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Authors: Kenzaburo Oe

The Silent Cry

Born in 1935, Kenzaburo Ōe is the leading Japanese writer of his generation. He spent the sixties in Paris where he came under the influence of Sartre. Winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenzaburo Ōe is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize,
The Silent Cry
was identified as his key work. The Nobel Committee stated that ‘his poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicaments’.

Praise for Kenzaburo Ōe

‘Though thoroughly Japanese, Ōe, in the range of hope and despair he covers, seems to me to have in him a touch of Dostoevsky’ Henry Miller

‘Somehow – and this is what gives his art such unquestionable stature – Ōe manages to smuggle a comic thread in all this tragedy’

‘A new pinnacle in postwar Japanese fiction’ Yukio Mishima


Kenzaburo Ōe

Translated by John Bester

A complete catalogue record for this book can
be obtained from the British Library on request

The right of Kenzaburo Ōe to be identified as the author of this work
has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988

Copyright © 1967 Kenzaburo Ōe
Translation copyright © Kodansha International Ltd, 1988

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
permission of the publisher.

First published as
Man’en Gannen no Puttoboru
in 1967 by
Kodansha Ltd, Tokyo

First published in this Serpent’s Tail Classic edition in 2011
First published in 1988 by Serpent’s Tail,
an imprint of Profile Books Ltd
3A Exmouth House
Pine Street
London EC1R 0JH

ISBN 978 1 84668 807 2
eISBN 978 1 84765 773 2

Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CRO 4YY

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2


In the Wake of the Dead

in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being—unequivocally, with the impact of whisky setting one’s guts afire as it goes down—still I find an endless nothing. I close fingers that have lost their power. And everywhere, in each part of my body, the several weights of flesh and bone are experienced independently, as sensations that resolve into a dull pain in my consciousness as it backs reluctantly into the light. With a sense of resignation, I take upon me once more the heavy flesh, dully aching in every part and disintegrated though it is. 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.

Whenever I awaken I seek again that lost, fervid feeling of expectation, the ardent sense of expectation that is no consciousness of lack but a positive actuality in itself. Finally convinced that I’ll not find it, I try to lure myself down the slope to second sleep:
sleep, sleep!

the world does not exist
; but this morning the poison tormenting my body is too virulent to permit retreat into slumber. Fear threatens to engulf me. Sunrise must be at least an hour away; till then, there’s no telling what kind of day it will be. I lie in the dark, knowing nothing, a fetus in the womb. There was a time when sexual habits were useful on such occasions. But now at twenty-seven, married, with a child put away in an institution, I feel shame welling up at the idea of masturbation, stifling the buds of desire.
Sleep, sleep !

if you can’t sleep then pretend you’re asleep
. Suddenly, in the darkness, I see the square hole the workmen dug yesterday for our septic tank. In my aching body the desolate, bitter poison multiplies, threatening to ooze out
slowly, like jelly from a tube, from ears, eyes, nose, mouth, anus, urethra. . . .

Still in the guise of a sleeper, with eyes closed, I stand up and move sluggishly through the darkness. Each time I hit some part or other of my body against the door, the wall, or the furniture I give a painful, half-delirious moan. My right eye, admittedly, has no sight even wide open and in broad daylight. I wonder if I’ll ever know what lay behind the events whereby my eye got like that. It was a nasty, stupid incident: one morning, as I was walking along the street, a group of primary school children in a fit of hysterical fear and anger flung a chunk of stone at me. Struck in the eye, I lay where I fell on the sidewalk, unable to make out what had happened. My right eye, with a split extending horizontally from the white into the black, lost its vision. Even now, I’ve never felt I understood the true meaning of the incident. Moreover, I’m afraid of understanding it. If you try walking with one hand over your right eye, you’ll realize just how many things lie in wait for you ahead on the right. You’ll collide with the unexpected. You’ll strike your head and face repeatedly. Thus the right half of my head and face has never been without some fresh mark or other, and I’m ugly. Even before the eye injury I was already showing more and more clearly a quality of ugliness that often reminded me how mother had prophesied that, when we grew up, my brother would be handsome and I would not. The lost eye merely emphasized the ugliness each day, throwing it into constant relief. My born ugliness would have liked to hang back, silent, in the shadows; it was the missing eye that continually dragged it out into the limelight. Not that I neglected to assign a role to this eye : I saw it, its function lost, as being forever trained on the darkness within my skull, a darkness full of blood and somewhat above body heat. The eye was a lone sentry that I’d hired to keep watch on the forest of the night within me, and in doing so I’d forced myself to practice observing my own interior.

Passing through the kitchen, I feel for the door, go out, and finally open my eye to find the faintest whiteness spreading over the distant heights of a leaden, late autumn, predawn sky. A black dog comes running up and jumps at me. But instantly it knows itself rejected; without a sound it shrinks back into stillness and stands pointing its small muzzle at me like a mushroom in the darkness. Picking it up, I tuck it under my arm and walk slowly on again. The
dog stinks. It remains still under my arm, panting heavily.

My armpit gets hot. Perhaps the dog has a fever. The nails of my bare toes strike a wooden frame. I put the dog down for the moment, grope about to check the position of the ladder, then encompass with my arms the darkness at the spot where I set the dog down; it still occupies precisely the same space. I can’t help smiling, but it’s not a smile that lasts long. The dog is sick, for certain. Laboriously I climb down the ladder. There are puddles here and there at the bottom of the pit, enough to cover the ankles of my bare feet: just a little water, like juices pressed from flesh. Sitting down directly on the bare earth, I feel the water seeping through my pajama trousers and underwear, wetting my buttocks, but I find myself accepting it docilely, as one who cannot refuse.

Yet a dog, of course, can refuse to get dirty. The dog, silent like one that can talk but chooses not to, perches on my lap, leaning its shivering, hot body lightly against my chest. To preserve this balance, it sets hooked claws into the muscles of my chest. I feel the pain as yet another thing that cannot be rejected, and in five minutes am indifferent to it. I’m heedless, too, of the foul water that wets my buttocks and comes seeping in between my testicles and thighs. My body—all 154 pounds and five feet six inches of it—is no different from the load of soil that the laborers dug yesterday from this very spot and discarded in some distant river. My flesh is assimilated by the soil. In my body and the surrounding soil and the whole damp atmosphere, the only signs of life are the dog’s heat and my nostrils. The nostrils become rapidly sensitive, and absorb the restricted smells at the bottom of the pit as though they were of unutterable richness. Functioning at full pitch, they assimilate odors too numerous to recognize individually. Almost fainting, I bang the back of my head (and feel it directly as the back of my skull) against the wall of the hole, then go on, indefinitely, absorbing the thousand and one odors and what little oxygen is available. The desolate, bitter poison still fills my body, but no longer seems to be seeping through to the outside. The ardent sense of expectancy hasn’t yet returned, but my fear has been alleviated. Now I’m indifferent to everything; indifferent, even, to the very possession of a body. My only regret is that there is no one and nothing to observe me in my total indifference. The dog? The dog has no eyes. Nor have I eyes in my indifference. Since I reached the bottom, my eyes have been shut again.

Next, I meditate on the friend whose cremation I attended. At the end of summer this year he daubed his head all over with crimson paint, stripped, thrust a cucumber up his anus, and hanged himself. His wife discovered the strange suicide on her return, spent as a sick rabbit, from a party that had lasted into the early hours. Why hadn’t he gone with her to the party ? He was that kind of man: no one would find it odd that he should let his wife go alone to a party while he remained in his study working on a translation (something, in fact, that we were collaborating on).

From a point two yards in front of the dangling corpse she’d fled back to where the party had been held, her hair on end in her panic, her arms flailing above her head, her mouth shaping a voiceless cry, her little-girlish green shoes flapping as she trod back over the path of her own midnight shadow that no one else could see, like a film run in reverse. After informing the police, she sobbed silently till they came from her family to fetch her. Thus, when the police had finished their inquiries, it was left to me and my friend’s sturdy old grandmother to perform the last offices for the naked, crimson-headed corpse with the last of its life’s semen drying on its thighs, a corpse surely beyond all salvation. The deceased’s mother had retreated into an imbecilic state and was useless. Just once, as we made to wash off the dead man’s disguise, she showed an unexpected determination and opposed the move. The old woman and I turned away all who came to express condolences, and alone, without interruption, the three of us held a wake for the dead man in whom the myriad cells, once treasurers of his uniqueness, were already in process of swift, furtive disintegration. Like a dam, the dry, parched skin held in the sweet-sour, rosy cells that had dissolved and changed into something indescribable. This crimson-faced corpse of my friend as it lay proudly remote, decomposing on an army-style cot, was filled with a more urgent sense of reality than it had ever had in twenty-seven years of life—life lived pitifully in a diligent effort to pass through the dark tunnel, only to end abruptly before emerging on the other side. The dam of the skin was sentenced to burst. Fermenting clusters of cells were preparing, as a wine is prepared, the real, physical death of the body itself. Those left behind must drink that wine. There was a fascination for me in the close-packed moments that my friend’s body marked off in its relationship with the lily-fragrant bacteria of corruption. As I watched the passage of this pure time on its once-only
flight, I was made aware again of the fragility of that other kind of time, soft and warm as the top of an infant’s head, that admits of repetition.

I couldn’t help feeling envious. No friend’s eyes would watch, no friend would understand the true meaning of what was happening when I closed my eyes for the last time and my flesh embarked on its own experience of dissolution.

“When he came home from the clinic, I should have persuaded him to go back again,” I said.

“No—the boy couldn’t have stayed there any longer,” his grand-mother replied. “The other mental patients were so impressed with the fine things he’d done there that he couldn’t possibly have remained any longer. You shouldn’t forget that and blame yourself. What’s happened has made it quite plain—it was the best thing possible for him to leave the clinic and lead a free life. If he’d killed himself there, he could never have painted his face red and hanged himself naked, could he? The other patients wouldn’t have let him, they respected him too much.”

“You bear up so well, you’re a great help.”

“Everyone has to die. And in a hundred years nobody’s going to inquire just how most people died. The best thing is to do it in the way that takes your fancy most.”

At the foot of the bed my friend’s mother sat rubbing the corpse’s feet untiringly, her head hunched into her shoulders like a frightened tortoise, and showed no reaction to our conversation. The small features of the flat, vegetable face that so cruelly resembled her dead son were all slack, like melting candy. It seemed to me I’d never seen a face express so immediate or so utter a despair.

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