Very poignant. Very raw. A booked that rocked Japan when published just 13 years after the Japanese surrender in 1945.
This is Japan’s Lord of the Flies with important exceptions: adults are always on the periphery and the children work together for survival.
During WW2, a group of boys is left to fend for themselves in a village deserted due to a viral outbreak. Despite most surviving against the odds, when the adults return, they force them into secrecy about how they have been treated. Only the narrator escapes to an unknown fate – clearly a metaphor for the author.
The storytelling is vivid and heartbreaking. Their plight is visceral and easy to get drawn into. Their betrayal and treatment at the hands of the adult villagers is harsh. The metaphors abound.
Oe was 23 when he wrote this. It’s a youth’s response to the intertia of mass denial as his nation lay crushed by the unbearable weight of the shame of surrender. This is captured well by John Dower in his excellent Embracing Defeat.
In a few hundred pages, Oe wrested his nation’s conscience into consciousness. He forced them to face questions about what being Japanese was all about. Had he been Russian, he would have faced the Gulag.
A powerful and important book in the literature of Japan, it needs to be understood in its context. With the passing of time and the necessary cultural chasm between English and Japanese, this is becoming harder and harder to do. My advice would be to read it as soon as possible.