Kenzaburō Ōe

Excepts from the novel, J.
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 101 and in Seventeen and J: Two Novels by Foxrock Books in 1998.
Translated by Luk Van Haute

The big ivory Jaguar came rushing headlong through the darkness to the edge of the cape's ridge.

Facing the night sea, it turned right and disappeared down a side road that dropped with the sudden steepness of a waterfall. The Jaguar was headed toward Miminashi Bay, which was hidden like an armpit under the south side of the cape. A 16-millimeter Arriflex movie camera was packed in the car. The camera, like the car, was the property of a young man of twenty-nine whom everybody called J. J, his wife, J's sister (who was driving), a middle-aged cameraman, a young poet, a twenty-year-old actor, and an eighteen-year-old jazz singer-seven in all-were on their way to J's vacation house. They were going there to shoot a few scenes for a short film J's wife was making.

The jazz singer was completely naked. She was singing a drunken song. Since nobody was listening with very much interest she was convinced that everybody in the Jaguar was mocking her, so she decided to try a dirty story she'd had some success with once before.

For the four hours that they'd been on the way from Tokyo everybody (with the exception of J's sister) had been steadily drinking whisky. The eighteen-year-old singer had been the first to break from the ranks of the drunks and now was running alone in the lead. This was what always happened. She lacked self-restraint.

"Once when I went to do a job at this politician's party," she said, "there was this sixteen-year-old girl who was with me in the dressing room, without any makeup on, and she was sitting there with this Ping-Pong ball and a blue vinyl costume across her knees. So we became friends. When it was her turn to go on the girl still hadn't put on any make-up. She just took off her clothes. She pulled her costume, which looked like a blue vinyl sleeping bag, over her head, and she had me pull the zipper to the lower part of her back. The blue dress was really a frog costume that hugged her body, with a hole that looked like a fish mouth between her legs. The politicians all looked at this blue frog with a girl's privates, and then she put the Ping-Pong ball inside herself. And, if you can believe it, she croaked like a frog in time to her dancing!"

The other six passengers raised their voices in a dispirited laugh. They all knew that if they didn't respond, the singer would start crying and fly into a rage.

Cheered by their laughter, the singer went on.

"That frog dancer had marvelous technique," she said with a look of triumph, as though she was building to some climax. "Truly marvelous technique."

"Your politicians weren't looking at technique, they wanted to see how shameless a sixteen-year-old could be," J said. He was sitting between his wife and his sister in the front seat. "That's the one thing that never changes, no matter what kind of dirty act you put on. The spectators don't want a display of technique that makes your embarrassment obvious. Shamelessness is what they want to see. They want to see it in the flesh!"

The eighteen-year-old jazz singer gave up. Her mood turned black and she started to sob. Everybody, including J's wife, knew that J and the singer were having an affair.

The eighteen-year-old girl looked more and more disconsolate. Her naked shoulders shook as she cried. If they hadn't been in the car she'd probably have reached for a knife or a broken bottle and lashed out like a panic-stricken cat.

"Why do you have to be so nasty?" J's sister complained. "Besides, it's dark and this road isn't exactly straight. So maybe you could do us a favor and quiet down just a little bit? Or do you want to die before we get there, without finishing that film of yours?" She couldn't stand her older brother's meanness, with its strange psychological twists.

Except for J's sister and the crying girl, everyone else was smiling in silence, drinking, and listening to the sound of the engine and the sounds inside themselves. They didn't ask themselves why they were smiling. Whenever there was a silence they smiled this kind of magnanimous smile.

The Jaguar had reached the bottom of the hill at the right side of the bay. Turning to the left, it passed slowly over the narrow flagstone road through Miminashi Village.

"Could you please close the window?" J's sister said. "I hate the smell of dead fish and nets. You don't mind, do you?"

Two of the others closed the windows.

Then J's sister turned to J. "It doesn't matter how carefully I drive. You're still going to find some scratches in the morning," she said with what sounded like regret. "Why don't you drive? You're the genius at the wheel."

"Too dangerous when I'm drunk," J replied, still smiling and barely moving his lips. "We'd end up in the bay."

The car moved along the stone roadway, occasionally passing over channels brimming with seawater. The road curved gently, hugging the inside of the bay as it joined one village with the next. Houses lined the sides of the road, looking like rows of dead elephants. Clusters of dark gray houses turned in on themselves giving the impression of being completely closed up. A lamp threw a faint light from the direction of the sea beyond the channels. There was a beacon of a fishing boat at anchor. The cluster of houses was in shadow.

The Jaguar moved slowly ahead with a sound even quieter than the calm sea. Suddenly the headlights caught a group of people on the stone pavement ahead, and J's sister stepped on the brakes. The whisky bottles clattered as they fell from the seat. The eighteen-year-old singer stopped crying and was about to scold, but she decided to keep silent. Everybody in the car was curious and stared at the people in the headlights.

In the sudden powerful light about thirty fisher folk shrank back like blind mice. Most were women, but among them were a few old people and children. The women were all wearing deep-colored, thick-woven clothing in the Ainu style. All seemed to be about the same age, with the same middle-aged look. An assembly of middle-aged women, in a bad mood and possessed by some fervor. The headlights made their faces appear ugly, animal-like, and petty. They were waiting in front of one house, completely blocking the road. Now all the faces were turned toward the Jaguar, but they gave the distinct feeling that only an instant before they had all been staring at the house.

"Hide Keiko," J's sister said. "Put her down on the floor and put a jacket over her head!"

Keiko Sawa was the jazz singer's name. She did as she was told. Her small naked girl's body, kneeling with her side and hips pressed against the back of the front seat, was covered with a jacket and a skirt and some other things. The other three in the back seat held her with their knees so she wouldn't fall when the car started to move again. The Jaguar inched toward the crowd. J hesitantly reached out for the horn, but his sister stopped him. "Don't!" she said, frightened but still stem. "If you do that they'll turn over the car and burn it. They're starting to move over on their own."

And, sure enough, as the Jaguar approached, the crowd flowed back quietly under the eaves of the houses lining the stone road. It seemed as if they'd already lost interest in the car and the seven people in it. In fact, they appeared to be totally indifferent. Those in the car wanted to feel the same, but the naked crouching girl was shaking. When the car started to pass through the crowd, they realized for the first time that the house on the seaward side of the village that everyone had been watching was the only one where a light was burning, behind an open window on the second floor, and that that light had illuminated the flagstone road and the faces of those people.

As the Jaguar passed it began to pick up speed. At first they all were depressed and silent. They felt as though they'd been intimidated. Then the middle-aged cameraman, who always broke the tension at times like these, gave a hearty laugh. (When he laughed, it was always a hearty one.) "Weren't we just like a team of explorers going through some native village?" he said. "If we don't do something to stir them up they won't do anything. It reminded me of when I was in Borneo to make an educational film! It also reminded me of a Western."

Keiko Sawa raised her naked body and sat down on the cameraman's short, fat legs. "Were they Indians?" she asked in a wheedling voice that was subdued and more sober than before.

"Those people live in the village," Js sister said. "The men are out fishing, so it's everybody who's left, don't you think? I've done clay heads of some of the people who live around the bay." She was a twenty-seven-year-old sculptor and had come back from Paris at the beginning of the summer. She was probably doing the artwork for the film J and his wife were making.

"Shouldn't we have stopped the car and asked for fish for tomorrow?" J said critically.

"You don't know anything at all about the villages around this bay. When we were evacuated here during the war, you were so afraid to come down to the bay that you stayed in the house all day long drawing pictures! You were scared of the fishermen's kids!"

The Jaguar followed the flagstone road to the end of the village, then took a slight detour that allowed the seven to look down at the bile-black sea on the far side of a low breakwater. Then the Jaguar started to climb again. The branches of the scrub trees, defeated by the sea breeze, reached out to the windshield in the tortured shapes of arms wrenched around by violence. The sound of the branches beating the Jaguar made the seven passengers feel for an instant as if they were trapped in a squall.

"I wasn't scared of the fishermen's children. But I resented the fact that the people in the bay were afraid of our family just because we had land and a cabin in the mountains. That's why I didn't go down there. I wasn't as insensitive as you," J said.

"Those startled faces, so full of resentment," Keiko Sawa said. "Didn't they look just like people caught by a stranger in the middle of having sex?"

Everybody but J's sister laughed at that.

"You probably wouldn't even mind if somebody caught you having sex, would you, Keiko?" the cameraman said. "Still, your powers of observation are sometimes quite strong."

"Those people were there to shame a woman for adultery," J's sister said in a low, gloomy voice, as if she were whispering something to her brother alone. "The same thing happened when we were evacuated here. The adulterous woman is hiding in the house. We couldn't see it because of the people, but I think the doors in and out of the house were boarded shut."

"What were they doing, gathering there in the middle of the night? What do you mean when you say 'shame her'?"

"They just stand there in front of the house, all the women and old people and children in the village. Even the men when they're not fishing! Isn't that enough to shame somebody? It makes me sick, just thinking about it."

"It does; it makes me sick too," the twenty-year-old actor said from the back seat. "It's disgusting, for something like adultery."

"Of course it'd make you sick, Boy. People all over Tokyo would be showing up in front of your apartment every night!" the cameraman said, referring to the actor.

"Really - thanks to Boy, at least a hundred husbands know what adultery is now," the naked jazz singer said, treating the actor like he was less than her equal in age.

The Jaguar climbed the road that zigzagged up the slope until it came out on the high ground that enclosed the bay and suddenly looked down on the village.

"Say, stop the car," the cameraman said. "Wasn't there a light in the second-floor window of the house those people were standing around? Maybe we can see something."

The seven got out of the Jaguar. Keiko Sawa took the blanket that had been spread out on the seat and wrapped it around her shoulders like a Mexican poncho. The cameraman connected some photographic lenses to make a telescope. He worked for a company that made educational and promotional films, but he was an outsider in the company, an old-fashioned type who wasn't interested in appearances and didn't dance to the same tune as his colleagues. When it had become clear that he wasn't going to be accepted by the company or get ahead, he grew a beard, traded his gray suit for a stained sweater, and started driving an old-fashioned car. He put all his energy into elaborate inventions. Assembling telescopic lenses was just one of his hobbies. And when he heard that his young friends were going to make a movie, he put his family and his company work on hold, giving himself to this precarious job. He was a terribly frustrated man in his forties. It couldn't be said that he had any great talent, but he really was a good person; he was a drinker, but not lazy.

Even if he could no longer stir up any interest in his work for the company that didn't mean he neglected it. Tomorrow, after the one-hour shoot at daybreak he'd probably drive back to Tokyo alone to put in some hours there.

When he finished adjusting the telescope, the seven took turns peeping into the only lighted window in the village below. They could see a woman bending over and busily moving her arms, but what she was doing wasn't exactly clear. The seven continued to look for a long time, but the movements of the woman's body didn't change. From where they were they could see only the woman's back and the shaking of her rich, tangled hair. What she was doing with her arms was obscure. Still, the violent up-and-down movement of her shoulders was deeply impressive. They watched for a long time, until finally they grew tired of it - or rather, until they grew tired of their own unsatisfied curiosity.

"Let's go back to the car," Keiko said. "I'm cold." She had picked the right moment. This eighteen-year-old nymphomaniac had that kind of sense about her, a keenness that you'd expect to find only in the antennae of a beetle.

With that, they all gave up trying to figure out the meaning of the woman's movements and went back to the Jaguar. J, his wife, and his sister sat in front, while the cameraman, the jazz singer, the actor, and the young poet, who'd been silently drinking whisky all along, sat in back. The Jaguar got going.

The young poet was twenty-five years old. He had published only one volume of poems, and that at his own expense. As a friend of J's young wife, he had taken on the job of providing commentary for the movie. He had been her college classmate. In their final year, they had been extremely close. They'd also slept together more than once. In those days, J's wife, poor as she was, had been like a proud lioness, with her heart set on becoming a film director. When they graduated he and his film-obsessed classmate had gone different ways, but a year later a wedding invitation had reached him. His classmate's husband, J, was the son of a steel company president and four years older than the two of them. It was J's hobby to be a patron of the arts. He had a 16-millimeter movie camera, an artist for a sister, an ivory Jaguar with white tires and spoked wheels, a vacation house that looked out over a bay-and even a round-the-world ticket on Pan American. He'd also picked his father's pockets so that his wife could make a movie.

The young poet's classmate was crazy about J, and she was crazy about her film project. The poet had used his friendship with her to borrow money from J, to publish his collection of poems. In exchange, he'd agreed to write the commentary for the film. He'd become a friend of the new couple, but he had never managed to conquer a distinct feeling of distance where J was concerned. Was he jealous of the husband of a classmate he'd slept with in the past? His classmate invited him to parties J gave at their gorgeous apartment, where he was collecting young actors and singers. Was that only her idea, or had J wanted it too? He didn't know the answer to that question and it left him insecure.

"Well, what do you make of it?" J said to his wife. Like the young poet, she had been silent all night. She was drinking whisky straight from the bottle.

"The woman was washing rice," his wife said without thinking.

That's it, they all felt. That woman, who had been hunted down for adultery, was patiently enduring, even resisting, while washing rice.

All seven were silent, lost in their own thoughts about the woman who was washing rice in spite of the intimidation and about the angry people who had planted themselves in front of her house. Finally, the twenty-year-old actor spoke.

"Why was the window open?"

At first nobody answered. He felt injured by their silence and blushed. The poet noticed.

"Because it's hot, I suppose. It's cooler now, because it's the middle of the night, but she's probably been washing rice since sundown, when it was still hot indoors if you were moving around."

"Today was the hottest day this summer. But why wouldn't she close the window now, when it's after dark and cooler?"

"She's probably afraid of provoking the crowd outside."

"It makes me sick," the actor said.

They were all silent again. Some of them shivered. In low gear, the Jaguar climbed to the top of the ridge on the south side of the bay.

J © Kenzaburō Ōe