Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madnessby Kenzaburo Oe Translated from Japanese by John Nathan
“[A] remarkable book. . . . Oe is a supremely gifted writer (and fortunate in having found Nathan as a translator.)” –Ivan Gold, The Washington Post
The title piece in this collection reveals its importance to “e’s identity as a writer. Prize Stock, winner of the Akutagawa Prize, is about the relationship between a Japanese flier and captured black American flier during World War II. Aghwee the Sky Monster is about a young man’s first job. The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away is an unsparing parody of Yukio Mishima’s terrorism and suicide.
“Oe’s early heroes have been expelled from the certainty of childhood, into a world that bears no relation to their past. The values that regulated life when they were growing up have been blown to smithereens along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki; what confronts them now is a gaping emptiness, enervation, a terrifying silence like the eternity that follows death.””from the Introduction by John Nathan
“[A] remarkable book. . . . Oe is a supremely gifted writer (and fortunate in having found Nathan as a translator.)””Ivan Gold, The Washington Post
“A master of the bizarre plunges the reader into a world of tortured imagination where protagonists search blindly in an interior space for their elusive selves. . . . Oe moves from deceptive simplicity (in the early story “Prize Stock” about a captured black G.I. in a remote village) to the orchestrated madness of “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away,” the longest and most difficult piece in the collection. The expert translation strikes no false note and Nathan’s introduction is illuminating.””Library Journal
Deep one night he was trimming his nose that would never walk again into sunlight atop living legs, busily feeling every hair with a Rotex rotary nostril clipper as if to make his nostrils as bare as a monkey’s, when suddenly a man, perhaps escaped from the mental ward in the same hospital or perhaps a lunatic who happened to be passing, with a body abnormally small and meagre for a man save only for a face as round as a Dharma’s and covered in hair, sat down on the edge of his bed and shouted, foaming,
____What in God’s name are you? What? WHAT? So startled that he yanked the clipper from his nose with several hairs still caught between the rotor and the blade, and, the pain adding an edge to his anger, he set the Rotex in rotary motion and hurled it at the hairy face, then screamed back, writhing with his chest and shoulders only because the other man’s weight on top of the blankets immobilized his legs,
____I’m cancer, cancer, LIVER CANCER itself is me! Throwing his robe open irritably he exposed the spidery welts that had appeared on his chest, then thrust in front of him both his bright red palms as well, whereupon the other man remarked, with a cool civility that can hardly have been normal,
____Sorry, I hadn’t realized you were bonkers! and abruptly vanished without a sound, like a drop of water sinking into sand.
The only image he retained with eyes rendered uncertain by the tinted underwater goggles he always wore was the arabesque pattern the whirling Rotex had cut along the outer edges of the Dharma’s beard. Had the late night intruder already shaved his beard away, he was left without a clue to his identity or whereabouts. Objectively, such was the case, despite the fact that he was ever surer inside himself that he had perceived in the hairy Dharma’s features a resemblance to a certain party.
[[Must I put down even that kind of silliness? asks the “acting executor of the will,” who is taking down his verbal account. As “he” has ceased to perceive those who share only present time with him as people living with him in this world, “he” makes no attempt to ascertain, nor is “he” the least concerned, whether she is his wife, a nurse, or simply an official scribe sent by the government or the United Nations solely to record the “history of the age” “he” is relating. To be sure, should the last possibility be correct, it would be awkward if, reeking of the garlic “he” has consumed in large quantity in an attempt to convert whatever surplus strength “he” possesses now, at thirty-five, as his life is about to end, to sexual energy, “he” attempted to drag her into his bed. But for the moment the entire energy of his body-and-soul is being channeled into talking, continuing to talk. Not even the doctors’ regular visits to his bedside, or the medicine the nurses administer to him, though “he” cooperates, are of any positive concern. Why, then, late at night, on July 1, 1970, at 2 A.M., had “he” taken cognizance of the intruder? Because even now it is not clear whether that hairy Dharma had actually appeared or had loomed out of certain hours of the past in his conscious-subconscious which constituted the only real world “he” wanted for his reality. And now, if you please, stop wasting time and get back to transcribing, you know my hours are numbered, I might go into the final coma tomorrow. When that happens you know what to do, it’s all in the “will,” just call the telephone company-post office in the valley in the forest right away and start the “tape on the occasion of entering the coma.” And don’t forget to arrange for the plane ticket, if I’m going to beat my mother to the punch once and for all and give her what she deserves, I need that ticket more than anything else, “he” says. Now then, push that pencil, don’t eat away the little time remaining this pitiful essence of liver cancer!]]
If, as those in attendance around his bed maintained, the late night appearance of that intruder was a dream, it was his first dream to remain vividly in memory since he had moved to this “final abode” with, like any Bantu tribesman, his liver in ruins despite his tender age, and, he confidently imagined, would be his last.
There were those who reported he often sobbed in his sleep and suggested he was confronting his own critical condition for the first time in his dreams. To be sure, these were the very people who insisted, on the other hand, that he was deluding himself about liver cancer, that all he really had was cirrhosis, and that, while recovery would not be easy, there was still room for hope. On his part, he maintained he remembered nothing of any dreams that would have made him sob. He even claimed he spent his waking hours enveloped in happy thoughts, breathing happiness. Frequently, for the benefit of those who came and went around his bed (who, although they were certain to outlive him, lying in his bed awaiting the moment of his own death as if it had been finally scheduled, were treated by him as if they were already among the dead), not necessarily to flaunt his happiness but simply to enjoy the sounds that reached his ears along his jawbone from his own eccentric vocal chords, and to revel in the furtive, complex sympathetic resonation of his internal organs, pregnant now with cancer cells, he would sing, in English, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Admittedly, since the refrain was strung with high notes, if he mistakenly began too high, his voice climbed to a shrillness that not only threatened those around him but created an uneasiness in himself that seemed to center in his innards. He firmly believed that his liver, soon to complete its transformation into a rocklike mass, functioned in its ample fullness as a speaker embedded in his body, resonating with even the highest notes and filtering the dissonance due primarily to organic factors out of the music of his vital organs. “Let us sing a song of cheer again,” he sang, “Happy days are here again,” and the refrain went as follows:
And now, he thought, just as my Happy Days are about to revive at last and I pass the time in excited anticipation there is no one here who shared them with me, and the only person who actually witnessed them, my mother, remains secluded in the valley deep in the forest and continues to send the same high frequency signals principally of hatred to the antenna in my innards, which, now that I think about it, is probably the reason I got cancer, and since that’s the case I must be certain to record my Happy Days fully during this time I spend alone in a hospital bed, and, to place the record in perspective so that it can outlive my death, to record how, ever since the destruction of those former Happy Days, my imagination has been moving back in their direction as helplessly as a model airplane in a tailspin–and this he resolved to do.
However, since he was an invalid at the very brink of death, afflicted with, as he believed, liver cancer, or, at the very least, assuming only what was objectively recognized, an advanced cirrhosis, it was unthinkable that he should put pen to paper himself. At first, when he asserted this and asked for a stenographer, the voices around his bed replied that he was merely deluding himself, that if only he regained the “normal consciousness’ that he was in the neurology and not the cancer ward and not so gravely ill that he could not hold a pencil, he would undoubtedly be able to write for hours on end, and even with an instrument as heavy as that giant Pelikan fountain pen which was an ostentatious souvenir from some trip abroad. The fountain pen in question, as well as the discolored brass underwater goggles he wore almost constantly as he lay in bed (the oval glass lenses set into two short cylinders had been covered long ago, before the days of synthetic tape, with dark green cellophane, and were still used that way; clipping his nostrils late that night with the goggles on, he must have looked to the intruder like an alien from outer space, one short, conic, metal cylinder neatly extending from each of his eyes and one nostril), were both mementoes of someone long dead about whom he and his mother disagreed violently yet both referred to as a certain party. Not only had a certain party’s former belongings, now in his possession, been unspeakably insulted by the manner in which they had been described, it had also been insinuated that if he were really about to enter a coma and die, the personal record of his Happy Days would be a waste: his anger mounted.
Angrily, he emphasized once again that what he intended to relate was a “history of the age” that would transcend the arbitrary reminiscences of a mere individual. If a certain party, who figured in the history, had not been killed in a street battle in a provincial city just before the war ended, he would certainly have been required to testify before the extraordinary session of the Military Tribunal for the Far East that had been obliged to make its way to the valley deep in the forest; the story he was about to tell should, therefore, be of great concern not only to the United Nations but, in particular, to the current administration of his own country, a nation controlled by men who were clearly war criminals who had survived.
And now he had an acting executor of the will who took down his account at his bedside, and he had as well the manuscript of a “history of the age” out of chronological order. To be sure, since he wore his cylinder-type underwater goggles like opera glasses with green cellophane covering the lenses regularly, reading over and checking the manuscript, though perhaps not impossible, would have been a fearfully difficult chore.
[[Why do you talk as if you believed you had terminal cancer and were about to go into a coma when all your symptoms contradict that? When I’m putting it all down on paper I have the feeling the characters I’ve written stand up on the page as fact and push at my fingers as I write, says the “acting executor of the will.” The doctor may have ordered you to keep lying to me about my cancer for the time being, but every time that lie jumps out of your mouth it solidifies and floats there alongside your head, and before long you’re going to find youself rooted to the spot in the middle of a mosquito-swarm of lies, “he” counters.]]
When he began to feel cancer growing in his body cavity with the vigor of fermenting malt, he also became aware that he was being gradually freed, by nature’s own power, from all that fettered him. It was not any accumulation of refusals willed by himself that was accomplishing this; he had only to lay his body down and, even while he slept, the cancer inside him that was an access to freedom continued ponderously to enlarge. What he saw, not only of reality but even in his imagination, was often blurred by fever, but within that vague dimness his cancer appeared to him as a flourishing bed of yellow hyacinths or possibly chrysanthemums bathed in a faint, purple light. At such moments, until fatigue penetrated to the core of his head, he would breathe in and out with particular concentration, summoning to his nostrils the power of all his senses, and attempt to smell those cancer hyacinths or possibly chrysanthemums. The existence inside himself of something growing on its own vitality which, by means of its own internal power alone, was about to conduct him to and beyond new realms he could not fully conceive, and which, moreover, he was able to locate in his body as actual sensations in blood and flesh, seemed an experience more momentous than any since sexual awakening. This analogy led to dreams of stirring up sexual embers nearly buried under ash and scarcely warm. Now that death was staring him in the face, he longed to dip up, to reconfront, and to liberate everything taboo that he had repressed during his thirty-five years of life, at which time it seemed likely a whole unexpected world of sex might gush from his rich, yellow bed of blossoming cancer and the purple light surrounding it.
However, becoming bold even to shamelessness required careful stages of preparation. Since he was no born genius at obscenity, transforming his entire body into, as it were, a vagina in heat, and then enjoying, heedless of the outrage in the eyes watching him, as if he were a sea anemone set free beneath the water, its tumid wetness and the incessant squirming of its tentacles, was a feat he could not be expected to perform. With the time remaining him limited and new sexual developments merely anticipated, he lay upon his bed like an abstinent mole.
[[Observing that the “acting executor of the will” was unsettled by these remarks, What, are you afraid I’m going to start begging you to masturbate me any minute? Are you afraid if my entire body has become a vagina in heat I may request some grotesque form of masturbation such as jamming a pole into the sea anemone of my body and stirring it around? “he” teased pathetically, half in ridicule but half solicitously.]]
The instant he felt the slightest premonition of pain or itchiness, in his vital organs or on his skin, he screamed at those around his bed to ask the doctor for a ‘morphine” injection. And he doubted not that the injections he received were always ‘morphine.” In fact, it was only after it had become possible for him to intercept the arrival of pain with ‘morphine” while pain was still a premonition that he had turned into a man who sang repeatedly a song of Happy Days, a happy man. After his injection he would sleep as though in a coma, and it was a sleep he had not tasted since he was a baby, cradled in sweet sensations. Awakening from such a sleep, he gazed at a photograph he had cut from a book by Georges Batailles, of a Chinaman being drawn and quartered while in a narcotic ecstasy. Looking into a mirror, he studied his face to see if it had come to resemble the Chinaman’s, which was like a braided rope of agony and pleasure and which, besides, unlike the merely erotic expressions in ‘spring pictures,” was suffused with something purely tragic. His own face, wan, with ink-black whiskers like the spines of a sea urchin sprouting around his lips, the skin particularly drawn because he had been lying on his back and, beneath the skin, scarcely any flesh or fat at all, seemed to have returned to the true face he had somewhere along the line lost the right to possess. Scrutinizing, in a field of vision narrowly limited by the dark green cellophane covering his underwater goggles, a face that had regained even its drawn, comic ugliness when as a child he had submerged after fish in the depths of the river at the bottom of the valley, he was content.
Inasmuch as he wanted to experience in its entirety the hopeless situation into which he had finally fallen at the age of thirty-five, there were times when he placed himself quite consciously in a nightmare governed by the fear of death. Early one morning, having made certain there was no one around his bed, he told himself that he was in the grips of the wretched, deluded hope that if he could stave off for just five minutes the slavering jaws of the liver-cancer goblin charging him like a fright-crazed cur, he would also be free of the cancer actually in his body. He began thrashing around, trying to evade the jaws of the goblin dog Cancer that had leaped onto his bed, and when presently he felt the need to urinate and stepped out of bed, he was entirely disoriented. Through the sea-floor dimness he beheld through his underwater goggles he made his way toward the door, which was always left open, but instead of the open space he expected he discovered, right in front of his eyes, nearly touching the cylinders of his goggles, an unexpectedly solid white wall in gleaming green shadow. The sensation that followed, of total physical enclosure, was death as real and concrete as it could be, its first appearance in his real life. Like a crude mechanical man unable to change direction, he stood in front of the wall in clumsy stupefaction, hands frozen in front of his eyes, unable to touch, as if it were a force field repelling him, the wall. In the reflected brightness, each of his slender, greenish fingertips appeared spatulate and suction-cupped, like frog fingers. Terrified by the game he had begun himself, in a reeling panic, he somehow managed to fall backward onto the bed, but he soaked the sheets with leaked urine.
However, even at times like these, he was able to enjoy imagining dreamily the clamor and bustle when the announcement of death would send all the systems of his body, alive now and metabolizing tirelessly, racing one another to be the first to decompose. At the end of the tape which the acting executor of the will would play when he had entered a coma he wanted to record the following words to his mother, who would be coming alone from the house in the valley: Please make sure you stay to observe my body decomposing; if possible I would like you to observe even my putrefied and swollen insides burst my stomach and bubble out as gas and muddy liquid. But it was not easy to deliver such lines without disagreeable masochistic overtones; besides, if the state of his stomach should oblige him to belch just as he began to record and his voice should falter or tremble, he could imagine carrying his chagrin with him right into the world of the dead, so he merely assembled these sentences in his silent head.
When he thought about cremation, particularly cremation hurriedly carried out before the body’s cells had fully decomposed, anger stiffened his own still living body. Incorporated in this reaction, he could sense, was rage being demonstrated independently of his own consciousness by the agitated cell systems themselves. He was also filled with disgust and outrage at the thought of his dead body being treated against decomposition and then dissected. Let that which is meant to decompose do so in peace, in its entirety and smallest part; let man impair not the dignity of decomposition! Tenderly pressing with both hands the liver like a stone pillow sewn into his belly, he entrusted the acting executor of the will with the additional, patient task, so as to ensure that nothing interfered with the Copernican rotation in which the cancer lodged in his liver, at the peak of its enterprise, would terminate all life functions and begin at once to decompose, of protecting his injured liver from premature cremation and antiseptic destruction by doctors who retained the experimental spirit of their intern days.
As he thought about that part of himself that would remain in this world after death, he developed an appreciation for the custom of platform burial, in which birds or the wind were allowed to take their course. He also considered what he had seen along the Ganges at the Hindus’ sacred Benares, placid corpses decomposing from inside and bloated up like sunfish floating half-submerged down the swift, muddy river, and reflected once again, admiringly, that the wise Hindus were correct, that theirs was a solution befitting the meditative tribe among all the countless tribes of humanity that had meditated longest and most accurately in history, in the climate best suited to meditation.
[[When you traveled to India did you really see corpses floating in the river at Benares? asks the “acting executor of the will.” Well now, when I sensed the difficulty in my liver was incurable, I declared my freedom from all bonds connecting me to the real world that was holding me dangling from its fingertips, so there’s no telling whether I’ve actually experienced what I say, correspondence with reality in itself has never meant anything anyway, “he” says. The truth is, I’m heading straight back toward my Happy Days in the past, and if bringing some detail in that past sharply to the surface requires it, I’m prepared to alter the present reality however I please. For example, when I’m trying to penetrate deeply into memories of fights I had as a child, I make myself believe that the thirty-five-year-old lying here in bed with a sick liver, and not only his liver but nearly every vital organ smashed and broken, is a professional bantamweight boxer long retired. When I set my internal time machine all the way back to myself fighting the older kids in the valley twenty-five years ago, with the boxing tricks I learned from the cadets who came to my village to tap pine tree roots for oil, my longing to become a soldier and also a boxer revives in me along with the nearly epileptic activity of the brain cells in my feverish young head, and it seems impossible that I could ever have chosen any profession other than boxing right down to this day. If I push myself too hard, a squirt in a torn, dirty, brown undershirt too large for him and short pants easily twice his size that he folded over at the sides and tied with a rope, fighting, with spit and blood whistling between his teeth, against the big kids who came to steal a look at a certain party’s excrement, his face swollen into a full moon, might just leap from the core of my body and wallop me as I languish here in this sloppy bed, “he” says.]]
Inasmuch as the only limitation he would accept with regard to the present was that he was on his deathbed with a diseased liver, there was nothing to prevent him from postulating any life for himself he chose. And it would have been difficult to think up a set of circumstances better suited to catapulting a consciousness in quest of liberation in the direction of all freedom than lying in a deathbed with a liver like a rock he could scarcely encompass with both arms.
Which was not to say he felt at the same liberty to choose from any number of possibilities those Happy Days which were the focus of his past: he was determined that this must not happen. Were he to recall those Happy Days as if they were a variety of past sufficiently vague to permit any number of interpretations, he would lose half his reason for continuing to cling to life despite the pain from his liver that constantly troubled his subconscious. Conversely, since he was determined to recreate his Happy Days as exactly as possible, he did not hesitate, if the achievement of that exactness required it, to distort the present. Now nothing can have been clearer than this attitude, derived from principle, which he maintained all day and even at night while he was awake, but when he fell asleep he sobbed aloud. To the acting executor of the will it sounded as if he were repeating the word “band,” and this she reported to him. Still the nightmares which seemed to carry him back to a specific moment in the past continued, and, as he invariably sobbed the same words, their meaning was eventually ascertained more precisely. To be sure, since he was able to remember nothing of the content of the dream, it was the acting executor of the will who finally discovered what he was sobbing: Ah, ah, abandoned the man abandoned by the band, ah, ah, abandoned the man the band abandoned!
The words he sobbed in his sleep had been elucidated, but, perhaps because someone else had made the discovery, the sobbing itself was not overcome. There were still times when he sobbed violently, or so another of those in the vicinity of his bed
[[Let’s say “nurse” from here on, call it a necessary compromise to lighten the burden “he” places on the scribe. When I know you’re talking about the nurse the desire to put down “nurse” tugs at me even though you use some vague phrase instead. This interruption of his account by the “acting executor of the will” was when the trouble began. I should think you might control that selfish need of yours to put down what you believe no matter what I say, especially when I’m going out of my way to use the third person to make your job easier. “He” expressed his dissatisfaction mildly enough, yet the “acting executor of the will” said nothing in reply. This made it more than ever inevitable that “he” go to the considerable trouble in his green-cellophane-covered underwater goggles of reading over that portion of his account already on paper. How could “he” be sure that a single one of the points “he” had asserted with such exactness had not been dissolved in the flux of ambiguity? But what are you so eager to say yourself that makes you want to change the account of somebody else’s past? I don’t revise one syllable of what is said to me, I’m only asking that you do try to use common nouns, for example, that you say “nurse” when you mean nurse, to make my work easier; if you don’t make an effort I’m afraid common nouns will eventually disappear from your speech, and since you almost never reveal even a single proper noun either! said the “acting executor of the will.” Whereupon it was agreed that a specific, common noun would be used when referring to]]
the nurse reported. But even after the longest night of sobbing, however brokenly, he was unable to recall what must have been his painful, lonely dream. While he slept, his pulse and blood pressure certainly decreased and his vital organs, including his brain, discontinued a wide variety of their operations. Cancer, however, independently of his conscious-subconscious, continued its cell-by-cell proliferation day and night. If, then, there really was a positive vitality inside him capable of lifting his voice in a scream while he slept, was it not likely to be the vitality of robust, ever-fattening cancer itself? But why should cancer cells sob? One morning at dawn the nurse shook him awake because his sobs were being heard in the next room. Once he was awake he could hear that not only the patient next door but the two hundred dogs kept in the hospital courtyard for use in the laboratory had also been threatened by his sobbing and clearly were howling still; nonetheless, he thought to himself, I am only dreaming; besides, I’m already fully conscious of the significance of those howling dogs because I’ve written about them, this is no time for howling dogs. At that moment he was in effect beholding himself over the entirety of his thirty-five years of life, from professional bantamweight boxer to author or playwright in reality; at the same time he had shaken off the feeling of having been pulled abruptly backward out of his dream and the physical sensation that lingered after sobbing, and was beginning to tingle with the first indications of his daytime bliss.
Thereupon he began for the hundredth time the game that was his chief source of pleasure now, imagining, with all the fine precision of a timetable, his mother setting out from home on the occasion of his death. The plan was to go into operation just before he entered the final coma, when he had managed to ascertain from the doctors while still fully conscious that death was a certainty within the next few days, when, in other words, the final stage in the accomplishment of his death had been successfully completed.
On that chosen morning, when a cable from the doctor was almost certain to persuade his mother, who never believed a word he said himself, of the objective necessity of setting out finally from the depths of the forest, he would first have the acting executor of the will place a long-distance call to the airport in the provincial city and verify that all flights were on schedule. And he would have her inquire about weather conditions, not only at Haneda airport in Tokyo but also at Itami in Osaka. All in order. He had heard that the pass known in his region as “ninety-nine-curve-pass’ was paved now, which meant there was scarcely any likelihood of serious obstacles along the only route out of the valley in the forest to the provincial city on the plain. His mother would leave the valley in a three-wheel truck, emerge from the forest, speed across the plain at the bottom of the pass to the provincial city and be in time for her flight. She would change planes at Osaka on schedule and arrive in Tokyo on schedule, head upright, eyes closed, speaking to no one and, if some overfriendly passenger persisted in speaking to her, pulling from her tight sash the card that had arrived in the mail with her plane ticket. On the card was written: “This old woman does not speak to strangers. In case of emergency, please help her contact the following address.”
When it was time at last he would telephone the valley deep in the forest and determine whether the three-wheel truck had left with his mother in it. If she had set out already, the house of his birth, known locally as “the Manor in the valley,” would be deserted. In that case the wife of the postmaster (he was also head of the telephone office), who sat all day in front of a switchboard that was still manual, would take his call.
____I can see the three-wheeler coming back across the wood bridge, yessir!, she was certain to report, amused by the strange request phoned all the way from Tokyo, to look and see whether a three-wheel truck was heading for the concrete bridge that crossed to the highway out of the valley. The old lady from the Manor house is setting in it, wearing her urn of ashes of her war dead in a wooden box upon her bosom. She must have went around by the Monkey Shrine to pay her respects before she leaves the village, yessir, and she just now came back across the wood bridge and now they’re a-heading out towards the highway, and the old lady from the Manor house is setting straight up alongside the driver, with her eyes closed, and that box upon her bosom, yessir!
____Does it seem as if her eyes are closed because she isn’t feeling well? he would ask with just a touch of eagerness, exposing a weakness he could never quite control where his mother was concerned.
____Goodness, no! That old lady doesn’t think anybody but herself is human, so she always closes her eyes when it appears she might have to meet somebody in the valley. The subtle, long-felt resentment in the postmaster’s wife would dash icy water on the tepid sentimentality rising in him. But there was no danger his happiness would be uprooted. That lady’s got no one left but only her one son, and they say he’s dying of cancer, so she’s leaving for Tokyo with that urn of ashes of her war dead that did her honor twenty-five years ago. And do you know she hasn’t shed a tear, and her head is straight up and her eyes shut tight–she’s a hard old lady! Of course, she’s not one to believe other folks, so she maybe thinks those doctors are wrong and her son doesn’t have cancer. And that’s what most of us around here think too, yessir!
____It’s cancer, all right, liver cancer, and it’s only a matter of days now! She just learned the truth, that’s what made up her mind to leave the valley.
____Have you heard that straight from the doctor? That he’s really got himself cancer? Because that’s what we’ve been hearing all along. “
____That’s right, cancer. And I don’t have to hear anything from the doctor because I’m the son from the Manor house and I’m dying of cancer right now! he would say, then signal the nurse to replace the receiver that had probably become too heavy for him to handle by himself.
____I surely want to beg your pardon, yessir! the voice would whine like a mosquito speeding away, weakly fade, and disappear.
“Wearing” an urn of ashes “upon her bosom” meant that his mother had tied the ends of the white cotton cloth in which the urn was wrapped behind her neck. Toward the end of the war this had suddenly become a style frequently encountered in the valley. But the urn his mother would be taking with her was more than twenty-five years old. Shortly after the disastrous naval defeat at Midway this very urn and white wooden box and cotton cloth, still unusual at a time when the tide of the war had only just begun to turn against Japan, had come home to the village from the Chinese Mainland with a bit of dust representing the ‘repatriated bones’ of his elder brother, the first war casualty in the valley, and had opened decisively the rift between a certain party and his mother which was never to close so long as they lived. At the time, a certain party had already withdrawn from the multifarious operations of the “committee” directly in league with the military based in Manchuria and was living in seclusion in his native village in the valley. When his eldest son, while attached to the very Japanese division on the Chinese mainland that formerly had been the chief sphere of a certain party’s activity and influence, had left the front and been shot by the enemy, or possibly a comrade, his mother’s hatred for a certain party had become manifest. Never again was the word “father” spoken in the house in the valley deep in the forest. Such was the special significance of the urn containing his elder brother’s ashes which his mother would now take out for the first time in nearly thirty years and “wear upon her bosom” as she set out for Tokyo in a three-wheel truck, across the dizzying ninety-nine-curve-pass, feeling, in her anxiety at having emerged from the forest, as if a vacuum had formed just behind her and was pulling her back.
When he had enjoyed the supreme game to this point in his conscious mind he decided on a whim to reinforce his pleasure in his subconscious. What if he couldn’t remember anything about his dreams when he awoke, assuming it was a fact that he did have dreams, he ought to accumulate at least the physical experience of dreaming while his condition permitted it.
As he was falling asleep again on the single sleeping pill the nurse had given him he tried suggesting toward his subconscious that he would like particularly to dream about ninety-nine-curve-pass. Since childhood he had tried repeatedly to determine whether there were actually ninety-nine curves, but as he climbed the pass the curves and the numbers had always separated in his head. Now, the truth still undetermined, he was about to die. One day at the height of summer twenty-five years ago he had accompanied a certain party, unable to move on his own power because of a cancer hemorrhaging badly in his bladder on top of his abnormal corpulence, over the pass in an army truck with ten soldiers who had left the army and come all the way to the valley to entreat a certain party to join them, singing in German with the others. And ever since the doctors had begun the final stage of treatment, easing the pain in his innards and blurring his consciousness of grief, he had been returning to himself as a kid in that valley drenched in the light of the last summer of the war, and repeatedly had been seeing that little journey over the pass as vividly as if it were a daydream. And who said real dreams could not be dreamed in sleep? If his dreams of himself went beyond himself as a human and were unfathomable to him once he woke up, did that mean cancer itself was in firm control of his body-and-consciousness in his dreams? Even so, he still hoped to recall accurately, in a dream controlled by himself, the climb up that pass which was the only exit from the forest surrounding the valley to the outside world. If this ambition was not entirely unrealistic, it was because he had already become a cancer man!
Yet when he awoke again–can it be he hadn’t dreamed?–his body-and-consciousness retained no traces of a dream. 8 A.M.–he tried to determine whether he had been sobbing again, but the nurse would only say curtly, If you don’t remember yourself, don’t ask me!
[[“If you don’t remember yourself there’s probably no point in my saying anything,” wasn’t it? Could we make that correction? the “acting executor of the will” interrupts, infuriating him. Correction? For whom and for what reason? If that one correction is made the poison will spread from there and my whole “history of the age” will be ruined. If you’re so obsessed with corrections how about imitating those Filipino psychic surgeons and using the spiritual power of that sharp tongue of yours as if it were a knife to correct the cancer in my vital organs! Not that I really want to get rid of it, since it’s cancer I managed to acquire myself. You said the doctors had begun the final stage of treatment in order to ease your pain and blur your consciousness of grief, but when I wrote that down I didn’t accept any responsibility for the truth of it, because you don’t HAVE cancer! I don’t know what you and the doctors and nurses hope to accomplish by conspiring to lie to me when I’m the patient and I want cancer, “he” says.]]
When he asked the doctor on afternoon rounds,
____Why do all of you hide my cancer from me? The doctor flatly denied, as always, that he was hiding anything.
____But that nonsense aside, I see you have an astonishing number of scars and almost all of them look as if you made them yourself, am I right? He did not respond, but after the doctor left he had the acting executor of the will undress him and then carefully examined, using a hand mirror, the old scars that covered his back, buttocks, and thighs. Not that very many small scars could actually be discovered through underwater goggles covered with cellophane. It was rather the various scars in the flesh of his memory that he uncovered. Some dated from the brief period that began with his infancy and ended at the pinnacle of his Happy Days. But most were wounds he had received after the destruction of his Happy Days, particularly during the first year he had commuted on his bicycle to the postwar high school in the neighboring village. It was commuting on that bicycle that he invaded for the first time in his young life, unprotected and alone, a territory outside the valley where he was born and raised. Moreover, the strangers awaiting him outside the valley retained no psychological scars or aftereffects relating to a certain party, did not lower their eyes and turn away when they encountered someone a certain party had left behind. They were, in other words, total strangers, and it was moreover the most baldly violent group among them who surrounded him on the high school campus.
The echoing effect of the postwar chaos on child society intensified in direct proportion to the children’s distance from a major city; and it was in this environment, where all varieties of violence were abundant, that his fearlessness about being wounded and even occasional need to do injury to his body with his own hands gained him for the first time a certain unique freedom. Its acquisition began with an incident just after he had entered high school, when he was summoned, alone, by the leader of the teen-age gang that dominated the school, to the auditorium-gymnasium where the gang waited. The reason for the summons was simply that he was unmistakably dirtier and poorer beyond comparison than any of his freshman classmates. Although his mother had given him registration fees and tuition, he had not managed to extract from her any additional money for a uniform or club activities. This struck him as unjust. So he sewed the high school badge on the uniform jacket he had been using in middle school and which had belonged to his brother who had been killed in China, and continued to wear it. Since middle school days, afraid the jacket might lead his mother into the clutches of fresh memories of his dead brother, he had kept it hidden, wrapped in newspaper, in a woodshed in back of the Manor house. When it turned cold enough to need a jacket, he would leave the house in his shirtsleeves, go around to the woodshed and hurry into the jacket before going to school. Consequently, he was not able to have the jacket washed or mended, and not only looked unclean but distinctly smelled. He was, furthermore, the only freshman without a uniform cap.
By disciplining this youth who was violating school regulations so blatantly at the beginning of the first term, the leader of the gang probably hoped to create the impression among the freshman that he and his friends were not merely ruffians disliked in and out of school but vigilantes upholding justice on campus. Although he forbade the freshmen to enter the auditorium during the disciplining, he required them to gather at all the windows outside. Betraying no sign they felt the slightest affiliation with their lone classmate about to be chastised, idiotic expressions on their faces one and all as they struggled to maintain a balance between cowed curiosity and dull fear, the freshmen gathered around the windows to observe the drama of one-sided violence about to begin inside.
And in the beginning it was one-sided. Seating himself on top of the parallel bars, the prosecutor began by pointing out that his feet inside his torn tennis shoes were bare, in violation of school regulations. Next he charged that beneath his jacket, which was not even a proper high school jacket, he was wearing the most strictly forbidden of all things, a black shirt (he had sewn it himself out of a large black flag, he had no idea what it stood for, which he had pulled from a box full of his brother’s personal effects). When the gang leader had admonished him for these and other specific offenses, all of which doubtless had been whispered into his ear by informers among the freshmen, he climbed slowly down from the parallel bars and punched him in the temples, leaving the ground with each blow though he was the taller of the two. Encouraged by the total nonresistance he encountered he then became even more highhanded:
____Your eyes don’t show you’re truly ashamed even after having been disciplined by an upperclassman, and, sighing theatrically,
____It’s really tough to have underclassmen like this; we’re the ones who get blamed in the end, right! and fell to punching him again. At this point, the defendant judged it would not do to have his temples beaten further. It was Saturday, and because that afternoon the new students had been assigned the chore of weeding the playing field he had a small sickle wrapped up with his books and notebooks. He stooped and took it out; then he looked the gang leader straight in the eyes and dug the blade with damp earth still clinging to it into the skin between the thumb and first finger of his left hand. Blood gushed, but he did not move an eyebrow. To the leader of the gang glaring at him in confusion the eyes staring back through a mucous film must have seemed incomprehensibly calm. But the effect was that of seeming motionlessness that occurs at the peak of high-speed revolutions: inside he was fighting for consciousness in a frenzy. Submerging then into the quiet revery at the extreme limits of duress he faced a certain party and screamed, in a voice so high it could only have registered on a canine ear, Please drink the blood; it is for you! and all of a sudden was waiting once again, with those soldiers who had left the army, on the road along the moat that led into the provincial city and the bank, armed with his own bayonet, sweat that was unmistakably from the heat of that midsummer day beading his grimy forehead.
Outwardly, he was confronting the leader of the juvenile gang, lowering the arm that gripped the sickle and extending his wounded, bleeding hand in an ambiguous movement that might have been an attempt to strike back or an overture to shaking hands; internally, he was composed of a lucid part at the clear surface of his consciousness and a murky part that had precipitated down close to the dark bottom yet remained distinct from his subconscious. In the swift wounding of his own flesh on a bewildering impulse from the hot, pitch-black core of himself he had felt a deep joy which was not only unperceived by the hoodlums surrounding him but which he himself was not even conscious of as joy. At the same time, however, his head cleared by the blood that had been let as if the sickle were a medieval surgeon’s knife, he made the fully conscious, practical calculation that it would not do to let things stand if he hoped to finish off this opponent from whom he had managed to wrest the advantage, that, in fact, if he allowed time to pass without altering his strategy he would find himself in a position more dangerous than before. To be sure, he had managed to shock the hoodlums by wounding himself, producing a queasiness perhaps in each of their stomachs, but none of them had grasped the lasting significance of that shock. Consequently, as soon as the momentary physical uneasiness had passed, given their stolidity and forgetfulness, they could be expected to recover themselves and resume hostilities. It was therefore essential that he contrive a means of indicating a way out so simple it would be understood by the leader of the gang even in his somewhat dazed condition. Once he had the solution in mind he was merely playacting, an irrecoverable distance now from that hot, black something that had surged in him a minute earlier.
He stared at the bloodstained sickle, then thrust it under his opponent’s nose and screamed, as wildly as he could sound,
____Shall I cut your hand too? I’ll fight with this sickle even though you don’t have one! And if I start to lose I’ll cut my own throat! With that he deliberately lifted the sickle and held it against his throat, whereupon his opponent, with a swift shrewdness more than worthy of someone esteemed as a leader, even by a gang of hoodlums, solved the riddle he had concealed in his screaming. Turning to his comrades he signaled an end to the formal disciplining.
____He says he’s going to fight with that sickle even though I’m empty-handed! And he threatens to cut his own throat if we knock him down. Let’s get out of here! There’s no use talking to a dirty, wild kid like this. He’s a crazy dog, no rules! If you hit him too hard you’ll catch germs!
With these words, the gang leader had presented him with a passport to his own violence, and now in order to validate it with his signature he ran around the room slashing with his sickle the stuffed mats covering the jumping platforms piled against the wall. The gym teacher, who was almost certainly a man of violence to the marrow of his bones, and who besides had been immediately informed of the identity of the criminal, made no accusations at the faculty meeting. One day when he was breaking another regulation by washing his hands at the drinking fountain, this teacher, a smallish man with a head like a shriveled pear and a beet-red face and a perfectly flat, fatless stomach of which he was very proud, bounded up like a long-distance runner and said, coquettishly, in a gentle voice but with exaggerated gestures that might have looked to an observer in the distance as if he were scolding the boy,
____I want you to think of me as a friend, OK? How about if I teach you some killer holds and throws so you won’t have to use a knife the next time you fight those punks?
Assuming animals can be called violent, he was spoken of with distaste in and out of school as animally violent; only the leader of the juvenile gang had glimpsed, just behind the roughness he had displayed on the surface, a baffling internal passion by turns turbulent and still. And it appeared that he was instinctively wary of the weird energy he could sense arcing between those poles: in his instructions to his henchmen he put it plainly: watch out for him, he don’t care what happens to him; he’s like a kamikaze pilot that didn’t get to die! And so a precariously balanced peace was maintained between himself and the juvenile gang. Had he been judged remarkable for his violence only, the time would have come when the enemy shrewdly sensed they had regained the advantage where violence was concerned, and at that instant his own violence, in direct proportion to its absolute value, would have become a weight around his neck that dragged him gasping to the ground. However, the gang leader had seen in him something his hoodlum friends could never better no matter how they fought to compete, something incomprehensible. And so the gang adopted a compromise policy of considering him a creature beneath themselves, loathsome as the spirit of the plague, and pretended not to see him when he passed.
The day he slashed his hand with a sickle it wasn’t long before the pain was hard to bear without crying out. When he wiped the blood away he could see bits of muddy dirt and whitish fat welling out of the wound, and no matter how often he wiped it the blood continued to flow. The bicycle he rode to school, a number 8 which people in the valley called simply “old eight” (he had no idea what the number measured), was the very same bicycle he had been riding since he was a child, on which he had had at least one accident that had very nearly cost him his life, and which even now that he had entered high school was too large for him. When he went to the back of the equipment room where he parked the bike he was so dizzy from loss of blood he couldn’t even stand, let alone straddle the high seat. Having gripped the handlebars once, he now stoically released them, so the bicycle would not fall, and then fell himself to the damp, clay floor patched, in just the way that blood vessel tumors would patch his chest when he got to be thirty-five and his liver sickened, with moss of a too brilliant, painful green to his dilated pupils. Struggling somehow to lift himself he grasped some thick weed stumps with his wounded hand, uttered a long, piteous moan, and went limp where he lay. As he watched, with one eye suspended three centimeters above the ground, the blood continue to flow from his hand and seep into the weeds, an extraordinary calm descended upon him and he felt ashamed of the innate violence that had surfaced shortly before with the violence he had consciously created. Shrinking not only with pain but also shame he spoke to a certain party again: Please drink the blood; it is for you! Surrounding him where he lay on the ground the other first-year students who also came to school on bikes looked on with unconcerned curiosity and disgust plain to see on their faces, as if they were observing a dog die of hunger. No one among them ran to the nurse’s office for his sake.
____There’s medicine in that weed, that’s why he’s pushing the hand he cut with the sickle in among the roots like that. Wild animals that have been wounded always do that way. One time there was even a deer that mended a broken bone by wading in a hot springs! The explanation came from the son of the doctor in his village, a freshman like himself who was certain to end up at the head of his class; when he struggled to his feet a minute later and the group fled in confusion the doctor’s son was in the lead.
Thus it was that he created a unique lifestyle in the new institution known as the postwar high school. In fact, he had discovered a lifestyle suited to the real world wherever other people were not hampered by psychological scars relating to a certain party, everywhere, in other words, but the valley deep in the forest. It was a decisive discovery: not once in all the intervening years until at thirty-five he had been caught by the demon of liver cancer had he found it necessary to shift to any other lifestyle. And this made him think there must be a certain significance in the resemblance between the tumors now appearing on his chest and the pattern of the moss on that damp ground upon which he had fallen and rested while blood ran from his small body. Could it be that he had fallen bleeding onto his own chest covered with tumors now as he was about to die of cancer?
[[I think the doctor had something else in mind, something more direct, the scribe interposes, deferentially to be sure, fatigued by his endless reminiscence. What do you mean, ‘direct”? I can’t say anything definite until I’ve checked with the doctor, she replies, sidestepping. The way you’re acting, “he” says with chagrin, challenging her, I have no confidence you’re accurately recording the hundredth part of what I say. I don’t abbreviate a single syllable, but the more passionately you speak the harder it is for me to know where your passion is coming from. If I said otherwise I really would be lying, so I want to make that clear to you.]]