Saturday, June 11, 2011

The 2011 Kenzaburo Oe Prize - 俺俺

Anyone with a passing interest in Japanese literature probably knows who Kenzaburo Oe is, if only by virtue of being one of only two Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1994. That doesn't mean you've read him of course; for instance, I only got around to reading him about two years ago. If you haven't, A Personal Matter is quite good, as is The Changeling. The Silent Cry is another book that is cited among his best, though I haven't read that one yet.

Oe is an intensely personal, intensely intellectual, intensely political writer. He's a big issues kind of writer, even when the plot points seem to echo exactly events in his own life. So it's not surprising that the Academy was drawn to Oe as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, since, coincidentally or not, many of the winners are deeply political writers or individuals. So it's also not surprising that in Japan, he has a literary award in his honor. I mean, how much more internationally renowned can you get as a non-English writing author than winning the Nobel Prize?

I found out about the Kenzaburo Oe Award when I was exploring Gunzo a few months ago, since they made the announcement for the 2011 winner in their May issue. (Gunzo reporting it because both Gunzo and the award are run/sponsored by Kodansha.) It was established in honor of both the 100th anniversary of Kodansha being a company and the 50th "writing anniversary" of Kenzaburo Oe (which by the way, how much more perfect could that timing have been??).

Oe alone chooses the winner—the best novel of the past year.

The Kenzaburo Oe Prize winner is supposed to represent the best of the young generation's "literary intellectuals." It has no cash prize, but the work is to be translated into foreign languages for international publication. In the five years this prize has been acted, I don't think a single work has hit American or British bookshelves. Which I suppose isn't too surprising. I don't know the details about who gets to translates it or when or how, but even if it does get translated, I'm sure very few American publishers want to publish heady, "intellectual" novels from Japan.  Just manga, sci-fi/fantasy/light novels, Murakami, and crime fiction please!

Partially inspired by Hopeful in Nagoya's recent diving into of Japanese book reviewing, I decided to try and learn more about this latest winner of the Kenzaburo Oe Prize.

The work is called 俺俺 by 星野智幸, or, Ore Ore by Tomoyuki Hoshino. This title would be hard to translate - it's a repetition of the word "I" or "me," used by dominant, confident, or familiar males, but the title refers to おれおれ詐欺, which is the term for a kind of phone scam. Basically, the perp calls an elderly person and pretends that they are their son or grandson, in order to get them to transfer them money from their bank accounts—basically, they say "Hey, it's me!" and trick their victims into thinking they're family.

Which is the basic premise of this story—a guy, only referred to as 俺, or I, goes to a McDonald's, steals his neighbor's cell phone, and commits a phone scam on this strangers' parents.  But it gets stranger. According to the summary on Amazon Japan:

When I took the cell phone of the guy sitting next to me at McDonalds, I ended up committing a phone scam. But then I noticed that I was becoming a different I. The I for my bosses and parents, the I who isn't I, the I who is not I, the we that is I-I [literally: the 俺たち俺俺] So many I's that I don't know what is what anymore. Power off, off. Destroy. Before long, my fellow I's, going this way and that, increasing without end, until… A work that makes the reader ask: What is it, to trust another man, in this age of loneliness and despair?

Weird huh? But vague. So I took a look at the book review from the Asahi newspaper. It begins by repeating the basics of the Amazon summary: "I" goes to a McDonald's, on a whim steals a stranger's cell phone, and tricks the stranger's mother into thinking he was her son, and commits bank transfer fraud. Before he knows it, he starts to became that guy. And gradually, he begins to multiply into other "I"s.

The narrator "I" works at a large electronics store called "Megaton." (Kind of like a Best Buy I assume, perhaps in Akihabara).  He seems to feel alienated by his job—even if he took over someone else's duties within the store, his day-to-day affairs wouldn't change. He believes his very existence is "weak", and easily replaceable by someone else. His boss is a mean person "incapable of being understood". The pressure to conform, to not stick out for fear of being made fun of, is overwhelming, and he and his fellow coworkers can barely get by working there. His sense of fitting in at work gets worse and worse, until he organizes a community (perhaps a literal place, like a commune) of "I"s, calling themselves (or the place) "I-Mountain" (俺山):

"At "I Mountain", everyone is I… "I Mountain" is a society without conflict with others. All the hearts of the "I"s are connected" - a transparent community where everyone can be understood. In a place like that, I, as a meaningful existence, is coming to an end. I am becoming no more than a part of a larger self, and the I's always living for each other. That experience is what sustains me."

Suffice it to say that as "I Mountain" starts to get larger, some major problems ensue.

The reviewer starts his/her review simply by calling it a "masterpiece" (傑作). The reviewer says the end took them completely be surprise, and even brought them to tears. The reviewer calls it a "monumental work" of contemporary literature, addressing the problems of identity in modern society.

Although the review seems almost a bit hyperbolic, 「俺俺」 sounds complicated, but awesome. In a strange way, it sort of reminds me of Fight Club, probably due to the weird nameless commune aspects, but it sounds like a fascinating work, one whose message would resonate beyond just Japan but throughout the world. When I have some extra cash I might try to pick it up sometime (it can be ordered from the Kinokuniya website if you live in the US). It's also probably worth checking out the other winners of the Kenzaburo Oe Prize, which you can find a list of, in English, on the Prize's Wikipedia page.


  1. Were you the one telling me about this book? I definitely feel like I've heard it before. Hard to believe none of the prize-winners has been translated yet, but I guess it's still a young prize. It may just be that the art on the cover is familiar though. I really like Tetsuya Ishida.

    I'd been meaning to read something of Oe's, especially given the things which inspired him to write, so thanks for pointing out a place to start!

  2. TE: hmm I don't remember. I remember talking about オレオレ詐欺 but that was in reference to a tv show and I don't think I knew about this book then. I didn't know the cover art was anyone in particular, but it is really cool. I'll have to check him out.

  3. This sounds like an intriguing novel, I'd second the Tetsuya Ishida cover too, I picked up his book a while back, but I think a new complete works edition has appeared recently, thanks for highlighting this novel.

  4. I am reading his book now. It has shades of Abe Kobo about it. It is definitely worthy of a translation (I'd love to have a crack at it!), but the title would have to be something along the lines of what you mentioned.

    This is a really neat site, by the way - your dedication and drive and interest in Japanese literature come shining through.

    I'll be popping back here again and again.