Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

Kenzaburo Oe, Author, Maki Sugiyama, Translator, Paul St John Mackintosh, Translator Marion Boyars Publishers $22.95 (189p) ISBN 978-0-7145-2997-4

Oe, who won the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, was just 23 in 1958, when he published this wrenching first novel in Japan. From the opening paragraph's description of a river ``bearing away at tremendous speed the corpses of dogs, rats, and cats,'' it is clear that this is a story of innocents--or at least relative innocents--carried violently by forces beyond their control. In the waning days of WWII, a group of Japanese reform-school boys are evacuated to a remote village in a densely wooded valley. The villagers treat the teenagers horribly, making them bury a mountain of animal corpses, locking them into a shed for the night and feeding them raw potatoes. The unnamed narrator--one of the group's leaders--discovers that a plague is ravaging the valley. When a couple of people are infected by the disease, the villagers panic. Believing the boys to be infected, the villagers remove themselves to the other side of the valley and block the only road out of town. At first, the boys can think only of escape, but then, like the boys in Lord of the Flies, they start to make the village their own: they bury the dead humans and perform a sort of sacrament; they care for an abandoned, infirm girl; they hold a hunting festival to ensure continued abundance. The narrator becomes the girl's lover; his younger brother adopts a stray pup; an unexpected snowfall sparks a midwinter celebration. But each pleasant turn, every apparently liberating step away from unremitting brutality, serves to make the characters' inevitable future suffering even more painful. The end arrives with the suddenness and fury of a tornado, as disease and war catch up to the boys. Oe is considered by many to be Japan's greatest postwar novelist. It's easy to see why. Here, his writing is crisp and lovely and gruesomely perfect. First serial to Grand Street. (May)