Nobel Prize is sweet music to a proud father: Japanese novelist shares artistic triumph with handicapped son

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THE WINNER of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenzaburo Oe, might have committed suicide 30 years ago had it not been for the birth of his handicapped son. Speaking in Tokyo soon after the prize announcement last week, Oe said he has been 'writing in agony' all his life, and that his son, who can barely speak but has become a talented musician, had pulled him back from emptiness and despair just in time.

Short, grey-haired and wearing his trademark bicycle- wheel spectacles, the 59-year- old Oe emerged from his house with a shy smile. He looked more like a benign academic than a tormented novelist who has written about some of mankind's darkest moments.

Kenzaburo Oe is a singular figure in Japanese literature. A student of Sartre and the existentialists, and deeply affected by the atomic bombing of Japan, he somehow came to find meaning in his life through the experience of raising a son born with brain damage, who frequently slips into a remote world of autism. But the boy, Hikari, has turned out to be a gifted classical musician, and father and son have grown up together, relying on each other for artistic inspiration and even for the courage to live.

Hikari (the name means 'light') was born in 1963 with a growth on his skull. Surgeons removed the growth, but the operation left the baby's brain damaged, and his father had to resist doctors who advised him to allow the child to die.

Handicapped children face enormous stigma in Asia, and are usually kept behind closed doors because they are seen to bring shame upon the family. In many cases they are quietly killed soon after birth.

Oe defied the doctors' advice, and the right of a handicapped child to live became the subject of one of his most powerful novels, A Personal Matter, published in 1964.

In the book, the fight over whether the baby should live takes place in the mind of the father, who is initially horrified that his son is deformed. The obstetrician asks him coldly whether he wants 'to see the goods', and the father begins to regard the baby with its grotesquely swollen skull as a vegetable, a 'deadly cactus' that needs to be disposed of.

But after seeking sexual refuge with an old girlfriend, the father realises that he cannot keep running away forever, and that his own life has no great overriding purpose that needs to be protected from the disruption of bringing up a handicapped child.

'Living with Hikari changed my literature and changed my life,' Oe said last week. 'He was born when I was 28. I was an immature type before then, merely using my head when writing . . . I found myself deadlocked. I might have ended up committing suicide, because I was in a bind.'

The Hiroshima atomic bomb was detonated less than 100 miles from his home village when he was 10 years old, and as Oe grew up in post-war Japan, a sense of impending world doom hung over him.

Pulled down to earth by the practical needs and problems of Hikari's upbringing, he found an unexpected source of hope and humanity in the otherwise bleak landscape of the nuclear age. He has since written a series of novels dealing with the search for meaning in life after the Hiroshima bombing.

Meanwhile, the young Hikari blossomed. Musical ability seems to reside in a different part of the brain to language, and although Hikari has never learnt to speak properly, he displayed musical talent from an early age. At the age of 10 he started composing with the help of his piano teacher.

He has now released two CDs, the first of which sold 80,000 copies and won a Japan Golden Disc award. The second was released last month, and Hikari now seems to have established himself as a composer. 'Hikari cannot express himself through words, but his music sounds as if it is healing us,' his father said before one of his son's recent concerts.

Now that his son has begun recording music, Oe is ready to stop writing for a while - despite winning the Nobel Prize. 'I have been writing for the sake of my son . . . and he is now capable of expressing himself without any help from me. If ever there was a reason for me to stop writing novels, that would be it.'

(Photograph omitted)