Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Curious Coincidence

I read on the front page of the International Herald Tribune yesterday of the death of the Russian cellist and Soviet-era dissident Mstislav Rostropovich, and later, having just begun reading Kenzaburo Oë's 1983 novel Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!, I came across this passage on page 20:

Before it had become plain that he was fuming, Mr H had removed his International Herald Tribune from its paper cover and shown me an article whose contents I can convey vividly: it was about the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich's attack on the suppression of freedom of speech in the Soviet Union. Still in Russia at the time, Rostropovich was dedicating himself to defending his comrade Solzhenitsyn, and I had copied his remarks in the flyleaf of the book I was reading that day: "Every human being must have the right to express without fear his own thoughts and his opinions about what he knows and has experienced. I am not talking about simply regurgitating with minor modifications opinions that have been fed to us..."

A strange coincidence, a ghost from the past, almost. That serendipitous passage apart, the novel seems to be - to judge from the first forty pages at least - one of Oë's finest, beautifully written and translated. Like most of his fiction since the amazing A Personal Matter, published the year after the birth of his brain-damaged son Hikari, it is autobiographical and the brain-damaged son features once again, this time a teenager and grappling with the frustrations and fears brought on by puberty. What is most remarkable about Oë's work is that he writes novels about writers and intellectuals without ever sounding dull; when he tells of his experiences travelling around Europe while reading Malcolm Lowry or William Blake in the original, he provides revealing glosses and reflections of his own experiences (the novel also takes its title from Blake). At one point he describes his reading as a young student of French: "I continued to feel that I was reading to forget", something that will be familiar to anybody who has waded through masses of text for academic research. Oë could give John Banville a few lessons