‘Memory feeds on dreams, you know’: The Silent Cry, Kenzaburo

    Japanese Kenzaburo Oe was duly awarded a Nobel Prize with ‘The Silent Cry’ cited as his essential masterpiece, on the grounds that ‘his poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicaments’. In the novel two diametrically opposed brothers, Mitsu and Taka, return to the remote village community of their childhood and ancestral past, each seeking a solution to their present quandaries and a place in the world through their relation to a confused mythic and remembered history. The novel explores the boundaries between the body and language, illusion and reality, the tear between a heroic and sedate existence and the allure of violence, to outstanding aesthetic and philosophical effect in its search for ‘…absolute truth which, if a man tells it, leaves him no alternative but to be killed by others, kill himself, or go mad and turn into a monster’. The ‘truth’ at the heart of this novel seems somehow to relate to ‘the horror’ of Conrad’s Kurtz and, as Henry Miller has observed, Oe’s presentation of a raging and shameful humanity in disgrace, has the air of Dostoevsky’s searing portrayal of Raskolnikov.


    Both brothers return to the valley hoping to find a new life (‘a thatched hut’) by reasserting ‘the souls root’s’. Memory, dream, ‘infantile fantasy’, history, secret truths, ‘communal sentiments’, scientific logic, nostalgia and heroic illusion tangle and combine, as the brothers attempt to forge identity in the shadow of a past that seems equally intent on reasserting itself. Inbuilt within the framework of the text, you feel the labour of the narrative voice attempting to get behind experience and semantics, to some form of core meaning.


    ‘The Silent Cry’ is a novel morbidly littered with corpses, insanity, suicide and depravation (‘corpses and madness represent violence in its ultimate forms’) yet it somehow rings with a dark and pervasive humour throughout its somewhat damning depiction of human nature. Some of its more profound passages will ring in your mind long after you finish the book and resonate like the echoes of mythology and the foreboding of the ominously mighty forest in which it is set. Certainly not a light holiday read, I still highly recommend this complex and equivocal novel for its unique and haunting portrayal of ancient traditions on the cusp of modernity.


    Reviewed by Kate Kelsall

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