1994 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

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1994 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

by Professor Kjell Espmark, Member of the Swedish Academy (translation from the Swedish)

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In his novel The Silent Cry,Kenzaburō Ōe describes a scene which casts light over his entire œuvre. The narrator, Mitsu, living in a marriage which has not survived the birth of a child with serious brain damage, has returned to the Shikoku of his childhood with his younger brother, Takashi, a hardline activist, who dreams of a martyr’s death. They are back in the isolated valley in which their ancestors once found refuge in a critical situation. One night Mitsu witnesses how his brother, stark naked, runs round in circles in the newly-fallen snow, and then rolls over and over in the snow-drifts with obvious signs of sexual excitement. Takashi is at one and the same time both the narrator’s great-grandfather’s brother, and also his own; he is both the leader of a rebellion which took place a century earlier, and the instigator of present-day riots: “every moment of those hundred years was crowded into this one instant in time.”

From one point of view the scene allows us a glimpse of Ōe’s narrative mastery: unerringly he carries a series of events in two time planes to its tragic culmination. From another point of view, the passage is an example of the past breaking into the present, making the figures resume and vary an earlier line of action. In Ōe’s work, a number of such challenges from the past again and again evoke new answers. We have just been reminded of the escape of the ancestors to the secluded valley, the rebellion of a century earlier, the tension between the mismatched brothers, and the shock caused by the child’s deformity. Nuclear catastrophe is another such theme, readily linked to the theme of the brain-damaged son. Certain philosophical elements persist as well, coloured by Ōe’s early readings of Sartre, such as the absurdity of life, the inescapability of responsibility, and human dignity. But Ōe also insists on another point: undefined and inaccessible reality demands a “model” if it is to be perceived by the senses.

The incessant re-emergences are, however, linked to a great project, whose features and dimensions have gradually taken form. Books like A Personal Matter, The Silent Cryas well as MIT’ and the Tale ofthe Wonders of the Forestare, together with the short stories, works that fall into their proper places when we read the novel that was published in French last year under the title Lettres aux Années de Nostalgic. Here Oe exploits the device of the Japanese first-person novel to create the illusion of an autobiography. In reality the book—we are told in an interview—is 80 percent fiction. Brother Gii, who is presented to us as the dominant figure in the narrator’s life, is thus a literary invention, a counter-figure who embodies the latter’s dream of remaining in the woodland of his ancestors, reading Dante. The earlier books now assume their rightful places in this new context which reveals them in a new light. In The Silent Cry,for example, occurs a transformation of the crime which once gave Gii ten years in prison, but also a revision of his material about the life of their ancestors.

In Ōe’s work, therefore, we are dealing with more than persistent leitmotifs. The books re-echo and vary each other in a great ingenious project. Here, if ever, it is justifiable to talk about a writer who is not writing books but “building” an œuvre. And we can add that once again Ōe inverts his material in a new novel in which the symbiosis between a father and his spiritually clouded son is focused on anew—a book that paradoxically ends with the word “Rejoice!”

This may sound like a rigidly planned structure, but that is not at all what the text looks like. It rather seems as if this stubborn enterprise is the outcome of a poetic obsession. Ōe himself has described his writing as a way of exorcising his demons. Hopefully, he will never succeed. But from his incessant wrestling with these risky beings derives an oeuvre which succeeds in another way—in escaping the bounds of the author’s intentions. Ōe has declared that he addresses only his Japanese readers, without glancing at his worldwide audience. But there is in his “grotesque realism” a powerful poetry which communicates across the boundaries of languages and cultures, a poetry full of fresh observations and concise images. The furious persistence, as well, with which he returns to his motifs erases these barriers: eventually we become familiar with his figures, marvel at their transformations, and are enticed into sharing the author’s view that no truth, no picture is valid once and for all. Validity exists on another level. Out of this multitude of people and events in everchanging shapes there rises in the end the vision of a genuine humanist, a poignant picture of that which concerns us all.

Dear Mr. Ōe,

You have claimed that reality demands a “model” if it is to be grasped by our senses. Your books offer, indeed, such a “model,” enabling us to see the interaction of time present and time past, of relentless change and persistent myth, and to distinguish man’s delicate position in the context. It is my pleasure, on behalf of the Swedish Academy, to convey to you our warmest congratulations on the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1994, and to invite you to receive the Prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.

[© The Nobel Foundation, 1994.]

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1994 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

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