On the surface “The Silent Cry”— first published in 1967 — is the story of Matsu, his wife Natsu and his brother Takashi, who return to the Shikoku village of their birth to negotiate the sale of some family property to “the Emperor of Supermarkets,” a Korean brought to Shikoku as a slave during World War II who has since come to dominate the village. Takashi soon organizes the local youth and leads a rebellion against “the Emperor” while Matsu picks apart the secrets of his own family’s past. But as always with Oe, the story is only the beginning.

The Silent Cry, by Kenzaburo Oe
292 pages
Serpent’s Tail, Fiction.

Oe had strong links with the French existentialist philosophers, studying French literature and marching with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Paris in 1961. “The Silent Cry” is his most overtly existentialist work.

Japan in Oe’s novel is without a coherent identity: Metropolitan Japan is selfish and violent, riven with riots, while rural Japan is disintegrating, populated by freaks such as Jin, “the fattest woman in Japan” and Gii, a draft-dodging hermit. It’s a tale of suicides and sexual perversions, of drunkenness and venereal disease, Joycean in its minutiae, detailing the stink and grime of real life. Passages that may startle readers today must have been shockingly graphic in 1967. It’s a world where all humanity is secretly, totally mad. Like all great writers, Oe forces us to gaze on the horror and ennui of modern existence and question if this really is the best we can do for ourselves. “The Silent Cry” is as potent now as it was in 1967.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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