Friday, August 6, 2010


I was particularly moved, this Hiroshima morning, by an op-ed piece in the New York Times by the 1994 Nobel Prize winner, Kenzaburo Oe, Hiroshima and the Art of Outrage. He is actually writing about the continuing presence of that US air base on Okinawa, but grabbed my attention with his regret at never having managed to write the "big novel" about the survivors of that worst-ever attack on an inhabited city from the air. His admission is profoundly touching for the sense of impotence it conveys, of a powerful writer still not powerful enough to meet so great a challenge. In a few words, Oe says a great deal about his calling as a writer, the inspiration that started him along the path, and his eventual tragic sense of failure. It seems that failure can have its own nobility.

Here's what Oe writes, in the last paragraphs of his piece:

"Sixty-five years ago, after learning that a friend who was reported missing after the bombing of Hiroshima had turned up in a hospital there, my mother put together a meager care package and set out from our home in Shikoku to pay a visit. When she returned, she shared her friend’s description of that morning in August 1945.

"Moments before the atomic bomb was dropped, my mother’s friend happened to seek shelter from the bright summer sunlight in the shadow of a sturdy brick wall, and she watched from there as two children who had been playing out in the open were vaporized in the blink of an eye. “I just felt outraged,” she told my mother, weeping.

"Even though I didn’t fully grasp its import at the time, I feel that hearing that horrifying story (along with the word outrage, which put down deep, abiding roots in my heart) is what impelled me to become a writer. But I’m haunted by the thought that, ultimately, I was never able to write a 'big novel' about the people who experienced the bombings and the subsequent 50-plus years of the nuclear age that I’ve lived through — and I think now that writing that novel is the only thing I ever really wanted to do.

"In Edward W. Said’s last book, “On Late Style,” he gives many examples of artists (composers, musicians, poets, writers) whose work as they grew older contained a peculiar sort of concentrated tension, hovering on the brink of catastrophe, and who, in their later years, used that tension to express their epochs, their worlds, their societies, themselves.

"As for me, on the day last week when I learned about the revival of the nuclear-umbrella ideology, I looked at myself sitting alone in my study in the dead of night . . . . . . and what I saw was an aged, powerless human being, motionless under the weight of this great outrage, just feeling the peculiarly concentrated tension, as if doing so (while doing nothing) were an art form in itself. And for that old Japanese man, perhaps sitting there alone in silent protest will be his own 'late work.'"

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