Now aged 81, it seems many readers are unaware of the brilliant Kenzaburō Ōe, despite the writer winning the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1994.
Previously, we’ve covered the quite stunning novella A Personal Matter, but now we’re taking a look at this collection of four short stories, including the eponymous Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness.
The stories were written in the 1960s by a young Ōe, with a collected publication in 1977. The four stories are: The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, Prize Stock, the eponymous story, and Aghwee The Sky Monster.
As with A Personal Matter, these are brutal stories with eerie, dark, existential themes. Ōe’s son was born disabled in 1963 and this theme fueled much of his work, so tread into his macabre world only if you feel ready for a challenge.
Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness
The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away kicks things off and is as dark as they come. It’s about the narrator who is in hospital, probably going mad, dying of liver failure, and quite eager to enter the world of the deceased.
Next up, Prize Stock jumps to World War II and the burgeoning relationship between a Japanese boy and a POW.
As with A Personal matter, the eponymous short story is heavily semi-autobiographical. It’s about a Japanese father dealing with a brain damaged child – in that era of Japanese history, this is a situation which would have been deeply humiliating.
Finally, Aghwee The Sky Monster is about a young man’s very first job, which involves chaperoning a delusional child around who believes a giant baby is haunting him.
To understand these short stories, one must first understand Ōe’s upbringing. Born in 1935, he grew up in a quiet village in the forests of Shikoku.
Aged 10 when Japan was defeated in the war, Ōe became the first member of his family to leave this village, learn about politics, and study French literature at a Tokyo university.
There he read about Sartre and Camus, so it’s no surprise his subsequent writing from 1957 onwards had a big old dollop of existentialism in there.
Add into the mix the situation with his son, and Ōe was left to create some of the most disturbing, shocking, and progressive writing his country had ever seen, which divided critics and readers (particularly in his native country).
Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness is just one such example of his often disturbing, but brilliant, work.
Ōe’s Nobel Prize Success
Despite controversies and tumult from Japan’s traditionalists, who disliked his shift away from the country’s ancient past, Ōe won the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1994. This is what the Nobel Committee had to say about him:
His poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament.” If any word sums up Ōe’s writing perfectly, it’s “disconcerting”.
If any word sums up Ōe’s writing perfectly, it’s “disconcerting”.
A Personal Metter is arguably his most famous work and a stunning piece of writing it is too, but in the short stories covered today you’ll find a passionate, inventive, and gifted writer who was first touched by the events of World War II as a young boy and then devastated as a young man.
This raw pain and emotion can be seen evidently in his prose, but at no point is the intelligence and true aim of the writer dimmed, which is us paying real tribute to Ōe and his abilities.