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By Kenzaburo Oe
Translated from the Japanese by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall
New York: Grove Press, 1990
240 pages

Bob Corbett
Feb. 2015

This novel is a diary written by a 21 year old Japanese girl. Her father is a well-known literary author and scholar in Japan, but he is having one of his “pinches,” seemingly an onset of a spell of depression. This “pinch” is so bad that he feels he must flee Japan and take a sabbatical leave at a university in California. His wife even believes this is a serious bout of depression and she decides she must go with him.

This leaves the 21 year old diarist, Ma-Chan, as “head of the household.” She has two brothers, one who is four years older than she, but severally mentally retarded, however, he does has a significant musical talent in composing and playing piano. He is also somewhat physically limited as well. She has a younger brother who has just finished high school and is in a school which preps students to take university entrance exams.

Ma-Chan begins the diary which she formally calls “Rescuing a Sutego” which is a story about the rescue of a little girl in a park who was abandoned. Ma-Chan feels this sense of abandonment by her parents. Informally the diary comes to be called “A Quiet Life,” a very ironic title for this beautifully written but sad diary.

She begins the journal in the days before her parents left to set the stage for the sort of life they HAD been living as a family of five. At that time their life might well have actually have been called “a quiet life” though Ma Chan was not yet quite as knowledgeable about her father’s periodic bouts of his “pinches.”

Her older brother, Eeyore, takes music lessons nearby and troubles begin almost immediately after her parents leave. Someone is assaulting young girls in the area and Ma-Chan sees her brother standing sort of hidden from view in some bushes just in an area where there had been an attack on a young girl. However, when she confronts him, it turns out that he was only stepping back off the sidewalk to listen to some classical music coming from a near-by house, and in fact, the attacker is apprehended the next day. This episode, however, sets the stage for the great difficulties Ma-Chan will have to deal with in her role as parent for the brothers. Their quiet life is over very quickly after her parents leave. The younger brother, O-Chan, is no problem for her at all, but, on the other hand, she feels she really can’t even call on him for minor household chores since he’s so busy learning how to take these all-important entrance exams. Thus Ma-Chan takes on even more responsibility.

Another early crisis comes when Mr. Shigeto’s is giving a music lessons on piano to Eeyore. Eeyore also composes music and he’s playing a fairly sad piece which he’s entitled “abandoned child.” The teacher goes crazy, blaming their father for leaving them and sees this as Eeyore calling out in protest.

This charge turns out to be false, since we soon learn that Eeyore was actually writing this piece not about himself, but about a young girl he had heard about at school. However, this entire episode adds further to the pressures on Ma-Chan.

All sorts of thoughts go through Ma-Chan’s head. She wonders if her parents see Eeyore as some curse on their marriage. Perhaps, she always ponders, that this is all her mother’s “fault and that perhaps Eeyore is an “accursed child.” These thoughts continue to build the pressures she feels in her caretaking job and to underscore her thoughts of having been abandoned by her parents with little consideration for the children themselves.

Mr. and Mrs. Shigeto become more and more involved with the three children. He is the piano teacher and was once a close friend of Ma-Chan’s father, but he is highly critical of her father for thinking only of himself and having abandoned Ma-Chan with this difficult task. Mr. Shigeto’s wife is brutally blunt and tells Ma-Chan the she an Eeyore are absolute nobodies, but trying to make themselves important to themselves. She’s brutal in her criticism and Ma-Chan takes it all to heart.

However, in reality to this point in the novel, their lives haven’t really been such a horror, just a number of misunderstandings that Ma-Chan has built up in her mind. She does actually call her diary “A Quiet Life” and not her more formal title: “Rescuing a Sutego.” It’s actually true that what they have lived, up to this point in the story is, indeed, a relatively quiet life, in a fairly secure and comfortable position.

Things begin to change when Eeyore decides to take some swimming lessons to get into better physical shape. He is assigned to Arai, a young swimming coach at a local gym. However, when the piano teacher, Mr. Shigeto, hears this he is deeply disturbed since Aria seems to have a very checkered past, about what we know nothing, except that Shigeto is so disturbed he contacts Ma-Chan’s parents and decides that he too with go with her and her brother to each of the swim sessions to be sure that nothing untoward happens. In effect he becomes the “rescuer” of both Ma-Chan and Eeyore as the novel unfolds.

The story spins into a difficult conclusion which fairly much strained this reader’s ability to just go with the story and suspend disbelief. But in the end it seems they will be returning to their relatively quiet life. As violence and dangers come and go, soon their mother decides she can no longer abandon her children, and decides the lesser of her two choices is to stay with her husband and she returns home to, apparently, return the household to the quiet life. When her mother does return Ma-Chan allows her to read the diary she has kept, and while the author doesn’t tell us her mother’s reaction, I was fairly confident that after reading the journal her mother would be more sure than ever that she made the right choice.

I found the novel mainly gripping and suspenseful, but the sort of violent encounter with swim coach Arai seemed a bit over the top for this reader.

Bob Corbett


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