Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe

the silent cry The Silent Cry [1967/1988] – ★★★★★

Since I am participating in the 13th Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza, I am now reviewing this book by Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe. In The Silent Cry, we are presented with the early 1960s and Mitsu, a disillusioned husband to an alcoholic wife and a father to a child who is now in an institution. Mitsu sees his life changing when his estranged brother Takashi arrives from America and together they travel to their native village in Shikoku, one of the main islands in Japan. There, they find that there is a shift in local power and one rich Korean magnate is proposing to buy what remains of Mitsu and Takashi’s land inheritance – their storehouse. Reluctantly, Mitsu finds himself drawn into a complicated political situation of the village, while also realising that Takashi starts to wield the unprecedented power over the village inhabitants. The Silent Cry is a slow-paced descent into one kind of a nightmare where the violent history of the village is about to be re-enacted and other grim discoveries made as the relationship between the two brothers takes an unexpected turn. Full of uneasiness and foreboding, The Silent Cy is a subtly powerful work that masterfully evokes the unsaid, the forbidden and the terrifying, getting us close to the real Truth and to the final Hope. It really becomes one of those books you do not have to enjoy, but to simply experience and live through.

There is a curious narration coming from a pitiful, nearly blind husband Mitsu, whose wife Natsumi is suffering from alcoholism. Mitsu is a person stuck in his existential crisis and afraid to face reality. “Awakening in a predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation”, starts the book...“I’ve been sleeping with arms and legs askew, in the posture of a man reluctant to be reminded either of his nature or of the situation in which he finds himself” [Ōe/Bester, 1967/88: 1]. Recently, Mitsu and Natsumi put their only disabled child in an institution and are still in shock because of the recent death of Mitsu’s close friend who died after he painted his head red and hanged himself. When Mitsu’s brother Takashi arrives from America, the mood of Mitsu and Natsumi is momentarily lifted, and we witness a strange internal competition and tension between the brothers. The trio, together with Takashi’s “teenage bodyguards”, then travel to the home village of the brothers, populated by some eccentric characters. There, there is “a delicate balance of power between people and authorities” [Ōe/Bester, 1967/88: 263], and one rich businessman from Korea plans to buy the land of Takashi and Mitsu’s ancestors. Inspired by the history of the village, Takashi tries to rebel, gathering his followers around him. In turn, his brother Mitsu feigns indifference until he can no longer ignore the affairs of the village or his brother’s wild actions which are increasingly directed specifically at him.

japanese lit challenge posterPerhaps one way to understand The Silent Cry would be to draw connections between – (i) one person (Mitsu) – (ii) a family unit (Mitsu’s family) – (iii) a village (the one in Shikoku) and – (iv) a nation (Japan). The history, experience, feelings and thoughts of each of those entities/units are reflected in all the rest. The brothers in the story appear opposites of each other: one – a passive, unpopular introvert, another – a dominant, popular extrovert; one – beautiful and another – ugly; one – repressed and wants to forget his family/village past, and another wants to face and “re-enact it”, while marching forward; one wants to deny his state of being human, and another wants to embrace his “creatureness”. So, these brothers and their polar opposite characteristics also represent two sides of Japan after the war or as it reflects on its own history. One side of Japan or a village in Shikoku is forward-looking and craves change, while another part wants to stick to tradition and inaction. The story becomes one where different people are trying to employ different means to come to terms and accept one’s past or seek justification for their previous actions (Japan tries to come to terms with its participation in the WWII; the village tries to acknowledge its past silent acceptance of brutal feudal regimes and violent revolts, and one family (that of Mitsu) tries to understand the deaths of its family members. People in the village are portrayed as so used to pain, that they are no longer realising or recognising this experience -“they fuss for ages over trivialities, with the irresponsible notion that when things finally get quite out of hand the situation will somehow change and solve their difficulties for them” [Ōe/Bester, 1967/88: 69]. In turn, Mitsu is trying to deal with his guilt and shame associated with his disabled son (and also with his brother). Alcohol, sex, sport, active re-enactments of past events, solitude and withdrawal – many means are employed to understand and come to terms with what was going on and still ongoing in the lives of the characters. 

In the village of Shikoku, history may just about to repeat itself as the Korean businessman’s supermarket becomes the object of awe and the person behind it is soon associated with some “foreign” evil. Since everyone in Mitsu’s immediate family is a societal outcast (Mitsu has a facial deformity, his wife is an alcoholic and his brother has ties with “foreign” America), they become unlikely “heroes” or central figures in the growing collective madness and depravity, as they see feelings of violence, anarchy and death descent onto the village. One village disaster or perversion follows another in a swift succession to unsettle everyone. It is at this point that – 

Ōe brings the depressive, the ugly and the grotesque to the surface in his story and makes everyone acknowledge that it is also humanity, and the denying of this truth for too long will have dire consequences. In that way, Ōe tries to heal the collective wounds through his narrative or at least to expose the wounds to the fullest so that they would have a chance of healing.

There is much in the novel about death. There is a human tendency to obsess over those who have died and the dead are often accorded the reverence since they are perceived as being the people who already gained the “ultimate knowledge”, but paid the highest and ultimate price for it, too:

Death cuts abruptly the warp of understanding. There are things which the survivors are never told. And the survivors have a steadily deepening suspicion that it is precisely because of the things incapable of communication that the deceased has chosen death. The factors that remain ill defined may sometimes lead a survivor to the very site of the disaster, but even then the only thing clear to anyone concerned is that he has been brought up against something incomprehensible” [Ōe/Bester, 1967/88: 1].

the silent cry book coverThe forest in the story possesses one dreamy atmosphere that helps to erase the line between the past and the present, sinking us deep into that memory, dream or past history which is often told through second-hand accounts (“the power of the forest is growing” [1967/88: 55]). These second-hand accounts put a distance between us and what was or is happening, giving a strong impression of a now forgotten fable. Whether something is true/reality or false/a myth becomes hard to say. What really happened to the older brother of Takashi and Mitsu or to their sister? And, who started the uprising of 1860? How these events relate to the present? One cannot escape from something that has already become part of one, and all the characters experience this at some point. Japan, the village and the characters are still nursing the wounds of the past, which are bathed in shame. Unlike the western concept of “guilt”, the Japanese concept of “shame” cannot be just “cleansed through penance” or be “forgiven by the Lord”. Shame takes its root deep in the human psyche and often can only be dealt with by taking public, violent actions (self-annihilation). By and by, personal considerations and history in the novel necessarily and seamlessly fuse with a broader communal history and consciousness, and such elements as the forest and the storehouse start to stand for something else, such as consciousness or a safe-haven, making the novel rich with thinly-disguised symbolism. 

The way Kenzaburō Ōe writes, it seems that the full meaning is within our reach only to escape us at the very last second, leaving us bewildered but also intrigued. The same happens with the characters in this novel, who are always being just on the brink of realisation and understanding, but, at the very last moment, end up too preoccupied with trivialities, taking a step back. The Silent Cry probably has too “comfortable” of an ending, but Ōe must still be applauded for making the experience and the narrative so transformative. 

It is impossible not to fall under the haunting spell of Kenzaburo Ōe. The Silent Cry is a dark existential novel filled with unpleasantness and sorrow, but it is also an incredibly fulfilling and deep work with a spark of hope somewhere at its heart. While evoking unsettling and vivid images, the book grapples with the Truth at every corner, trying to find it in the darkness of the forest and through the relationship between the two brothers that, in turn, sheds light on the very meaning of life and the human condition.

15 thoughts on “Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe

  1. A brilliant analysis, Diana! I’ve always wanted to get into Ōe’s books. I loved how you pointed out that one way to understand the novel is through understanding an individual nested in the wider circles of family and village life, and your nuanced exploration of the concept of shame. I’m wondering if the characters taking a step back and be preoccupied with something else just as they will truly realize things is a function of this shame—an erasure or a drawing back from the painful emotion. Also, the way you described it reminded me of how Ishiguro creates atmosphere in some of his novels (although he’s arguably more British than Japanese)—a dreamy setting, with characters meandering around a painful memory (The Unconsoled, A Pale View of Hills).

    Again, I loved this review/analysis. Now I’m convinced I should give his books a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, and I am glad you enjoyed the review!

      Yes, you are right. The characters are definitely in denial and one way to deal with the situation is to start thinking about insignificant things and details so that the mind will be distracted and will not have the time to grasp the bigger picture that causes so much pain and anguish.

      That is interesting the way you noticed similarities with Ishiguro. As far as I know, Ishiguro is a big admirer of Ōe and his work, and I think what unites them is that preoccupation with the human condition/mind. I would not say that their styles of writing are very similar, and Ōe’s Sartre influence is felt. And this tradition of trying to demonstrate and deal with a painful memory, as well as dreamy landscapes is of course now a cultural “trauma” trait of Japan that goes back much further than Ishiguro, Ōe or Kawabata, and I bet the WWII had much influence in that respect too. I mean the first ever Japanese narrative from the 10th century is considered to be science-fiction 🙂 Apart from Ishiguro, Yōko Ogawa writes almost exclusively in that domain of memories and dreamy settings (Murakami has much to say on that too), and Kobo Abe’s books were all set in surreal settings, with his characters always trying to understand who they are.

      I consider Ishiguro largely a British author, though he assimilated the Japanese way of writing novels, to put it crudely, and does it brilliantly too, showing different aspects of the Japanese culture. I loved the Unconsoled, but thought A Pale View of Hills was largely a misfire. I really believe that in his debut Ishiguro was way too subtle when he tried to show connections between the two characters and stories to the point where these finely-drawn connections felt actually…clearly non-existent. If you are interested in my review, it is here: https://ideasonpapyrus.wordpress.com/2018/09/24/review-a-pale-view-of-hills-by-kazuo-ishiguro/ (it was my very first book review).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. First off, I’m so sorry for the delayed reply! I got caught up in family matters around this time and took time off the blogging world. I’m just getting my bearings now and going through all my unattended comments.

        Thank you for the extremely thoughtful reply. I’m glad to talk about this with someone because I’m drawn to Japanese lit, and I don’t know anyone else who is. I’ve read Ogawa before, but it was “Strange Weather in Tokyo”, which felt dreamy to me but also less on memory. Although her Memory Police is on my TBR—that should be more along those lines. I love Murakami’s work too, especially Wind-Up Bird. That book literally gave me some weird dreams.

        I haven’t read any of the older Japanese authors though, except an essay by Junichiro Tanizaki and Kokoro by Sōseki. And Tale of Genji, of course, for a class lol. Where would you recommend I start with Abe? And would this be a good book to start Ōe? 🙂

        You’re right, Ishiguro is mostly British. I loved A Pale View of Hills, but I’m intrigued as to your opinion on it. 🙂 Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It is ok about late comments! I also read Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, and think it is a brilliant essay and relates to what we were discussing in another post about the Japanese valuing imperfection and respectful of old ways. I felt this little book spoke to me too since my earliest memories were all about candles in rooms and their reflections on lacquered wooden surfaces. It was a “magical” atmosphere in some way.

          I recommend Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes since I think it is his strongest book. I think Ōe’s The Silent Cry is also a good first book, but I have not read many of his others. I have to send out a slight warning abut Abe and Ōe because I personally prefer reading dark and existential books involving often depressed and confused narrators who try to understand the modern society, the past, etc. 🙂 and these two authors appeal to me even more on this basis – I do understand that some people do not like this kind of a thing at all and prefer to avoid it. So, Abe was heavily influenced by Kafka and Ōe – by Sartre.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, that’s precisely the essay I read! I remember being the only person in our class who loved it; everyone else found it “boring”, and I couldn’t understand how something so beautifully and lovingly written could be “boring”. I suppose the understated nature of Japanese beauty and reverence for the old ways, as you mentioned, will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

            On another note, I was able to visit Tanizaki’s grave in Japan, and it was located in one of the less-visited (and thus more appealing, in my opinion) Hōnen-in Temple. It was a perfect resting place for a writer like him. If you ever do get to visit Japan, I think it might be a place of interest for you. 🙂

            That sort of childhood does sound magical, and also prophetic of your interest in Japanese culture!

            That book of Abe’s is definitely on my radar. I have to admit I’m pretty neutral about Kafka and Sarte, but for some reason I like the doom-and-gloom vibe of most Japanese novels (maybe because of the small moments of beauty even within the dark, existential tone). Thank you for the recommendations; I hope I can get around to reading them this year. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Someone thinks Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows is boring? 🙂 I can hardly believe that – I thought it was insightful, and how can anything so short be considered “boring”? Perhaps his little book is exactly the symbolic presentation of what he writes about in there – a reader should try to appreciate the beauty of every kind of book – even so seemingly odd and “insignificant” as his? I think what Japanese philosophy teaches us is wise – perhaps our purpose on earth is exactly to find happiness and joy and acceptance in/with little things (quiet moments) in life and appreciate that even seemingly unattractive things have their deserved place in life and may even reveal to possess hidden beauty – I think some people just get to understand this sooner and others much later in life.

              I would love to visit Tanizaki’s grave in Japan one day, as well as other places such as Ginkaku-ji, thanks for these suggestions! All these sound lovely 🙂 I also hope you enjoy Abe and Ōe books – I thought you said it very well – there are moments of hope and beauty even in the darkest narratives.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Most of my classmates were bored because they thought he was just talking about furniture! I was like, Did we even read the same essay…??? It was a very puzzling experience. Well said! I think this appreciation for quiet beauty is something that does come later in life for most, so I’m glad I stumbled on the Japanese to articulate it early for me. ☺️

                I really hope you do get to visit those someday! Japan is breathtaking and I could go back over and over again if I had the means. Best of luck in your studying Japanese. 🙂

                Liked by 1 person

  2. I love how you said that the way Oe writes has the dull meaning within our reach only to elude us in the next sentence. So powerful! He is a favorite author of mine; I will never forget A Personal Matter where he writes so grievously about a wife and son with special needs (as he himself had). This novel sounds like it has some of the same elements, with much more of a political element. And, the forest’s “power”! And the sense of shame being deeply imbedded. I think I am surely partly Japanese. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too can never stop wondering about and being intrigued by the culture, history and people of Japan 🙂 And, yes, Oe did incorporate some of his biographical elements into this novel, including his home Shikoku. I really want to read other work by Oe, too, starting with his debut novel “Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids”.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I recently finished reading this quite astonishing and complex novel. While hunting for any critical commentary, I was fortunate to find your site. Thank you for the excellent review.

    I actually wondered if there wasn’t a bit of Oe’s sometime rival Mishima in Takashi, with the charisma, zealous uprising and, well, ending, with Oe identifying with Mitsu (Mishima had even insulted Oe by calling him, “ugly”, as Mitsu has been called since his childhood). But Mishima’s suicide was in 1970 while this novel was published in 1967. Also Oe has reportedly said that the characters of Takashi and Mitsu represent his, “two divided selves”.

    Regarding Ishiguro, there is a short but interesting dialogue between him and Oe here that might interest you.
    https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-10-30-bk-56446-story.html

    Liked by 1 person

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