Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids: A Review
Kenzaburo Oe--Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids. I bought this book because of the title, because I thought Oe was someone I should read (I mean he did win the Nobel Prize; come on; that is a hard prize to win), and because the flap copy made it seem kind of like Lord of the Flies. The basic premise seems pretty Lord of the Flies, doesn't it? I mean listen: group of reformatory school boys evacuated into the countryside during wartime. Entrusted into the care of a small village while the reformatory warden and other reformatory staff busy themselves with other things. Then suddenly, blammo! The villagers exit the picture, leaving the reformatory boys to build a new society--to learn to rely on each other.

Sounds kind of like Lord of the Flies, right? And it is kind of like Lord of the Flies. It is like Lord of the Flies with plague infestations, dog murder, constantly erect penises (at least one per three pages, I think), a loving rape scene, and one bloodshot eye fixed dead center on the Void.

Oe's book is scarier than Lord of the Flies because it doesn't provide any outs. In Lord of the Flies, there's one job the kids have to do: keep the faith. Keep the signal fires burning, keep good old British civilization together against the likes of Jack and his bits of rough. If you do that long enough, eventually the grownups will show up and treat you all to an oxtail soup and a Lucozade, and oh how Piggy will smile with his crooked little Piggy teeth.

In Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids, the grownups are the ones who run away from their plague-infested village (after they make the kids bury the heap of dead plague animals, as it is only polite to ask one's guests to do.) The grownups run away and then build a barricade to keep the kids out of their new, healthier village. Then they keep a sentry on duty to blow the brains out of any kid who tries to escape. (See, it's not just a good title, but it DELIVERS what it promises. Buds are nipped; kids are shot.)

It's a mean-spirited book, yes. It is not very nice when it deals with the people of rural Japan. But the upsetting part is that you never feel like Oe is being unfair, never feel like he's weighting up the sympathy dice before he rolls you. The rural people are xenophobic: sure they are. They do not want to die in a plague. We can all kind of understand that want. And the reformatory kids are crude, sexually violent. Sure they are. They have grown up in a reformatory, some for real bad crimes like homosexuality, or for escaping the reformatory. The kids have been left in the woods to die of plague. They're kids.

And what are the villagers supposed to do with these kids? These villagers who live in the woods, who have no access to urban medicines or evacuation plans, for whom plague means the extinction of family lines, the end of all life that matters to them: what are these villagers even supposed to do? Save the kids and die? Shoot the kids and live?

Oe's described elsewhere on the jacket flap as "the conscience of the Left," which is a phrase that makes me want to leave the party early. But there's being the conscience of the Left and then there's being the conscience of the Left. In the former case, you are mad about the crimes of the Right, you are mad about the inadequacies of the Left; maybe you will work for a political candidate and try to steer some agreeable course.

In Kenzaburo Oe's case, you are mad about the Left existing at all. You are mad about human society existing at all. And you make a convincing argument that hey: maybe it shouldn't.

A special quote for you:

At the end of the dark stone ledge there was a solid timber frame which caught the dim light. And there was a trolley for transporting logs standing on a track which stretched across the valley. Following the headman's instructions, we boarded it.

"Don't move, don't move at all," the headman warned us repeatedly after shouting a signal to the winch operator, who seemed to be on the other side of the valley. "If anyone moves you'll all tip over and die. Don't move, don't move at all."

His heavy, vexed voice fell over us like the buzzing of insects, accumulated on our dirt-encrusted bodies and mingled with the faint sound of water which rose from the deep, dark valley bottom. We waited for the departure in the trolley's narrow, lime-caked skip, sitting motionless, piled dog-tired on top of each other like strays caught by the dog-catcher. Don't move, don't move at all. If anyone moves you'll all tip over and die. Don't move, don't move at all.
(Kenzaburo Oe, trans. by Mackintosh/Sugiyama)

Posted by future on Fri, 07 Mar 2008 01:21:23 -0500 -- permanent link

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