Tokyo Damage Report

Kenzaburo Oe’s SEVENTEEN , part three

What is SEVENTEEN??


 
 
I felt a chill running from my bones to all my viscera, as I turned away from my family and walked to the backyard. Beneath the summers' night sky was a second layer of rose-colored sky, as if two skies were overlapping. Humidity and dust rose from the ground, suffusing my lungs and obstructing the lower part of the sky a third layer – a sort of line of flickering light. The many lights of Tokyo shone under that. But such beauty was not for me – I was headed to the dilapidated shed, my new home. There were no electric lights in the shed, so after I closed the door I had no choice but to make my way to the cot by touch. 
 
Since I had been exiled from my family, I had plenty of time to construct my shameful nest in the shed. It was three tatami mats in size (around six feet), but two tatamis' worth was occupied by towering heaps of rubbish. My hands felt a desk and chair, and many other stacked, nameless things. I could only live in the small space between.  It was rather like the narrow berth on a sailing vessel, I thought. With my useless eyes wide open in the darkness, I opened the drawer to the desk, and pulled out an old wakizashi (a short sword that Samurai would keep tucked in their waist-bands).
 
  This weapon, this marvellous weapon which I had discovered while rummaging through trash, was only 30 centimeters long, and named Raikokuga (‘The Fang Which Came to Japan’). If the books at our school library are to be believed, it was the work of a sword-smith at the end of the Muromachi era, four hundred years ago. I drew out the blade, gripping it with both hands. Facing the empty space between the pillars of rubbish squarely, I stabbed the darkness again and again with all my might. The shed filled up with my "killing feeling," and my heart raced. Eiii!! Eiii!!! YaaaaaahhH!! I yelled quietly, as I stabbed the darkness with Raikokuga.
 
Someday, I would slay an enemy with my Japanese steel. I would stab him in the most manly fashion. I believed this so strongly it began to seem like a premonition, sent to me from the future. But, where is my future enemy? Is it Father? My enemy, is it Elder Sister? An  American soldier on one of those bases? A Japanese SDF man? Or a conservative politician? Where is my enemy? I will surely kill him, I thought. Eiii! Eiii! Yaaaaaaah!   
 
My enemies were packed as densely as lice crammed into the seam of a shirt, and I hewed them one after the other until, slowly, I began to regain my senses. As I calmed down,
I began to remember with regret the wound I inflicted on my sister. Was the wound bad enough to make her lose what's left of her eyesight?   If so, I would sacrifice my own eyes in a daring transplant surgery. I had to make amends for my shameful action. He who refuses to pay for his deeds with his own flesh and blood is a contemptible wretch, no more than a beast. I'll never be that kind of person, I thought.
 
I put Raikokuga back in its white wooden scabbard, and laid it back in the drawer, took off my clothes by feel, and lay down sideways on the cot. Lying there in the dark, sideways, with my useless eyes open, making do with my ears, I realized that I could hear many diverse voices – like those of demons in the mountain forests that were said to lead people astray. I could practically feel their bodies swirling around me. The vision got more elaborate: I was at the bottom of a giant pestle, naked and exposed, and the horrific demons were about to grind me into powder.
 
Then I heard the sound of a record player coming from Mother’s room: the Miles Davis sextet, doing his what-you-may-call-it? His ‘modern jazz’ or whatever, which Elder Brother was so absorbed by. I remembered how he acted just before, when I kicked Elder Sister and got scolded by Father: He just sat on the tatami mat, absolutely ignoring all of us, and fiddling with the little bits of plastic and the tube of glue, making a model airplane on his lap. Like a detail which escapes a cameraman’s notice until he later develops the film, my brother’s actions were documented. In my ‘memory file’, I discovered his odd behavior.
 
Even now, I can imagine him clearly, sitting in front of Mother’s hi-fi. He has it on endless-repeat mode and sits there, his head nodding unsteadily on his narrow shoulders like some kind of drug addict, utterly entranced. He would pause only to rip strips of caked model glue from the pads of his encrusted fingers. That’s what he’s doing right now, I bet. He’s probably ruminating, worrying about, “I should punch Younger Brother,” or “I shouldn’t scold Younger Sister so much,” or something like that, while all the while fiddling with the bass and treble buttons, turning up the volume. 
 
Older Brother was always the one our family pinned our hopes on. And the year before last, he graduated from Tokyo University with a degree in Liberal Arts, and got a job at a television company. At University, he was ferociously active, being the class student leader and organizing events for the school festivals. So when he joined the television company, he had ambitions to become a producer of special edition news shows, and threw all his effort into impressing his boss. At that time, I trusted and respected him. I suppose one could say that I turned to Older Brother for the fatherly nutrition that Father himself didn’t supply. Incidentally, last summer Older Brother began to complain all the time, “I’m tired, I’m tired,” and finally last fall he took a week off of work. And, after his week off, he headed off to his job again, but he was a changed man. He was always silent, detached, and he developed an unhealthy absorption in modern jazz, coupled with a mania for model airplanes. I haven’t asked him a thing about his work since last fall, nor about politics. He was so decisive, passionate, and loquacious, but has not spoken more than five minutes to me all this year.
 
 Last winter he said he would take me rock-climbing on a difficult slope of Mt. Tanigawa, but he has completely neglected his promise, a fact which tinges all of my thoughts of him with bitterness. 
As I think of him listening to his modern jazz, swaying like a drug addict, I can’t imagine him signing up to cross the most flat swamp, let alone a challenging mountain. Older Brother, what has happened to you?
 
Ever since my brother changed, I feel like I’m totally alone in this family. Alone at seventeen. This is exactly the time in my life when people should understand me, and help me to develop my full potential. But in fact, not one person is making any effort to understand me. I’m really in a pinch!
 
Faintly but distinctly, I sense that someone is outside the shed, trying to signal to me. I had quite forgotten about it, but there was a window above the cot – a simple circular opening carved into the wood, like the porthole of a shabby ship. With a growl, something leapt through the window and landed on the blanket by my feet: Gang, the local stray cat.
 
Mother and Father are too stingy to let us have pets. The reason is, they can’t bear to give their food to someone else, even pet food. This aspect of their personality is cold-hearted. At any rate, I could only have a pet which would not eat our food. Last year I had a whole family of ants – some fifty in all – in a bottle. But, try as I might, I couldn’t persuade them to survive through the winter. All I was left with was a bottle full of earth which had been carved by the ants into a superlative 3-d maze. I was so sad, I wept. After that, I began to keep company with Gang.   Gang was a gigantic male covered in tiger stripes. Since he was a stray, I didn’t have to worry about how to feed him. He would merely come by at night when he was tired.
 
I was thrilled that he’d choose to sleep at our hose – like he belonged only to me. I called him: “Chi, chi, ch-ch-chi!” Gang heaved his considerable bulk off of my feet and came up to drink my spit. It seemed that he alone wanted to help me celebrate my seventeenth birthday, so I rewarded him with as much spit as I could summon. I began to feel sentimental, but it’s impossible to feel sentimental around Gang: he’s badder than Al Capone. As he drank my spit, he flexed his chest muscles, causing his giant claws to pierce the blanket. He kept changing his foothold, as if he might leap out of the shed at any moment. 
 
I’ve never hugged Gang. He’s more the kind of cat that will sit on your lap or chest. He purrs and narrows his eyes like a beautiful woman, he shakes his damp nose at me, but If I try to pick him up by his belly, he gets mad and runs away. He’s not the touchy-feely kind. I worry that if my pharynx ever runs out of spit, he will leap off my chest and never return. This would launch me into such a bottomless pit of loneliness that I would never recover. To forestall this possibility, I made to throw my arms around his big stripey belly. In that instant, I felt like fireworks had gone off in my hands as Gang’s claws struck my palms. I tasted the blood before I felt it. Gang aimed his huge head at the window and with one leap was gone, like a big stripey shark jumping out of a porthole into the Pacific Ocean.
 
My wounds hurt, but seeing Gang in full fighting mode was exciting! He is such a perfect villain, I filled with admiration for him. He’s the living incarnation of barbarism! Ungrateful and shameless, with the explosive force of a full-grown wolf. He doesn’t rely on anyone else. If he sees something he wants, he takes it. Being attacked by him made me remember why I respected him in the first place. Magnificent! Hunting in the darkness, his sturdy body is beautiful like a well-constructed fortress (!!!), but at the same time, he’s as quick and flexible as a rubber band.
 

Just being glared at by him is enough to give me the jitters, although it pains me to admit it. I’m blushing just thinking about it. But in that fierce body, there’s a weak point, I’ll wager. Once, I watched from a hidden spot as he pounced on and killed a white cat. But even then he was very cool-headed and magnificent in his execution. I’ve often thought that I want to have a life like Gang’s, but I realize that it would take a miracle for someone such as I to accomplish the transition.

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