Booksluts Reading Challenge #4: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids
Oe, Kenzaburo (translated by Paul St John-Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama)
Marion Boyars Publishers, London
ISBN: 07145 29974
Is there something about the Nobel Prize judges that make them favour harrowing shit? Maybe – I can’t confess to even a working knowledge of Nobel literature, but I know one thing, and that is that this book isn’t for the faint of heart, or even anyone who is tenderly inclined towards an idealistic notion of the adult-child relationship. Damn, the adults in this book make the Trunchbull look positively friendly.
For all that it is a bit on the intense side of things, it’s certainly an excellent read, and doesn’t come across as preachy at all. Given its subject matter, that would be a pretty easy thing; set during the mid- to late-Second World War period, in Japan, it deals with a group of reformatory boys who are forcibly evacuated to the countryside. To my mind, Oe has captured with amazing alacrity the capacity for children (the eldest is perhaps 12 or 13 years old) to feel responsibility, and to feel a desire to sacrifice their own comfort for the comfort of another. He’s also captured really nicely the tensions which exist between adults and children even during peacetime. These boys are continually being shunted about by adults, being always told that they’re terrible human beings and worthless when really, most of the adults aren’t any better – and mostly a lot worse.
Two of the most pertinent examples of this are the narrators brothers abandonment at the reformatory before the evacuation. Writing from a child’s perspective, Oe states this episode in a couple of sentences – “…the truth of the matter was that my father, worn out by searching for a place to evacuate my brother to, had finally hit upon the idea of taking advantage of the reformatory’s mass evacuation. I was bitterly disappointed. Even so, after my father had gone home we hugged each other tightly.” (p.27) According to this great interview with Sarah Fay of The Paris Review that Oe did in 2007, both the World War Two period of Imperialist Japan and handicapped children are themes which loom large in Oe’s oevre. Now, I don’t know about that (mainly because I’ve yet to read any more of his work, though I do have The Silent Cry on my bedside table at the moment, waiting patiently), but I do love the way that the brotherly relationship is portrayed in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. The moment when his brother asks to ‘look after’ the camel head tin opener is one of the shining lights of normalcy in a very screwed up situation.
The second example is when the narrator tries to obtain help from the villagers who abandon the children initially to escape the disease which has broken out in their village. In their hurry to escape, the villagers leave behind a girl who’s mother has recently died, and she is beside herself with panic after finding that she’s been left alone with this group of strangers. Minami, one of the boys in the group says of the situation “[s]he was left behind, … in the middle of the funeral, because everyone ran away. They do disgusting things.” (p.86) The narrator endures the hardships of the journey to the next village in order to find help for her and to beg the villagers to come and take her back – only to get beaten up by the doctor after he refuses to help them and tells him to go back before he gets the doctor in trouble with the other villagers. During the beating, the narrator says “You’re disgusting; you’re supposed to be a doctor and you won’t try to help us.” and then later again, “You’re just going to watch us die,”…”you’re vile.” (p.119) Which sums up the entire adult population of this book pretty well, really.
There is certainly a faint whiff of Lord of the Flies about this book. But where the group dynamics in Lord of the Flies degenerates pretty quickly, there is more of a cohesive dynamic presented in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. That’s not to say that there’s not a bit of the old biffo that happens, because there is, as different portions of the group struggle to maintain or assert dominance. But it seems to me that the violence among the boys isn’t symptomatic of any larger dominance struggle; it’s almost always over almost as soon as it began, and is almost like dogs sniffing each other – a kind of ‘feeling out’. There is a beautiful discovery of sexuality as it relates to love – basically, Oe seems to have covered the gamut of adolescent experience as engendered by this overwhelming and awful situation. I especially liked how the narrator takes little interest in the larger situation – when he’s speaking with the deserter after the bird hunt, the notion of freedom is discussed, and he asks the soldier “It’s something they’re doing [the war], that the guys outside carrying guns who cut us off are doing,…What’s it got to do with us?” (p.145)
I really enjoyed this book. I loved the fact that the language was lyrical without being poncy, that the story was compelling and moving without being preachy and high handed. Oe doesn’t shy away from any subject, and has really seemed to enter the mind of an adolescent struggling to do his best to overcome a threatening and vile situation. It’s a little different, and it’s pretty short and beautifully written, which in my mind are always good candidates for a ‘highly recommended’.