A review by Allen Gaborro

An Echo of Heaven by Kenzaburo Oe

Kodansha International, 1996
$25 (hardcover)
ISBN: 4-7700-1986-6

As an articulate defender of the weak and the oppressed, nobel-prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe possesses a keen insight into their most intimate thoughts and emotions. His penchant for highly-personal explorations into the human soul is a theme that lies at the core of his stories. Combining the penetrating skill of a psychoanalyst with the heartfelt sympathy of an altruist, Oe delves beyond his characters' facades for a deeper comprehension of their tortured psyches.

A writer who has espoused liberal causes throughout his career, Oe's works sit on the cutting edge of postwar Japanese literature. He has been compared to the likes of Norman Mailer and Jean-Paul Sartre for his literary realism and nonconformity towards Japan's deep-rooted aesthetic traditions.

An Echo of Heaven is his latest work. Seen through the narrative of a character designated "K", it is an engrossing tale of spiritual angst and emotional anguish, and how one woman's tragedy forces her to confront both. Through a process of painful but restorative introspection, the novel's protagonist, Marie Kuraki, tries to make sense of the traumatic suicides of her two sons.

Marie's two adolescent sons are fated to captive lives: the elder Michio is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a traffic accident, while the younger Musan has been mentally and physically retarded since birth. Michio, once a lively, outgoing youth, refuses to accept the permanence of his paralysis. Consequently, he convinces his brother to join him in a pact of suicide by impressing on him "the horrors of living in this world, for himself, as a paralytic, and for Musan, as a mentally handicapped child."

Michio also persuades his brother that a better world awaits them, a world transcending the temporal one which only "scoffs" at those like themselves. He prevails on Musan the promise of a blissful nirvana, "where their handicaps would suddenly vanish" and where they could take pleasure from "talking together, enjoying each other's company" without being hampered by their infirmities or by the scrutinization of curious eyes. Sweet oblivion comes quickly as the two brothers leap to their deaths off a cliff to fulfill their utopian fantasies.

Her sons' deaths transform Marie Kuraki from an outspoken, fiercely independent, sexually promiscuous woman into a helplessly confused individual alienated from the world around her. To offset her agony and disillusionment, she seeks solace and wisdom in the works of American writer Flannery O'Connor. The writings of Dante and Balzac, and the poetry of Yeats also serve to nourish Marie's tired soul with fresh perspectives and parameters on a life without her children.

"K", the book's narrator, is a close acquaintance of Marie's. In a dream, he imagines her spitefully conspiring to atone for the deaths of her sons. She declares, "I'm going to start something of my own, an enterprise, something big enough to avenge this 'evil'...the point I'm trying to make is that no amount of represented by my poor babies being snatched away from me." Her quest for retribution is boundless, no amount can nullify her loss.

Fortunately though, her malevolence is nothing more than a bad dream. In reality, Marie sees things in a more positive light as she embarks on an endeavor of the soul that she hopes will expiate all feelings of bitterness, revenge, and despair from her heart. Despite her agnosticism, she joins a religious commune in Japan, which provides her with a sense of clarity in the midst of her turmoil. When the commune travels to America however, Marie is suffers a temporary setback at the unexpected death of the group's spiritual leader and its subsequent dissolution.

But the tempo of Marie's reformation regains its momentum when she meets up with Sergio Matsuno, the owner of an agricultural cooperative in Mexico who has heard of her tragic story. He enlists her as a "symbol" for his farm, certain that her experiences will help her to become a source of inspiration for his workers. She becomes a "banner to unite under...a woman who has carved the 'mystery' of her children's hideous deaths on her heart and dedicated her life to hard physical labor" to achieve "spiritual comfort in self-sacrifice." Having traveled all other roads to redemption, the farm represents Marie's final destination.

Works like An Echo of Heaven defamiliarize the common perceptions of those who do not tally with the intellectual and physical mores of civilized cultures. The author attempts to modify entrenched sensibilities that too often tend to disregard the humanity of the misfortunates of the world who are tolerated only within a confined, detached social context. In a world less inclined towards compassion and understanding, the works of writers like Kenzaburo Oe are blessings in a sea of moral apathy and benightedness.

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