As his publisher Kodansha announced, Kenzaburo Oe died on March 3 at the age of 88. The cause of death was given as old age.
Oe made a name for himself in Japan and far beyond through his commitment as a peace activist and opponent of nuclear power. He was a constant admonisher and warner into old age and also took a stand against the governing conservative government when it wanted to change the pacifist post-war constitution. Oe, who was long considered a literary loner or a left-wing intellectual fright of the citizens, repeatedly spoke up on the subject.
When the government of the recently assassinated right-wing conservative ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe passed, among other things, a law to increase the punishment for treason and to strengthen the role of the military, Oe warned that Japan was relapsing into the times that led to the Second World War.
Nobel Prize in Literature for the “black sheep”
Oe received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. At that time, the Swedish Nobel Prize Committee not only recognized Oe’s literary work, but also his role as a social critic and a warning against the uncritical Westernization of his home country.
Kenzaburo Oe in 1995, a year after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature
Oe, who once called himself the “black sheep of Japanese literature”, counted Thomas Mann among his role models when it came to combining literary and socio-political significance.
For many, Oe was the first modern writer in Japan with strong European influences and influences, not least through French existentialism. However, Oe achieved his literary breakthrough with his early story “Der Fang” (1958) about the world of experiences and adventures of children through impressions of the war.
It was not always easy to read and consume – especially for readers in the western world. Oe liked to turn European reading habits upside down (“I don’t make it easy for my readers”), but his literary status was soon recognized even before the Nobel Prize was awarded – Henry Miller even brought Oe close to Dostoyevsky.
Oe himself called his narrative style grotesque realism and liked to refer to the French poet François Rabelais (1494-1553). But German authors such as Grimmelshausen and Goethe also impressed him.
Controversial, but a moral authority
In his home country, Oe was not uncontroversial because of his unequivocal positions, but was nevertheless regarded as Japan’s social conscience. Former Chancellor Willy Brandt once said that Oe apparently played the same role in his country as Günter Grass did in Germany – the polluter.
Both winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature – Oe’s correspondence with Grass was published in Germany in 1995 – addressed the lessons of their countries’ painful pasts in both their work and their deeds.
Hiroshima as a life theme
Another central theme for Oe, who was born on January 31, 1935 on the island of Shikoku in southwestern Japan into a noble samurai family and remained marked by his rural origins, was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
The atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima was a major theme for Kenzaburo Oe throughout his life
“Hiroshima must be engraved in our memories: it is a catastrophe even more dramatic than natural disasters because it is man-made. To repeat this through the same disregard for human life in nuclear power plants is the worst betrayal of the memory of the victims of Hiroshima,” Oe said in an interview after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
strokes of fate processed in novels
Shortly before his 80th birthday, a German translation of his autobiographical essays in “Light shines on my roof” was published. It is about his son Hikari, born in 1963 and mentally handicapped from birth, who composes classical music. The birth of his son was also the subject of what is perhaps his best-known novel, the masterpiece “A Personal Experience” from 1964. An “act of self-exposure hardly known in European literature,” wrote one critic.
Oe also processed the suicide of his brother-in-law, the film director Jūzō Itami, in 1997 in a novel. “Torikaeko” (English: “The Changeling”) from 2002 was praised by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as “largely dialogical artist novel, family novel and critical, thoughtful essay at the same time”. And also in the book “Tagame. Berlin – Tokyo” (2005) Oe describes the disturbing consequences of a director’s suicide on his friends and family.
mak/fab (rtr, afp, dpa)
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