Reading in Thai, Thinking in Japanese
This combination of two stories by Kenzaburo Oe entitled Seventeen & J: Two Novels has disturbed me. I wish this disturbance upon you as well.
Why? Well because it turns out that this is a fantastic set of stories from a time when Oe was at the start of his publishing career in the late 1950s and early 1960s. What is so mesmerizing is how apt they feel to the times today in late 2016, as well as how well they travel beyond the sea-wet shores of insular Japan.
Read this book. Read it now before the American elections.
Recommended to me by a Japanese-speaking friend, this early work by the Nobel Laureate has been translated only once into English by Luk Van Haute. Because I cannot speak, read, or write Japanese myself, I always try to search out a translation into the only Asian language I am any good at in order to get somewhat “closer” to the language and culture in which the book was originally composed. For me, that’s in Thai.
And, indeed, it may sound silly for an American to be reading Japanese in Thai, but I still remember the first time I read a nonfiction piece by Haruki Murakami not in English, but in Thai. The effect was amazing, and in many ways the author’s voice shone through in a way that it never had in any English translations I had consumed before. What had been a trip to the Thai book store and an encounter with a Thai-translation of Murakami—where I thought to myself, why bothering to wait for the English translation when you can already do Thai well enough?—later became a general rule of mine when reading something originally done in Japanese: to always find the Thai translation first.
For one example out of many: Thai has a way of reproducing the rich variety of pronouns of hierarchy, of class, of family, of gender and so on found in Japanese that burrows toward some delightful, extra depth of meaning. Every wail and whine of a protagonist weighs heavier than it would be if the prose were translated into English.
Alas, though a few of Oe’s texts have been put into Thai, the vast majority of his works have not been, including these two shorter tales. Thus, English translation it was! Below is an interview with the author at Berkeley in 1999.
An Ode to Onanism
Has there ever been a work of fiction dedicated to a protagonist’s journey, which was purely mediated through an exploration of teenage masturbation? I’m almost embarrassed to say that I cannot think of one. Almost. Nevertheless, until I do find such a text, I will allow for the novella-like tale of Seventeen to stand in for that book.
The whole bit about playing with one’s self as a subject of a story is something of a stretch—particularly in its youthful form. But Oe’s genius here is how the act of onanism is combined with sentiments of pubescent, far-Right politics. This is also why I think others, particularly Americans at this moment, should have a go at this story.
The protagonist is an honest enough, though confused, little Japanese boy, who putters about his high school and homestead, arguing with his older sister and parents about the mundane and occasionally pestering them about the political situation of a postwar Japan. Peppered about this narrative are sticky episodes of the most imaginative and picturesque scenes of a seventeen-year-old hurting himself through private exultation.
In one scene, he’ll be alone jerking it. In another scene, he’ll be in a political diatribe against someone in his social circle.
In one more scene, he’ll be at it again, in some spiteful, self-hating-yet-self-loving beating of his manhood. And again in another scene, he’ll be joining an authoritarian, war-hungry Japanese political party—to which will be followed by yet another round of self play.
The interchange and abrupt bouncing back and forth between Japanese Imperialist thought and angst-ridden wanking is transfixing. The combination of youthful fascism with male masturbation hits the reader at some political psychological level that one may have never even known existed.
This is political psychology of the far Right, presented in a form that no one thought could be so stirring for a reader’s intuition.
Universal, Yet Shaded Differently
In this age in the West, masturbation is, perhaps, something of a ho-hum topic for many. Many guys do it. Many girls do it. We all do it, especially if you are young. Though I would assume the frequency is higher for the male of our species. We just don’t go around talking about it like we do the weather.
Though despite the act’s universality in terms of something found in most political societies across time and space, some differences probably persist in how one sex (gender?) or the other may go about their masturbation. This is neither a recognition of the difference in physicality of it (ha!) nor an understanding of the functional differences in how it helps to keep alive the sexual when we are alone. No, rather, this is a difference in the psychology behind the act.
When one is not in the company of others, with no one watching, it is difficult to accept that the thoughts and internal whispering of the mind of men and women are the same when they engage upon this play. The way guys go about it and the way girls go about it—up there, hidden in the psyche and the soul—cannot be the same.
Oe’s protagonist is male and because of it the story takes unanticipated turns that would be nearly impossible to guess at if the character had been female. Some of these turns were so wild that the second part of Seventeen, where the main character is purported to assassinate a Left-leaning parliamentarian, has actually never been translated into English! Trust me, mix political psychological into the act, and this quickly becomes guy’s-stuff-only territory.
(Seriously, someone translate Part II of the story into English or Thai for me so I can read it. I’m looking at you Jay Rubin of Harvard and/or you เดือนเต็ม กฤษดาธานนท์ of Chulanlongkorn; let’s get cracking on this to help the non-Japanese-speaking peasantry like me confront our demons.)
Right or Left?
If you are of the Left yourself (what is mis-termed “liberal” for you Americans), then you may be smirking to yourself right now. For surely, if one were to mix masturbation with any political sentiment it would have to be the intuitions that traverse the mind of the far-Right or the fascistic. Correct? Conservatives with an authoritarian bent like to wank it when no one’s looking. Right?
Not so fast. And I suspect that Oe may agree with me on this one.
The protagonist male could just as easily been composed as some milksop, easily-offended, weakling of a Leftist and enjoyed masturbating twelve times a day. That is, the solipsistic act of male onanism could have as easily been paired with the political psychology of Right-wing jingoism as it could have with the political psychology of Left-wing statism.
Does not the awkward, mamma’s-boy communist also enjoy a wank from time to time? Who really goes at it more often?
Now that is a topic worth pursuing a Ph.D in.
Again, if there ever were a time and a place for those of you of the West to consider reading Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen & J: Two Novels, the fall of 2016 is the time to do so.
I highly recommend this delightful tale of Japanese political psychology and adolescent self–(destruction)-gratification.
*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Any image-photo credit for the top of this post via the talented Kotaku. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.
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