It Takes More than a Village

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, Prize Stock, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, Aghwee the Sky Monster BY Kenzaburo Oe. Grove Press. Paperback, 261 pages. $14.

The cover of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, Prize Stock, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, Aghwee the Sky Monster

KENZABURŌ ŌE GREW UP in a village on the Japanese island of Shikoku. He lost his father during World War II, and lived through the defeat of imperial Japan and the surrender of Emperor Hirohito. One of Ōe’s earliest, and greatest, works—a novella called Prize Stock (1958)—describes what happens when a group of men in a small island village during the war capture an American soldier after his plane is shot down. They detain this soldier, a black man, in a basement, while the village leaders contact the elders in a nearby town to ask what should be done with him. While they await word, the village adapts to the black airman’s presence, becoming used to him and even somewhat affectionate, though they never come to think of him as more than an animal. This is uncomfortable stuff, and it’s meant to be.

What’s so great about the novella, though, and what makes me think of this as a book about family, is that Ōe uses the appearance of the American airman to highlight all the rivalries and skewed power plays at work in the seemingly tranquil family of the village—and, by extension, of the Japanese nation. Before the black man parachutes into the story, the narrator, a boy named Frog, is living what he considers to be a normal, even idyllic existence. The war itself seems quite far away, and the people in his village live as they have for generations, trapping animals, fishing, cooking, and rearing kids. But Ōe undercuts any sense of the saccharine in his portrayal right from the start. In the opening scene, Frog and his younger brother are killing time doing one of their favorite things: digging for souvenirs in the village’s makeshift crematorium. Like most great writing, this compact scene captures the essence of the story as a whole: a mix of the innocent and the gruesome, an ugliness waiting to be unearthed, and that’s exactly what we get once word comes back from town that the villagers must hold on to the black soldier for a while longer.

Ōe published this novella at the impossibly young age of twenty-three. He’d been a boy when Japan lost the war, and Prize Stock seems like his reckoning with that great trauma of his youth. As the villagers continue to hold the black American airman in their midst, the bonds of family fall apart. This is true within Frog’s own household but also across the village, too. In the nearby town, it would seem that no one is in charge, either. They’ve sent word higher up the chain, to the city, to the government, perhaps even to the emperor himself.

Ōe has described how stricken he felt when he heard the emperor for the first time in his life. It was when Hirohito announced the unconditional surrender of their country. Hirohito’s famously high-pitched voice shocked Ōe just as much as word that Japan had lost. This was the man all of Japan had worshipped? This was the descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu? With the fate of the entire race entrusted to this divinely appointed great father, who would now be in charge of this family called Japan?

Ōe creates a sense of confusion and shock and mounting horror throughout Prize Stock, capturing a national story through the tale of a single island village and the stranger who appears there one day. As with many families, order will eventually be reasserted, but the cost for all involved will be great.

Victor LaValle’s most recent novel is The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau, 2012).