Title: A Quiet Life
Japanese Title: 静かな生活 (Shizuka na seikatsu)
Author: Ōe Kenzaburō (大江健三郎)
Translator: Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall
Publication Year: 1990 (Japan); 1996 (America)
Publisher: Grove Press
About a month ago, a friend for whom I have a great deal of respect said that she doesn’t like Ōe Kenzaburō’s A Quiet Life. She argued, essentially, that the novel has no forward momentum and that she couldn’t bring herself to care about the characters, especially the narrator, whom she considered silly and a bit too passive. These are all genuinely valid criticisms; but, since I happen to rather like the novel (and since I haven’t read anything else that has caught my attention recently), I thought I might defend it a bit. Of course, a book that labels itself with the title “A Quiet Life” isn’t for everyone, but I feel like there’s so much interesting stuff going on in the novel that the lives of the characters are anything but quiet.
First of all, let me say that this novel does not fit neatly into Ōe’s other work. There is very little here that is overtly political (like Hiroshima Notes), very little having to do with Pacific War era ideological confusion in the forests of Shizuoka (like in the stories of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness), and exactly zero sleeping around with your former lover while your wife is in the hospital after having just delivered a baby that you are plotting to kill (à la A Personal Matter). Ōe’s oeuvre tends to be a bit intense, so I really appreciated reading something a bit more…quiet.
Also, there’s a really cool film adaptation directed by Itami Jūzō, the guy who directed Tampopo (1985) and A Taxing Woman (1987). It turns out that Itami was Ōe’s brother-in-law, oddly enough. But I digress.
A Quiet Life is about the author’s family. Ōe refers to everyone by nicknames, but the essential family structure is the same. A genius writer living in the suburbs of Tokyo tries to commit suicide, so his exasperated wife, who catches him in the act, persuades him to accept a year-long writer-in-residence position at a university in California. The couple leaves behind their three children, and the narrator, Ma-chan, is one of these children. She is twenty years old, writing her college graduation thesis on the interwar French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and responsible for the care of her quick-witted younger brother O-chan and her mentally-handicapped older brother Eeyore. While O-chan comes and goes like the wind, Eeyore requires a bit more attention, especially as Ma-chan comes to suspect that he feels abandoned by their parents. A Quiet Life follows Ma-chan and Eeyore through the summer after their parents leave, with Eeyore attending music composition lessons, Ma-chan working on her thesis, the pair attending a funeral in their father’s home village in Shizuoka, and other various aspects of the family’s daily life. This daily life is spiced with such incidents as Eeyore’s capture of a neighborhood pervert, the composition teacher’s ventures into socialist activism, and Eeyore’s swimming lessons, conducted by a handsome young instructor for whom Ma-chan quickly develops a crush.
Throughout the novel run Ma-chan’s thoughts and commentary on a variety of works of film and fiction, including Andrei Tarcovsky’s Stalker, the religious poetry of William Blake, and Michael Ende’s novel The Neverending Story, not to mention a forty-page rumination on Céline. I enjoyed these discussions, which were more often than not carried out in the form of lively conversations between Ma-chan and Eeyore’s music composition teacher, but I imagine how this sort of intratextual literary criticism might derail the forward momentum of the story for people who simply don’t care for that sort of thing in their fiction.
In my opinion, however, the main point of the novel isn’t its plot or its intellectual discussions, but rather the development of the relationship between Ma-chan and Eeyore. The two are obviously close; but, when Ma-chan assumes the role of Eeyore’s primary caregiver and babysitter, she finds herself repeatedly frustrated with her brother. She suspects that Eeyore himself might be the neighborhood pervert, for example, and occasionally resents him for claiming the bulk of her parents’ attention and preventing her from getting closer to boys like the swimming instructor (who actually turns out to be a creep). Eeyore, despite his idiosyncrasies, has his heart in the right place and in fact turns out to be perhaps the most interesting character to come out of Ōe’s work. Ōe’s portrayal of him, both through his words and actions and through his sister’s perception of him, is both complex and sympathetic. Ma-chan may be passive (or she may simply be a normal if somewhat oversensitive twenty-year-old college student), but Eeyore is anything but, and he emerges as the real star of the novel.
At a meta-textual level, I found not only Ōe’s portrayal of Eeyore but also his decision to use the voice of a semi-adult woman (modeled after his own daughter) for his narrator to be quite interesting. Is it realistic? Is it convincing? Why in the world would he choose to employ such a narrator? Regardless, Ma-chan is much more than the typical shōjo heroine, and A Quiet Life is much more than the typical home drama. The translation is smooth, and the narrative flows fairly quickly, jumping effortlessly from one tableau to the next. Although A Personal Matter will probably continue to hold the place of honor in the work of this Nobel Prize winning author, I feel like A Quiet Life is a close second.