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Thursday, 31 July 2014

Book review: An Echo of Heaven, Kenzaburo Oe (1996)

This is another of Oe's explorations of faith, belief and the transcendent, along the lines of the more recent Somersault - his book about a religious cult that came out in English in 2003. In a way this novel functions within his opus as a prefiguring of that book. Here, Oe even elucidates his ideas about the novel as a 'incarnation' in the same way that Christ was an 'incarnation' of God, thus roughing out the lineaments of an aesthetic formula to follow. I had to ask my local independent bookseller to get this for me but they found it online; this copy once belonged to some library in New Jersey. It has travelled far, like its author, who has a number of novels as yet untranslated.

The book uses a number of familiar - to readers of Oe - tropes, such as the disabled child, the religious leader, and the search for transcendence. In it Marie is the main character, although we most closely follow the person and reactions of K, the author who eventually writes the book we read. Her name is pronounced Mari-Eh, in the Japanese way, but in English it also works well enough. A woman weighed down by a terrible domestic tragedy, Marie is a seeker whose quest takes her to America and eventually to Mexico, where she is involved in an agrarian commune. The last five years of her story - on the farm in rural Mexico - are the least satisfying for the reader. Presumably, Oe, who didn't know the place very well, kept a discrete distance.

There are other things about Marie however that serve to make her attractive. Her attraction in a sexual sense to K is evident, and she also has relationships with other men in the story. Beyond the purely physical attraction however there is also her appeal as a symbol of grief, and it is something like this that makes her attractive to the Mexican commune leadership. I doubt that Oe would appreciate having his characters so readily labelled in this way but there are indicators in the text that he himself is prone to this kind of habit of glossing. Oe is a slightly odd figure in Japanese letters, as he tends to refer most commonly to Western precedents - in this book there is a section where K introduces Marie to Frieda Kahlo, for example, and in other books we see Oe struggling with the mystic William Blake. With one foot in Japan and the other placed firmly in Europe, Oe has some kind of ability to appeal to readers in both places, and this is something that I regard as a kind of strength in his writing.

For Oe enthusiasts, An Echo of Heaven is certainly something that should be read. As usual with Oe, the sinuous and complex sentences always find their fitting end, and function to bring to life a set of compelling characters whose stories mesh into a satisfying whole. As always with Oe there is a quiet kind of energy that takes time to germinate into striking images, but once you see them, you will never forget them.

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