A Quiet Life – Kenzaburo Oe

December 28, 2009 § 6 Comments


I don’t know how many billion people are walking this planet today, but those who have religion are, I think, a small minority. Multitudes of nobodies live and end their lives without faith, and without any solid assurance of what happens to our souls after we die.

A Quiet Life is narrated by Ma-chan, a twenty year old girl. When her father, a novelist, goes off to California because of a ‘pinch’ that he is facing, her mother goes along with him to make sure that nothing untoward happens. This suddenly leaves Ma-chan the temporary head of the family, responsible for both Eeyore, her mentally-handicapped older brother, and O-Chan, her go-it-alone younger brother.

The description on the cover jacket says this is a Japanese “I”-novel, a blend of the real with the imagined, memoir with fiction. And it seems that this is true for most of Oe’s work. Eeyore is very much like his own son, Hikaru, both mentally handicapped, but amazingly talented in music. In the book, the father, referred to as K (perhaps K for Kenzaburo?) is described as someone particularly protective of Eeyore, so much to the extent of somewhat neglecting Ma-chan. This creates a tension between father and daughter, but ironically, Ma-chan probably followed her father’s footsteps closest, as she is the only one who picked up literature.

Because the story is narrated by Ma-chan, I found it especially interesting how she viewed her father, and what she thought of his actions. She specifically mentions that her decision to take up literature was not influenced by her father, but even as she says that, her own story then negates her conviction. Could it be that she was trying to find a connection to her father through literature? I’ve heard that typically, daughters are especially close to their fathers (as it also is in my case). It’s not easy to shrug off a father’s influence, especially if the father is one who listens and cares for his daughter’s questions and thoughts.

Oe also dwells on some rather deep, thinking issues, otherwise known as matters of the soul. There is mention of not only the Antichrist and the Second Coming of Christ (of which I know almost nothing about..), but also about rebirth, whether there even is such a thing, and if there is, what would it be like?

I don’t feel that if I forget this existence, I’m going to turn into nothing. Rather, I find it comfortable to think that, after being reborn, I won’t remember anything of my previous life; and during this lifetime, I’ll never know what form of life I’m going to assume next time around…


A Quiet Life is not a plot-heavy story. In fact, perhaps there is little to suggest a story-line at all. What the book does deliver is a certain affection for the characters within it. Almost all the characters feel like they have been delicately crafted with a lot of love and patience down to the very last detail, and reading the book is like getting to know them up close.

Rating: 4

P.S. Mark David at Absorbed in Words wrote a great review on this book a few months back. It was his review that prompted my picking it up at the library.

Challenges: Japanese Literature Challenge 3, Lost in Translation 2009


§ 6 Responses to A Quiet Life – Kenzaburo Oe

  • Bellezza says:

    I’m intrigued by your review. I almost never find a Japanese novel which touches upon Christianity, and that Oe brings up Christ, as well as the Anti-Christ, is so unusual! The only other author I knew to do that, and of course my knowledge is limited!, is Endo. Anyway, I’ve read nonw of Oe, and I’d really like to, especially as faith is so very important to me. I’d like to see if what he says follows the Bible.

  • Susan says:

    Excellent, sensitive review.

    I first heard about this author on Mel’s insightful book blog, The Reading Life. Mel has read Japanese literature extensively over the few past months, including several works by Oe. I’ve resolved to read something by Oe in the new year.

  • su says:

    @ Bellezza: Christianity is not talked about in depth in this novel, though like what you’ve observed, it is rather rare to see it mentioned at all. I think this book probably gave me a chance to look deeper still into Japanese culture, much more than Murakami has.

    I have yet to read any of Shusaku Endo, though I’m planning to finish at least one of his work before the end of this challenge.

    @ Susan: Mel has definitely done a lot of Japanese literature. It’s hard to catch up on all the titles he’s read.

  • Mark David says:

    First of all, I can’t believe I missed your review of this book! I really had gone AWOL, hadn’t I? 🙂 But thank you so much for saying that what I wrote was a great review. Coming from a reader whose thoughts and ponderings I also admire, that’s really something 🙂 And I’m just so thrilled that what you felt about it was similar to mine! I, too, felt that the characters were very much alive and convincing. It’s like they pull you in and it’s not at all difficult to feel empathy for them.

    Quite an insightful review (as always) Michelle 🙂

  • Mark David says:

    @Bellezza: Yes, Oe did make a number of Biblical (or otherwise religious) references in the novel. But it didn’t seem to me like he really wanted to touch the subject of faith, nor express a specific point of view on spiritual matters. It was, I think, just intended to be another engaging element of the story. Nonetheless, his characters were rather thoughtful especially about “matters of the soul”.

  • su says:

    @ Mark David: Always good to have you by here. Regards your response to Bellezza’s comment, I agree. It seemed like he just wanted to push his readers to ponder a little, but he himself didn’t go in too deep about it.

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