title: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
author: Kenzaburo Oe
genre: literary fiction
source: New York Public Library
“Nonetheless, for aliens like captured wild beasts to be safe before others watching them, it is best to lead the will-less, eyeless existence of a stone, flower or tree: a purely observed existence. My brother, since, he persisted in being the eye that watched the villagers, was struck on his cheeks by thick yellowish gobs of spittle rolled on women’s tongues, and stones thrown by the children. But, smiling, he would wipe his cheeks with his large bird-embroidered pocket facecloth and go on staring in wonderment at the villagers who had insulted him.” (p. 23)
Clocking in at 189 pages, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids may at first glance seem like a quick read, but due to Oe’s mastery of economy of language, this book is far fuller than one might expect.
Premise: Set during WWII, a group of teenage boys from a reformatory are marched through the woods (presumably on the remote island of Shikoku, Japan, since that’s where the author spent most of his life…but no specific geographic location is ever named) and evacuated to a rural village. Upon their arrival, they’re made to bury piles of corpses of rotting animals, infected with the plague. The villagers soon flee and abandon the boys in the plague-infested village, where they are left to their own devices to determine a means of survival.
There’s a lot going on in such a petite volume: there’s the relationship between the narrator and his younger brother, between the narrator and the rest of the group of boys, between the narrator and his love interest; the juxtaposition of order and chaos; the dividing line between childhood and adulthood; the notion of the “other”; themes of abandonment and responsibility to self v. responsibility to the community v. responsibility to family…and Oe was only 23 when this book was published.
Warning: There’s also a lot of penis-related discussion. I get that it’s a story about adolescent boys, but I swear once a chapter the narrator is either mentioning his erection, talking about someone else’s erection, peeing in the snow, etc. It’s a lot. I understand its purpose (perpetuating this undercurrent of rushed sexuality that invades the narrative from time to time) and it’s a bit unsettling considering the age of the characters. But I can appreciate why Oe made the choice to include such details in terms of character development/establishment…and I like it when something I read makes me FEEL something, even if the feeling isn’t necessarily pleasant.
Penis talk aside, I really valued the experience of reading this book. It was unlike anything I had read before. Dark and unsettling, thought-provoking, at times spare, and at times rich…I could picture the action and characters so vividly as I read. Oe does an amazing job of establishing tone in his work. The entire piece just worked. I will definitely search out more of Oe’s translated works in the future.
Rubric rating: 7.5. I can absolutely appreciate why Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.