I say reading, but I had also written a series of short stories constructed around metaphors that Lowry had inspired in me. My purpose in rereading Lowry while I was traveling was to allow me to say to myself at the end of the trip, Enough! As far as I’m concerned, I’m done with Lowry! And, as part of that process, I would present each of my companions on the road with one of the Lowry volumes. When I was young, my impatience had prevented me from staying with a single author for very long. As I was leaving middle age, the group of writers I would read attentively in my last years and until I died became visible to me. And so from time to time I felt obliged to set out consciously to finish off one writer or another.
This time, in spite of the busiest schedule I have ever experienced, and managing even so to maintain a pleasant relationship with the TV crew, who moved according to the logic of their work, I read, on planes and trains and in my hotel rooms as we moved about, one after another of the Lowry novels I had underlined in red pencil at various times in the past. One day, just at sunset as our train was about to arrive in Frankfurt, I was reading Forest Path to the Spring, Lowry’s most beautiful novella in my view, and felt myself being newly moved by the prayer the narrator had written down in search of encouragement for his work as a jazz musician.
I say “newly” because I had been moved by this passage before and had even quoted the first lines of the prayer in a novel of my own. This time, it was the continuation of the portion I had thought important previously, at the end of the prayer, that caught my eye. After a failed attempt to create a musical theme to convey the feeling of his own rebirth into a new world, the narrator calls out, ‘dear Lord God!,” and prays for help: “I, being full of sin, cannot escape false concepts, but let me be truly Thy servant in making this a great and beautiful thing, and if my motives are obscure, and the notes scattered and often meaningless, please help me to order it, or I am lost. . . .“
It was this final half line, which I had set down in its original English, that tugged at me with particular force, needless to say in the context of the entire passage. I felt as if I had received a signal, as if the voice of my patron were saying, “Come along now, it’s time to leave Lowry’s work and to enter another world where you should also plan to remain for a number of years,” and gently pointing me in the direction of a certain poet and his work. It was a Sunday evening; the young draftees who had been home on leave since Friday were on their way back to army camp. Standing at the windows in the aisles of the sleeping cars, soldiers who looked like students were blasting a farewell to their city on little trumpets with compression valves; others, still on the platform, were being consoled by their girlish lovers and urged to board the train or, reluctant to take their leave, embracing them a final time. Stepping from the train into this particular crowd seemed to hone the sharpness of my own feelings of taking leave.
As we left the station and headed for the hotel, I had with me the Oxford University Press edition of the Complete Works of William Blake in one volume that I had found in the station bookstore while the crew was loading its cases of equipment. That night, I began devoting my attention to Blake for the first time in several years, no, in more than ten years. The first page I opened to was a verse that ends, “Or else I shall be lost”:
Father, father, where are you going
O do not walk so fast.
Speak father, speak to your little boy
Or else I shall be lost.
I had attempted a translation of my own fourteen years ago–it was not until I wrote just now “in several years, no, in more than ten years’ that I realized, looking back, that it was in fact much longer ago than that, an experience I frequently have when speaking of the past these days–at a time when I was writing a novella in an attempt to get through a critical period of transition between a handicapped eldest son and his father, myself. Now I found myself drawn once again to the world of a poet who had influenced me under such unusual circumstances, and I wondered if my return to his world had to do with my sense that my son and I were entering once again a critical period of transition. How, otherwise, would I be feeling that Lowry’s “or I am lost” led so directly to Blake’s “Or else I shall be lost”? That night, unable to sleep in my Frankfurt hotel room though I turned off the bedside lamp any number of times, I returned once again to Blake–on the red paper cover of my book the falling figure of a naked man was printed in India ink–and pondered this and other uneasy thoughts.
The second stanza of “The Little Boy Lost” from Songs of Innocence is as follows:
The night was dark no father was there
The child was wet with dew.
The mire was deep, & the child did weep
And away the vapour flew.
Nightfall was still bringing fog into the streets of Frankfurt–Blake might have said “vapour” –even though it was the end of March. Easter was only a week or two away; until now, the holiday had been just a concept to me, the origin of the braiding together of death and rebirth that underlay the grotesque realism of European folk culture, but now for the first time I felt I understood the eagerness with which it was awaited as a celebration. The giant horse chestnuts that lined the streets were bare of even the youngest buds; standing sleeplessly at the window I watched the fog, glowing with light from the streetlamps, wrap itself around their dark trunks.
When I arrived at Narita Airport, Japan was in full spring, and I could feel the brightness of the air relaxing my mind and my body, but my wife and my second son appeared to be at odds with my feelings. Even after we were in the car the television station had sent for me (normally we would have taken the airport bus to Hakozaki), neither of them said a word. They sat slumped against the seat, as if they had been forced to continue fighting a difficult battle even though they were exhausted. My daughter, in her last year of a private middle school, was overwhelmed by homework and preparations for high school entrance exams and I had not expected to see her, but neither my wife nor my second son had a word to say about why my eldest child had not accompanied them to meet me.
For a time I stared out the window, not searching for lingering flower blossoms so much as simply enjoying the vivacious budding of the shrubbery in the fading light, but soon enough I began to recall uneasily how many times I had been assaulted by the feeling while reading Blake during the last part of my trip, or losing myself between the lines of his poetry, that my eldest son and I, and my entire family along with us, were on our way into a period of critical transition. And I recognized, as I continued gazing out the window in silence at the buds on the trees, that I was preparing to defend myself against my exhausted wife’s account of what was in store for me by putting off as long as possible the question “And how was Eeyore?” (as in some of my novels, I intend using the nickname “Eeyore” for my handicapped son).
But the journey from Narita to our house in Setagaya is a very long ride. At some point my wife had to break her silence. And once she began, she could not avoid speaking about the situation that seemed to have enveloped her spirit in pitch-darkness. And so, in barely audible despondency and a tone of voice that sounded helpless as an infant’s, she finally reported, “Eeyore was bad! Very bad!” In a manner I could tell was carefully restrained, partly out of concern that the driver might be listening, she then related the following story. Five days after I had left for Europe, as though he had been seized by an id”e fixe–fearing that it would strike others as bizarre, my wife would not describe it in the car or even at home until after she had diapered my son and put him to bed–Eeyore had become violent. It was spring break between his first and second year of high school at the facility for handicapped children, and there had been a gathering of former classmates who would now be separating. The students had assembled at Kinuta Family Park, near the school, and presently had begun a game of tag, with each child chasing his own mother. When my wife ran off with the other mothers, she apparently had been able to see even at a distance that my son had become furious. Terrified, she had stopped where she was, and my son had run up to her and kicked her feet out from under her with a judo move he had learned in gym class. My wife had fallen flat on her back and not only gashed her head but sustained a concussion and was unable to stand by herself. The teachers in charge and some other mothers had surrounded Eeyore with demands that he apologize, but he had remained fiercely silent, his legs spread wide and planted, glaring at the ground.
Beginning that day, my wife had observed Eeyore uneasily at home and saw that he was tormenting his younger brother, invading his room and pushing him around. But my second son was too proud to cry out loud or to tell on his older brother; even now, as he listened to what his mother was saying in the car, his body stiffened and he lowered his eyes as though he were ashamed in front of her, but he made no attempt to correct the substance of her story. My daughter looked after her handicapped elder brother in every imaginable way, including helping with his diapers, and her solicitude seemed to irritate him to the point where my wife had witnessed him punching her in the face. This kind of incident had accumulated until my son’s intimidated, angry family was no longer troubling itself with him and he was spending his spring vacation at home playing records at an unbearable volume from morning till night.
Then, about three days ago, and this was something my wife waited until late at night my first day home to reveal, the family was gathered in one corner of the dining room eating dinner after my son had finished his dinnertime ritual of stuffing everything on his plate into his mouth at one time and gulping it down when he emerged from the kitchen with a butcher knife gripped in front of his chest with both hands, moved to the curtain in the corner opposite the family, and appeared to lose himself in thought as he gazed out at the darkness of the garden behind the house.
“I thought we might have to commit him! There’s nothing we could do ourselves, he’s as tall and as heavy as you are!”
My wife fell silent again. And together with my son, who had said nothing, we endured the long car ride that remained, withered as though we were in the shadow of something dark and looming. Although I was still to hear about the chilling episode with the knife, not to mention the bizarre fixation that had my son in its grip, I was already feeling overwhelmed by the accumulated fatigue of my trip to Europe. At moments like this, my first response tends to be avoidance: before I faced squarely what my wife had told me, I chose the detour afforded by consideration of another Blake poem (in defer-ence to my wife, sitting there with my son between us, I refrained from pulling my copy of Blake’s poems from the knapsack on my lap).
In Songs of Experience, there is a well-known poem, “A Little Boy Lost,” with the indefinite article. Unlike the boy with the definite article in Songs of Innocence, this independent child protests to his father defiantly:
Nought loves another as itself
Nor venerates another so.
Nor is it possible to Thought
A greater than itself to know.
And Father, how can I love you,
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like a little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.
The priest who overhears this drags the boy off angrily and accuses him of being a devil:
And burn’d him in a holy place,
Where many have been burn’d before:
The weeping parents wept in vain
Are such things done on Albion’s shore.
Our lugubrious car finally arrived at the house, and as I was carrying my suitcase into the dark entranceway my daughter appeared. As with her younger brother and my wife, there was unmistakable gloom in her expression, but the concern I had been unable to broach to my wife in the car–if Eeyore was on such bad terms with everyone in the family, was it all right to leave the two of them alone in the house together?–was dispelled. We greeted each other with as much cheer as we could manage, and went into the family room. Eeyore was on the sofa, his face buried in a sumo magazine, and he did not even look around. In the black, baggy trousers he wore to school and an old shirt of mine that looked to be too tight, he was kneeling on the couch facing the back, his rear in the air, and in that unnatural position he was poring over a photo roundup of the junior wrestlers who had just finished competing in the spring tournament. Looking at his back and legs, I thought I could see something ambivalent–myself, another self that had been present all the time I was away, and, in the same place, ready and steeled to reject that self of mine, my son. Since his height and weight were identical to my own and even the way he stood with his fleshy back and shoulders rounded reminded me of myself, it was if anything commonplace for me to perceive him as though he and I were superimposed as we lay there reading on that couch–in my case, on my back. Yet this time I could feel him (together with another son who was an identical version of myself) decisively at this exact moment rejecting his father, rejection that was no simple, spur-of-the-moment rebelliousness but determined and deliberate and part of a twisted process that was still winding on. So when I called out, “Eeyore, I’m home! How was sumo? Did Asashio win?” I felt I had been given to understand all over again the weight of the despondency that was oppressing the family. However, I had yet to look into my son’s eyes. And it was his eyes that would force me that first night to face directly into the heart of the crisis that was already at hand.
While in Berlin I had bought my son a harmonica. When he didn’t respond even when we called him, his younger brother, who had received a Swiss army knife, took it in to him where he lay sprawled on the couch, but he didn’t even glance at it. After I had spoken to him a number of times at dinner he finally removed the harmonica from its paper wrapping; but instead of showing the interest any instrument normally evoked in him and trying to make it play, he merely fumbled with it unenthusiastically, as if it were a foreign object that was somehow threatening. Eventually, he did bring it to his lips at an angle and produced a single note like the sound of the wind by blowing into just one hole. It was as if he were afraid that instead of harmony an awful dissonance might sink its teeth into his nose if he blew into two or more holes at once.
I had been drinking the whisky I had purchased at the duty-free shop, but presently I stood up from the dining room table and set out across the room to where my son lay stretched out athwart the couch like a knife thrust into it. Without changing his position, he grasped the harmonica by one edge in both hands, overlapping them, lifted it on end in front of his face like a scepter, and looked up at me from either side of it. His eyes made me shudder. They were bloodshot as though with fever, burning with a yellowish luster as of resin, raw. A beast in rut, having expended itself on impulse in a frenzy of sexual excess, is still rocked by aftershocks of desire. The period of wild activity is meant to give way at once to inaction and lethargy, but deep inside the body something continues to rage. From the look in my son’s eyes he was being devoured from the inside by a beast in the grip of that wildness and could do nothing about it, and the rest of his face, his dark eyebrows and finely arched nose and bright-red lips, was slack and blank.
Looking down into those eyes that smote my chest, I couldn’t speak. My wife came over from the table to tell my son that it was time for bed, and he obediently took his diapers for that night upstairs. But first he dropped the harmonica beside him as if it were something he just happened to be holding that meant nothing to him. As he passed me he flicked his eyes in my direction and I saw once again the eyes of a beast, of a dog, laughing and laughing in a place absent of people until its eyes had gone red.
“Eeyore gripped that butcher knife the same way he was holding the harmonica just now, staring into the back garden with his head pressed against the wall where the curtain is. The entire time we were eating he didn’t move a muscle, it was terrifying!”
When she came downstairs from having put my son to bed, my wife related the episode with the butcher knife and added a report of his bizarre remarks. Now that I was actually home, he was not defying his mother, and all she had had to do was tell him she was on the way to meet me at the airport and he had stayed at home and maintained a policy of nonintervention toward his sister. It was therefore only natural that she should have said to him when he began to act up that she would report his misbehavior to his father when he came home. At the time Eeyore had been listening to a Bruckner symphony on FM radio with the volume turned way up as usual, and he had shouted, in a voice easily heard above the blaring music, “No, no, Papa is dead!“
My wife was stunned, but managed to get hold of herself and tried to correct my son’s mistake. Father wasn’t dead; he had been away before for other long periods of time, but he had been alive in foreign countries, not dead. And just as he had always come home in the past when his trip was over, he would be home this time, too; in the loud voice that must have been required to vie with the Bruckner–as I listened despondently I opened the FM radio guide on the table to see which Bruckner had been playing and ascertained that it had been the Eighth Symphony in C Minor–my wife had tried to disabuse my son, but he had continued to protest stubbornly: “No, Papa died! He really died!“
In the context of his conversation with my wife, my son’s responses, while bizarre, did have a certain logic of their own: “I’m sure you don’t mean dead? Don’t you mean away on a trip? You know he’s coming back next Sunday!”
“Is that right? Is he coming back on Sunday? Even if he is, right now he’s dead. Papa is really dead!“
The Bruckner Eighth continued endlessly, and as my wife shouted back and forth with my son she sensed that fresh blood was beginning to ooze from the cut on the back of her head and felt sick with exhaustion. Imagining a situation that might easily occur in the future, when her husband had really died, and she was attempting to coax her son into believing he was still alive in order to control him, she was further disheartened.
Copyright ” 1986 by Kenzabo Oe. English Translation Copyright ” 2002 by John Nathan. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.