Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness | Kenzaburo Oe

TITLE / Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness

AUTHOR / Kenzaburo Oe

TRANSLATOR / John Nathan

PUBLISHER / Grove Press

DATE OF PUBLICATION / October 13, 1994 (originally published in Japan 1966)

NO. OF PAGES / 261


With such an intense and fully packed collection of stories, I do not even know where to begin!

The title story, "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness" is about a hugely fat man who believes he is the only connection between the real world and his mentally disabled son and his obsession with how his father died. "Aghwee the Sky Monster" is narrated by a young man who is hired as the companion of a young composer who believes he can see a giant baby floating in the sky. The collection's longest and most bizarre story, "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away," is the tale of a man wearing goggles covered in cellophane who believes he is dying of cancer that is not actually there.

This collection of Oe's is full of the bizarre, the uncomfortable, and the grotesque. As mentioned in the fantastically informative introduction, Kenzaburo is of the generation of Japanese men that grew up in the aftermath of World War II and tried to recreate some sense of national identity while coming to grips with the horrors of war. The stories in this collection show a particular interest in father-son relationships, the act of seclusion, and the idea of what we inherit when we are born. Although these themes crop up in every story, Oe handles them so differently in each one that I was sometimes left wondering how one person could write in such different and yet equally strong voices.

The final and my favorite story in the collection, "Prize Stock," could be considered Oe's riff on Mark Twain's enduring novel Huckleberry Finn. In this story, our narrator is a boy of about 12 or 14 who lives in kind of a backwoods village during WWII. He sleeps with his father and brother in a storage shed full of slaughtered animals, hates the village kids, and believes that the war will never touch their lives until one day when an American fighter plane crashlands nearby. The villagers capture the African American pilot and hold onto him until he can be retrieved by the authorities. This African American soldier becomes the responsibility of the village children, who take turns watching and caring for him as though he were some kind of exotic pet.

"Prize Stock" is exemplary of this entire collection: graphic in its grotesqueness, brutal in its content, and harshly honest about how war affects boys and ultimately turns them into damaged men. It is also worth mentioning that John Nathan deserves some kind of medal for so beautifully translating a seemingly un-translatable novel. He somehow manages to translate the exquisite descriptions in "Prize Stock" without losing its ability to evoke emotion and in "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away," well... that story is so structurally weird that it serves as all the evidence I need to demonstrate Nathan's genius as a translator.

Needless to say, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness isn't a collection for those who like clean cut language or easy reads. But if you're interested in seeing just what twisted characters Oe can create, I would highly recommend this collection of short novels.

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