cover image An Echo of Heaven

An Echo of Heaven

Kenzaburo Oe. Kodansha International (JPN), $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-4-7700-1986-8

A preponderance of symbolism weighs down Oe's first novel to appear stateside since he won the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. K., the author's double, has been asked to write the story of an acquaintance of his, Marie Kuraki, a woman of great charm and intellect whose life is torn apart after her two disabled sons throw themselves into the sea. Like many of Oe's previous protagonists, Marie goes on a quest for meaning, searching for an alternative to her grim reality. She joins a radical cult that eventually moves to California. When this group dissolves, she hesitantly takes up the offer to become a symbol of fortitude and saintliness in a small Mexican farming village. The two boys' fatal tumble into the water seems to represent the two atomic bombs that disrupted Japan from its past, sending it reeling into a postwar period of great uncertainty with misguided leaders not unlike those who rule over Maria's altogether fragile sects. Unfortunately, the prose (possibly due in part to the translation), which strives for restraint, is more stilted than subtle. The works of many great writers, from Balzac to Flannery O'Connor, are mentioned throughout, which, along with the weighty symbolism, gives the novel a somewhat didactic mood. Nevertheless, Oe's imagery, from Marie's Betty Boop appearance to the sight of the boys making their way to the edge of the cliff, is strange and engaging, the work of a writer unafraid to tackle the fundamental theme of spiritual hunger. (May)