Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!
translated by John Nathan
Grove Press ($24)
by Jason Picone
For those readers who have yet to discover the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is the perfect introduction to the Japanese writer's sometimes bizarre but always humanist fiction. First published in 1986, now available in English for the first time, Rouse Up is such a generous work of art that it cannot help but enlarge every reader it reaches.
Rouse Up is the story of K, a famous Japanese novelist who bears more than a passing resemblance to the real life Oe. Like Oe, K has a severely retarded son, Eeyore, whose care requires the painstaking attention of his family. As Eeyore nears the age of 20, K reflects back on a promise he made to himself, that he would define every complexity of life in such a manner that his son could comprehend him, a daunting undertaking given Eeyore's condition:
Since my son had begun to ponder with his own kind of urgency what would happen following my death, was I not obliged as his father to prepare him, unflinchingly and without falling into idleness, for his relationship to the world, society, and mankind after that inevitable moment had arrived?
The problem with this ambitious plan is that K doubts it is possible to write such a comprehensive guide; the slender text of Rouse Up is what he writes instead, and it fulfills his original intention in a manner that is both unexpected and sublime. K begins rereading the poetry of William Blake, an author who has always inspired him and served as an influence for a number of his novels. Rouse Up does not rely on plot (of which there is little) for structure, but is framed instead by numerous passages of Blake's poetry, from which all the chapters draw their title.
Like all great readers, K reads autobiographically, thrusting himself into Blake's poetry and relating it to various phenomena in his life in creative and powerful ways. K's many life lessons to Eeyore correspond to a poem or line of Blake's that K has been drawn to meditate on. This odd, almost mystical, strategy enables K to talk to Eeyore about death and other weighty topics, but K's immersion in Blake also leads him to compare his own writing with that of the master:
The sum total of my work as an author felt shallow and simplistic, not equal to a single page of Blake; moreover, it seemed to me that I had failed to accomplish a single thing I should have been doing and now time was running out. I had declared my intention to define everything in and of this world for my son's sake, but I hadn't. The definitions were for me as well, yet I was neglecting them.
But while K recriminates himself here and expresses a sense of failure, he refuses to submit to hopelessness, and keeps writing. K draws on Blake's words to voice what he himself cannot articulate, using the poet as a bridge between himself and Eeyore. In this way, Blake conquers K's fears and frustrations concerning how to best assist Eeyore, simplifying the inordinate task K has undertaken and finally enabling him to speak to Eeyore. Thus, Blake, who wrote, "The Imagination is not a State: / it is the Human Existence itself," empowers K to employ his imaginative powers to write a guide of existence for his son.
Just as K attempts to explain the complexities of life to Eeyore, so too does he gradually reveal his oddities, slowly enticing the reader with his strange and occasionally grotesque thoughts. K cannot prevent himself from sharing his desire to murder Eeyore when the boy was but five weeks old, a grisly thought that the reader cannot help but ascribe to the real life Oe. K berates himself for his transgressions, idleness, and being a poor husband and father, but, even though he thought of killing Eeyore, his ability to fight against and overcome pessimism, combined with his superhuman faith and patience, make him an admirable and memorable character.
Oe's appropriation of Blake suggests a theme of art in art, which corresponds to K's message of life in life-that is, his efforts to enable Eeyore to make a good life for himself from the lessons of his father's life, not to mention K's strong belief, despite some admitted doubts, that his retarded child can have a meaningful life. The novel is powered by K's ability to make connections between his life and Blake's poetry, the benefits of which are passed on to the son. The considerable resemblance of K to Oe makes the novel all the more remarkable, since it is, according to the translator's afterword, but a few exaggerations, imagined solutions, and too-neat coincidences away from being nonfiction. The strongest addition to Oe's canon in English in years, Rouse Up is a masterpiece from a singular author at the height of his powers.