Soul Mountain

I have never read a book quite like Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. Gao was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, yet within China at least, is unheard of.

Soul Mountain contains everything a Nobel Prize winning book should have. It’s packed full of vivid description, has political undertones, it comments on society, on history and on Chinese culture. It’s narrative is unconventional. You follow ‘you’ (who is male), ‘I’ (the author) and their interactions with ‘he’ and ‘she’ as they travel through rural China.

Soul Mountain
Soul Mountain shows China at a crossroads. It highlights how Chinese values are being forgotten due to economic development and politics. The most captivating chapters, for me, were the ones in which ‘I’ visits national parks; wildlife conservation areas which are the last stronghold for pandas. Another great chapter was the touring of Shaoxing. I lived in Shaoxing and had the same experiences, yet I was still able to learn new things about the city.

Gao Xingjian captures a beautiful, but tragic, China. Despite this however, I did not *enjoy* Soul Mountain. But you do not need to enjoy the novel in order to appreciate it. Soul Mountain is definitely a novel to read, particularly if you want an insight into a rapidly changing China.

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

I have discussed before the idea of family and family relationships in Oe Kenzaburo’s work (see Aghwee the Sky Monster, for example). His novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, takes a different approach to the role of the family in Japanese society. Published in Japan in 1958 when Oe was 23 (it’s his first novel), it tells the story about a group of teenage delinquents who are evacuated into a remote village during the war. In the village they are ill-treated by the villagers, forced to do labour, locked up with no access to water and are fed little.

This group of misplaced children are used to criticise the family system prevalent in Japan, the ie system. In the novel, there’s not a conventional family. Instead there are different representations of family.

The first family is a patriarchal one. One in which the Emperor is at the head and must be treated with respect. You were to protect the Emperor, and if that meant through war and death, then you were to fight and die. The children are joined by a young soldier who deserted his post. This soldier openly criticises the Japanese war effort and in turn criticises the Emperor who during the war was portrayed as a father and a God to the Japanese people. By leaving the army, the soldier protested against this family system. Despite his efforts, the dominant patriarchy catches up with him and he is first tortured by the villagers and then is taken by the army to be executed for failing to support his Emperor.

nip the bud

When the plague starts to ravage the village, the villagers leave unexpectedly in the night, blocking the children in. The children create their own utopian world and family. One which hierarchy does not exist. Everyone is equal. Food is shared equally, houses are shared equally, the whole group participates in tasks together. They begin to enjoy life.

This utopia doesn’t last long, and the villagers soon return. The newly created family is abandoned and the children soon start going towards the adults, reestablishing the traditional family system. To the protagonist, this is an act of betrayal by those he considered to be his true family.

There is a more conventional family relationship in the novel. The main relationship, which the book is centred around is between the protagonist and his younger brother. Their relationship is close and they rely on each other for comfort and support. The younger brother clearly looks up to the protagonist. However, the protagonist doesn’t realise the importance of this relationship until his young brother runs away.

It’s the disappearance of the younger brother which is the turning point for the children and the story. Everything appears to be lost for the kids, especially for the protagonist. The liveliness also disappears within the narrative and it becomes more brutal in tone. It’s as if, without these relationships, life cannot exist.

The protagonist has been abandoned by adults, his brother, his friends, society, leaving him with only one option: to leave and seek freedom. Freedom is the dominant message in the novel. The protagonist leaves knowing that survival away from the traditional system is not guaranteed.

The ending is a cliffhanger. Does the protagonist live or does he die? Despite this ambiguity, his escape creates a feeling of hope for the reader.

The Hamlet People

In my last post about The Cape, I noted that the family at the centre of the novel are Burakumin. This post will explain exactly who the Burakumin are, with the aim of illustrating the many layers of Japanese society.

Burakumin (部落民), meaning ‘hamlet people’  are a social minority making up around 2 million of the Japanese population. Since the Edo period, and continuing today, the Burakumin caste have been the subject of discrimination and prejudice.

Historically, the Burakumin were created during the feudal caste system during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) . There were four social classes in this period: the samurai at the top followed by peasants, craftsmen and finally, merchants. Outside these classes were those who did occupations which went against the dominant religious ideologies (Buddhism and Shintoism) – namely those which involved death and corpses such as butchers, tanners and undertakers. They were split into two groups: the Eta (butchers, tanners etc.) and the Hinin (executioners, street cleaners etc.) These two groups were classified as Burakumin, a name which has since stuck.

The eta, were forced to live in seperate communities or hamlets, which lead to the name Burakumin. This areas were avoided by the rest of Japanese society. The Burakumin were born into the social class, leading to no social mobility, and this issue of ancestry still plays a role in modern Japanese society.

In 1871 the caste system was abolished in the Meiji era. However, the historical stigmatisation and the importance of ancestry still continued leaving the Burakumin to face discrimination.

As Japan became more urbanised, Buraku communities were integrated within cities. However, in some parts of Japan (mainly in the West including Osaka, Hiroshima etc.) the Buraku comminities remained and discrimination against this class, which couldn’t escape the label, remained.

In 1969, the Dowa Discrimination law was in place (it ended in 2002) to tackle the issue of integration of the Buraku people into mainstream Japanese society. It was found that despite of this law, many Buraku still faced prejudice. Potential in-laws would, for example, check the ancestry of a person to judge whether or not marriage can be permitted. Employers would also carry out the checks on candidates to see if they were worthy of a job. Despite subsequent regional laws preventing private companies examining a person’s ancestry, the law hasn’t been made national. Furthermore, there’s still no law to stop the continuing discrimination, which has now moved onto the internet.

While not a race, the Buraku are a social minority and one which is invisible in Japanese society. Even the word Burakumin is taboo. There have been many attempts by Buraku people to highlight the discrimination they still face. Whilst this discrimination may not be open in public, on the internet it’s very much a different story.

Likewise, some Japanese authors attempt to promote this issue. Writers like Nakagami Kenji, who is of Burakumin origin, Sumii Sue and Shimazaki Toson. For anyone wishing to read more about the Burakumin, the website Minority Rights, has a profile along with other Japanese minorities.


The Cape

The Cape, a short story written by Nakagami Kenji, appears at a glance to be a straight forward story: the sentences are short, descriptive and littered with dialogue. However, the story itself is much more complex. The narrative is split into small sections. Whilst this pushes the plot forward quickly, these sections don’t continue directly on from each other, creating a Pulp Fiction-esque type plot based on a Burakumin family. What’s more, at the heart of the story lies a very complex theme of family relationships and the need for personal identity and to break away from family ties.

Author Nakagami Kenji

Author Nakagami Kenji

From the beginning, the family is introduced as the important theme of the story. In some editions, there’s even a family tree at the start of the novel. Throughout, various family members are being introduced from the protagonist Akiyuki through to family members who are alive and dead.

The burdens and consequences of family in Japanese society are constantly criticised. Akiyuki and his relationship with his father for example isn’t ‘normal’. His father is absent from his life and his mother remarried, leaving Akiyuki not just with a step-father, but also with a half-brother. There is clear animosity between Akiyuki and his father (who he calls ‘that man’) and animosity towards how in Japanese society, and indeed most Asian societies, you are judged by your lineage, particularly through the male bloodline. Considering the characters are from the Buraku community, being judged based on lineage is even harder to escape.

This hatred and the need to degrade his father escalates at the end of the novel with Akiyuki discovering he has a half-sister through his father. On further finding that his half-siste is a prostitute,  he hunts her down and has sex with her to ‘violate the daughter of that man’. Not only very Freudian, but Akiyuki wishes to destroy the bond which ties him and his father together as well as degrade the Japanese family structure.

This also shows another theme in the novel: freedom and identity, which is something Akiyuki constantly fights for. He longs for an identity outside of the family. Not only is he tied to his absent father, he is constantly compared to his dead brother – to the point where he’s denied his own personal identity. Akiyuki’s only escapism is through his job – manual labour – something which his body can easily do, allowing his mind to be free.

By mentally breaking his family ties with his father at the end of the novel, he is also forging a new identity. Although, he bases his new identity on the attributes of other men who feature in the novel. He breaks the rigid family structure, but does not completely escape his world.

the cape

For a detailed look at the restraints of the family in Japanese society, especially from a Buraku point of view, The Cape is worth a read. Whilst complex, it does highlight the lives and difficulties facing the Japanese with regards to rigid family structures.

The Cape won the Akutagawa Prize in 1975 and can be read in Nakagami Kenji’s The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto.

Aghwee the Sky Monster

Family is a major theme in much of Oe Kenzaburo’s work, and decades of novels have focused on it. Oe’s son, Hikari was born disabled. Since his birth, most of Oe’s books contain his son (who is often named Eeyore after the donkey in A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh) as well as other family members.

Author Oe Kenaburo with his son Hikari

Author Oe Kenzaburo with his son Hikari

Aghwee the Sky Monster is one of those family orientated stories. However, Oe uses it to explore an alternative life, a life in which he let his son die instead of helping him live. The story followed the character D and his psychological trauma from killing his new born son. It’s a chilling story looking into the madness of people and consequences of one’s actions when given the chance to play God.

The dead baby, Aghwee, is a key character in the story. It’s an aggressive character, it taunts D and in the end is the reason for D’s death. This character of the dead baby is an example of one of Oe’s favourite literary techniques,  grotesque realism, which aids in the illustration of the dilemma and resulting madness which D experiences in the story.

Oe uses his characters not only to represent other family members, but also himself. He is reported to have said that upon the birth of his son, he experienced an identity crisis. He, like D, had the power to end his son’s life and that power haunted him – leading to the creation of Aghwee the Sky Monster.

In comparison to other Oe Kenzaburo works, Aghwee the Sky Monster is different story to one he usually writes when looking at family relationships. It looks at the might-have-beens and not real life events which inspired him to dedicate years in writing about.

Aghwee the Sky Monster can be found in the collection of Oe Kenzaburo works entitled Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels.

teach us to outgrow our madness