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Book Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe

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The Silent Cry is a novel with not the best title. At least in the English translation, that is, for were I to just encounter this title without the Nobel winning stamp upon it, I would have quickly passed over it. That said, it is still not a good title, Nobel winner or not. This sort of reminds me of Hungarian writer Sandor Marai’s great novel Embers, which doesn’t have the best translation of title either, but Embers is better than The Silent Cry — both in title and in book. The title actually puts me in mind of that anti-abortion propaganda film I was forced to watch my freshman year in Catholic high school — The Silent Scream…or something. According to Wikipedia, the title’s translation from its original Japanese is Football in the First Year of Man’en. Ok, right, I can see that connection. Whatever. The Silent Cry, as a title, still sucks.

Having said that, this is not the best Oe book I have read. It is in fact an incredibly dour novel with no happiness whatsoever, and I have to wonder what sort of person can deliver so many words in nearly 300 pages and not manage to tell a joke. We have sibling rivalry, a grisly suicide involving a hanging and the shoving of a cucumber up the dead person’s ass, (ok maybe that’s sort of funny, I guess), alcoholism, rape, and so on. I’m not going to bother giving a plot summary because much of it I have forgotten already. You can just read for yourself, should you be interested.

But let me set this straight, of the Oe works I’ve read, A Personal Matter is excellent — definitely one I recommend. I also reviewed a book of Oe’s short fiction (a collection of four novellas), which was also very good. The Silent Cry has good moments, certainly, but the text felt long, unnecessarily deflating and I can’t recall much afterwards. So you’re thinking, “What’s wrong with a dour and depressing sort of story? You’ve just described the entire film output of Ingmar Bergman.” Well, true, and nothing is wrong when there is the psychological and philosophical complexity to back it up. The Silent Cry has moments, but it reads more like a lesser Bergman film than one of Bergman’s best. Catch my drift? It is by no means a bad book, but when you have disaster after disaster and tragedy after tragedy, after a time, it loses its dramatic effect. Again, this is no criticism upon tragedy, just that, if you’re gonna write it, either 1) have the profundity and depth to back it up (and even the title itself is trite) or 2) make light of it via jokes, sort of the way Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse Five.

This is just a suggestion, because as is, The Silent Cry doesn’t really work. But there are some interesting moments, moments that actually do remind me of a Bergman film, believe it or not (think the dream sequences in Wild Strawberries or The Magician). Here’s an example. As the narrator is dreaming, he notes the silence of the world around him. Some of the phrasing is clichéd but the idea is interesting:

“Wondering why it should be so utterly silent, I realized that it was because all the people walking so slowly along the opposite sidewalk were old. The people driving in both directions along the road were all old too. The people at work in the liquor stores, the drugstores, the five-and-tens, and the customers as well, they were all old… These old men wrapped in tranquility — I felt, struggling to remember something that troubled me — had some deep significance.”

The speaker then goes on to note that he notices his suicidal friend and the “idiot baby” in need of care. The prose itself is not so stellar as to be quoted for its lyricism, but the ideas Oe mentions are interesting. Oe is, in fact, at his best when he allows his characters to ruminate philosophically, often allowing their thoughts to pull them into a dream-like trance. Much of that went on in A Personal Matter, and it worked. In The Silent Cry, however, the narrative is shifted more upon the tragic elements within the plot, rather than the deeper, internal insights that are unfolding within.

Having said that, The Silent Cry reads like a novel with potential, but not one of Oe’s best. I would have told him to pick a tragedy and stick with it, not delve into all of these terrible happenings within the same story, to the same family. Had this been a book about The Rape of Nanking, then such tragedy would be a bit more understandable, but as is, these characters are just sort of stuck within their unmemorable zombie like state, prone to depressions, suicides, rape and other fun stuff as that.

I’ll end with this: don’t let what I’ve said turn you away from Oe. Seek out the other books of his, and then, move onto this one, only if your interest is piqued. There are still a number of his other novels I plan to read, and I am hopeful those will turn out better. While I did not emotionally like The Silent Cry, I recognize its merits. Unfortunately much of them are drowned by the histrionic melodrama that made reading the book a drag.

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