cover image A Quiet Life

A Quiet Life

Kenzaburo Oe. Grove/Atlantic, $22 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1597-3

Like Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, K-Chan, the character at the heart of this novel, is an internationally renowned Japanese novelist. His story pits the quest for individual identity against the measure of selflessness necessary for healthy family life. Wisecracking and often emotionally insensitive, K-Chan suffers a spiritual breakdown that impels him to leave his young adult children in Japan while he and his wife take up residence at a college in California-and where, in peace, he might answer the daunting question: ""how is a faithless person to cope with life?"" Thus, it is up to his 20-year-old daughter, the narrator Ma-Chan, who describes herself as a ""withdrawn coward,"" to care for her older, mentally handicapped but musically brilliant brother, nicknamed Eeyore, and her younger, independent and intelligent brother, O-Chan. The narrative traces the quotidian challenges Ma-Chan faces, shuttling Eeyore to and from work at a vocational welfare center and attending to his epileptic seizures. Meanwhile, supporting characters, all friends or family of K-Chan, wonder aloud to Ma-Chan about her father's abandonment of his children, and discuss with her episodes from his past that might have led to his nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, Oe employs stilted dialogue (made worse, no doubt, by a lifeless translation) between characters on topics that include Tarkovsky's film Stalker and a novel by Aitmatov about the Crucifixion. These discussions are clumsy and lack the grace and whimsy apparent in other novels of ideas by writers like Milan Kundera (whom a character named Mr. Shigeto is said to translate). A dramatic climax in which Ma-Chan is nearly raped by Eeyore's swimming teacher lacks credibility. Eventually, the family-minus K-Chan-is reunited in a conclusion that, like the novel, makes more of a dry conceptual impact than an emotional one. (Oct.)