Hiroshima and other madnesses: Kenzaburo Oe, the new Nobel laureate, is not known in Britain. Richard Lloyd Parry wonders why

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THE award of the Nobel Prize for literature to the Japanese novelist Kenza- buro Oe was a surprise, but not an enormous one. It was about time that Japan's number came up (its last winner, Yasunari Kawabata, was 26 years ago) and for years now Oe (pronounced 'OH-eh' in two syllables, the first one long) has been joint favourite for Japan's next Laureate, alongside the Christian writer, Shusaku Endo. To Western critics, though, Endo has always been the front runner. His subjects are timeless and international: old age, sexual guilt, above all Catholicism, and its confused fortunes in modern and medieval Japan. As a consequence he has also acquired a useful bluffer's handle, indispensable for cover blurbs and cocktail party discussions of international fiction: 'the Japanese Graham Greene.' It will be an ingenious publisher who can come up with such a trim label for one as ambitious and wide ranging as Kenzaburo Oe.

On the simplest level, Oe's lack of reputation overseas is easy to explain: of his 50 published books (half of them fiction) only two are available in contemporary British editions (from Serpent's Tail). Until Thursday's announcement, they had sold just 800 copies each. Undoubtedly this situation reflects the attitude of this author himself. Oe was once interviewed on television by his German translator who asked him to describe his feelings on being translated into the language of Goethe. As politely as possible, Oe replied that it left him quite indifferent. 'A deathly silence fell over the studio,' he recalled later. 'I write my books for Japanese readers, rather than for foreign. The people I write for are my own generation, people who have had the same experiences.'

Oe's earliest experiences were of the Pacific War, the great psychic tide mark which, even more intensely than in Europe, separates the older generation of Japanese from the younger. He was born in 1935 in a village in Shikoku, the smallest and still the most obscure of Japan's main islands; timeless rural communities have featured frequently in his work, both in their bestial cruelty and, latterly, as microcosms of primal innocence, at odds with the corruption of mass society. 'To us the war was no more than the absence of young men in our village and the announcements the mailman sometimes delivered of soldiers killed in action,' recalls a fictional alter ego. But the surreal side effects of war - bayonet drill with bamboo spears, the relentless propagandising in the name of the Imperial Family - were inescapable. Two childhood images crop up repeatedly in his stories: the Emperor (another young character dreams of him as a great white bird swooping down from the sky); and the death of a father (Oe lost his own in 1944) who withdraws into catatonic madness after a failed military coup.

It was Oe's traumatic reacquaintance with these twin subjects - war and fatherhood - which formed him as a writer and brought him to national attention in the mid-Sixties. By this time he had graduated from Tokyo University with a degree in French, and, at the age of 23, won a top literary prize for The Catch, a novella about a black American airman who is shot down and imprisoned in a mountain village. In 1960 Oe married the sister of Juzo Itami (also a native of Shikoku, and the celebrated film director of Tampopo). Three years later their severely disabled first son, Hikari, was born. Soon after, Oe visited Hiroshima for the annual services commemorating the atomic bomb.

The second event resulted in Hiroshima Notes, one of the finest of the many accounts of the bomb and its survivors. The first inspired A Personal Matter, a classic of post-war Japanese fiction about Bird, an alcoholic drop-out driven to extremes of escapism by the birth of his 'monstrous' deformed son. The subject of Oe's graduation thesis had been Jean- Paul Sartre, and A Personal Matter bears the unmistakable influence of 'existentialist' writers like Camus and even Norman Mailer, especially in the dilemma faced by its hero: 'I can strangle the baby to death with my own hands or I can accept him and bring him up. I've understood that from the beginning but I haven't had the courage to accept it.'

The struggle between duty and individuality was a familiar theme but it was also - in a Tokyo torn by anti American riot, uneasily poised between pre war traditions and an alienating industrial society - a uniquely Japanese one. His next novel, The Silent Cry (1967) was a bizarre semi-fantasy even more intricately concerned with Japanese history, as indicated by its original Japanese title, Football in the First Year of the Man'en Era. In 1990 Oe had a bestseller with book title The Treatment Tower, a science-fiction study of emigrants from an Earth destroyed in nuclear war.

Oe's literary influences, Blake, Rabelais, Yeats - are exclusively Western (the title of his novella collection, Teach us to outgrow our madness, quotes Auden) but the country of his novels is unmistakably Japan: a stranger, tenser and more troubled Japan than the West - until this week at least - has imagined.

(Photograph omitted)