The ghostly elements here seem less designed to be mysterious and more to be frightening to the kids. The houses are described like they exist as part of the forest rather than an entity within the forest, both trees and animals at once. However, this ghostly quality appears to be restricted to nighttime, and the village is quite ordinary, even picturesque, in the daytime. The same malign, ghostly quality returns again at night, with the return of the villagers at the end of the book. However, the nighttimes the boys face alone aren’t described with the same hostile quality. It’s like the villagers themselves turn the village into a milicious presence, which works well to create the form of them as vicious spirits, especially as they return (barring the chapter title) out of nowhere. Although their return is not exactly night-bound, it is roughly dawn when they return, meaning it might still be dark, even if it is only the last vestiges of it. Plus, dawn like dusk and twilight is a time of fluctuating light, and since it’s possible that they began their return shortly before sunrise, the phrase ‘darkest before the dawn’ comes to mind. With that idea, it appears that the villages came during that ‘darkest’ time and rained the remains of the once-again hostile night upon them. Maybe I’m looking too deeply into it, but it all seems very symbolic.
Now, returning to how people are failed by others in this book, I’m not sure how I could link it to mythology (given that’s the main point of my dissertation), but I still find it pretty interesting how so much of the plot in this book is to do with someone failing someone else. For instance, the narrator’s brother would never even be trapped in the village with the others if their father hadn’t left him in the correctional facility. Considering that the brother is an impressionable child and quickly falls into the ways of these ‘criminal’ troublemakers means that their father’s failure to his children is pretty major, but then most of the kids wouldn’t even be there if they hadn’t ‘failed’ their parents in some way (aka bad behavior). But who knows what their lives are like? You might think that the father’s failure to look after at least one of his kids leads to the disappearance of the younger brother, but that lies on the head of the narrator himself, I think. The reason he runs away is because the narrator lets his brother’s dog (Leo? Bear?) be killed, which, at least to the brother, is more than failure and in fact a complete betrayal of his trust. The narrator failed to protect the dog and, consequently, his brother. That being said, the narrator was protecting his brother by allowing the dog’s death. It was infected, and allowing it to live was putting all of the boys at risk. It’s just a shame his brother didn’t see it that way. For similar reasons, the father can be forgiven. Japan was at war and since he couldn’t find a better place for his youngest child, the correctional facility really was the safest place for him due to their mass evacuation. The only phrase that comes to mind is ‘shikataganai’, or ‘it can’t be helped. Truthfully, the villagers are the true failures, but even they were only looking after themselves by assuming all of the boys were infected, cruel as it was.
Looking back, it’s a pretty sad book. The village is filled with abandoned people once the villagers leave: a girl who lost her mother, a Korean boy who along with his mother is treated as much like vermin as the rest of the boys, even though he’s a member of the village. The deserter abandoned the army, so in a way he abandoned his honour (at least to his superiors), but is equally so considering the consequence. The boys left in the village take in these people like strays and for a while, it seems they can make a new life without being ostracised by anyone. But then people start dying and the villagers return in the wake, gliding in like reapers to rip away any hope these kids have built. ‘A time of madness’ could easily summarise the whole novel, and in fact leads into an effective message about war, how its madness poisons the very people its country is trying to protect.
Wow, that turned into a long one – both to read and to write! If you were able to make it through all that rambling, I commend you. The next thing I’ll probably look at is Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. I’ve almost finished it and it is really quite a brilliant book. I think I quite like her as an author.