Date finished: June 10, 2012
How I found this book: As mentioned in a previous post, I was browsing the library shelves and it happened to catch my eye. On picking it up, I learned that the author was a Nobel-prize winning Japanese novelist.
The jacket flap of my copy of A Quiet Life describes Oe as a master of “the Japanese I-novel”. I hadn’t heard of the I-novel before, but I’ve learned that it is a blending of novel and autobiography. I like the idea of this as a genre, something that explicitly accepts that it is a blending of fact and imagination. Instead of having just a binary outlook and wanting to categorize everything as fiction or non-fiction, why not allow the possibility of a continuum? (It might be useful to view A Long Way Gone through this lens.) A Quiet Life clearly exists somewhere in the middle of that continuum, but it might not fit a strict definition of an I-novel. I read an interview with Oe in which he says that his books aren’t I-novels because he tries to connect to larger issues instead of staying strictly personal. Furthermore, the narrator in A Quiet Life is not the author himself, but instead, his daughter.
There’s something that strikes me as a bit presumptuous in writing a semi-autobiographical book in the voice of your daughter. It felt like the author was putting his words and ideas into his daughter’s mouth. In A Quiet Life, the author-father has left for California to try to escape his depression and his wife goes along to take care of him, leaving Ma-Chan, a college student, to manage the household and look after her two brothers one of whom is mentally handicapped. Despite the his absence, a surprising amount of the book is dedicated to conversation about the father-author and analysis of what caused his depression. When did it start? Was it this event or that event which triggered it? Was it a crisis due to lack of a religious faith? (Whereas the mother/wife is attributed no motivation more complex than a desire to care for her family. Very traditional gender roles in this book!) It’s probably a natural impulse to assume that people are thinking about you all the time in your absence, but the attention given to the absent father was a feature of the book that made me constantly aware that the person speaking was actually the father and not the daughter.
The most interesting part of the book for me was Ma-Chan’s experience of caring for the handicapped brother Hikari*, known primarily as Eeyore. Ma-Chan invests a lot of both her time and her identity in her role as caretaker, to the point that when her parents ask her what she would want in a marriage she replies that she would need to marry someone who could afford a two bedroom apartment so that Eeyore could live with them. It’s clear that Ma-Chan cares deeply for her brother and enjoys her role as caretaker. But the book also questions whether care for Eeyore should constitute so much of her identity and whether the way that she sees him is accurate.
The least interesting part of the book was the dedication of so much space to conversations analyzing movies or other books. There’s a whole chapter spent discussing a single Russian movie. And then another discussing a French author. I came across a quote in the Kirkus review of this book that sums it up nicely:
“The novel is, on the whole, tediously discursive “
There is one more aspect of the book that I would like to discuss, but to warn you, there are *spoilers* and also possible triggers.
Bookending the quiet commentary of the middle sections of A Quiet Life are two scenes about sexual assault. Near the beginning of the story, a man is assaulting local young women and Ma-Chan catches him and draws attention, leading to his arrest. The book ends with Eeyore’s swimming instructor attempting to rape Ma-Chan. This latter event is what I want to discuss because the handling of the whole thing was truly bizarre to me. First of all, not only had the swimming instructor been suspected previously of murder and sexual assault, but Ma-Chan’s father had written a novelized account of the events in which the swimming instructor had raped the woman involved. Further, the swimming instructor was irate at the father over the publication of the book. Yet her parents decide not to tell her any of this. Instead they send along a family friend to accompany Ma-Chan and Eeyore to swimming lessons and tell Ma-Chan not to be alone with the swimming instructor. Then, after he tries to rape her, what happens? Ma-Chan retreats to her bed for a few days, but the non-handicapped brother (who knew what happened) doesn’t even bother to tell his parents about it. The parents only find out because of a cryptic comment that Eeyore makes. And what are the consequences for the swimming instructor? The parents call the swim club and have him removed as a member. That’s it. Then the parents return home and Ma-Chan is immediately recovered from her upset and experiences no further trauma. She simply happily returns to her ‘quiet life’. This treatment of sexual assault is so different from any I have seen anywhere else. It leaves me baffled. And also angry that it is treated so lightly.
What is going on here? Is this response reflective of a broader pattern in Japanese culture? I don’t have any qualifications to answer that question and I feel uncomfortable drawing conclusions based on the little I know. However, in looking for reliable sources, I found an article from The Lancet which indicates that at the time A Quiet Life was written (1990), there wasn’t an understanding in Japan that rape is connected psychological distress and rape was very rarely reported to the police. This is consistent with the portrayal in A Quiet Life. It also seems that the culture is gradually changing, which I am glad to hear.
*Last fall I read a Japanese manga series, actually the only manga I’ve ever read, called With the Light, about a family caring for an autistic son named Hikaru. (Both Hikari and Hikaru apparently mean “light” in Japanese) It did a great job showing the family dynamics as well as the strategies they used to help Hikaru learn and touches on a lot of the same issues relating to handicapped children that A Quiet Life does.