Monday, 28 January 2013

Aghwee the Sky Monster

Aghwee the Sky Monster - Kenzaburo Ōe

We open this story once again with a narrator who has had violence perpetrated against him in the past. The narrator has almost lost the sight in one of his eyes. "Ten years ago I had twenty-twenty vision. Now one of my eyes is ruined. Time* shifted, launched itself from the springboard of an eyeball squashed by a stone. When I first met that sentimental madman I had only a child's understanding of time. I was yet to have the cruel awareness of time drilling its eyes into my back and time lying in wait ahead." (*'time' is in italics in original text)

It turns out that this almost sightless second eye causes him to see, when not wearing a patch "a vague and shadowy world on top of one that's bright and vivid".

The story he tells us revolves about what can be seen and what is unseen. It is the story of his first job, which was to be a sort of companion to a young composer, "D", who had conversations with a large flying baby, the sky monster of the title. The Jimmy Stewart classic Harvey is mentioned: "it had made me laugh so hard I thought I would die." He is hired by the composer's father, a banker, "to be a moral sentinel guarding the banker's family against a second contamination by the poisons of a scandal."

The baby, Aghwee, turns out to be, whether real or imagined, based on D's dead son. This is explained to the narrator by D's former wife: "our baby was born with a lump on the back of its head that made it look as if it had two heads. The doctor diagnosed it as a brain hernia. When D heard the news he decided to protect himself and me from a catastrophe, so he got together with the doctor and they killed the baby - I think they only gave it sugar water instead of milk no matter how loud it screamed." When an autopsy showed the lump to be benign "That's when D began seeing ghosts".

In an interview with The Paris Review Ōe mentions Aghwee and its basis in his own life. "In Aghwee the Sky Monster, for instance, I wrote about someone in a similar situation to the one I was in when Hikari was born but who makes a different decision from the one I made. Aghwee’s father chooses not to help his deformed child live. In A Personal Matter, I wrote about another protagonist—Bird—who chooses to live with the child. Those were written at about the same time. But in this case, it’s actually backwards. Having written about the actions of both Aghwee’s father and Bird, I steered my life toward those of Bird. I didn’t intend to do this but afterward I realized that this was what I’d done."

The story of the narrator and D reflect each other. There are blows, physical or mental, which change how we see the world. D says that he no longer lives in the present time, and becomes upset when he accidentally walks on some wet cement, leaving a footprint. He won't leave until it is erased. His ex mistress expresses her idea of the process: "The minute that baby died, I think D-boy decided not to create any new memories for himself, as if he had died, too, and that's why he stopped living, you know, positively, in present time. And I bet he calls the baby ghost down to earth all over Tokyo so he can create new memories for it!"

The story also shows how it can be difficult to escape the consequences of a choice. Once the choice has to be made it will leave it's trace. D's life is as much lived for his dead child as is the life of the "fat man" in Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness lived for his handicapped child.

There is a tension in this story generated by the danger of it seeming twee, but, as in the other stories in the collection, the starkness of Ōe's language and the bleakness of his vision countermands it. I thought I would end with another quote from Ōe, this time about the word sentimentality. It reminds us of why we must look reality squarely in the face. "The best definition comes from Flannery O’Connor. She said that sentimentality is an attitude that does not confront reality squarely in the face. To feel sorry for handicapped people, she said, is akin to hiding them. She linked this kind of harmful sentimentality to the Nazi’s extermination of the handicapped during World War II."

This story gains an extra edge when we take into account that Ōe's son, who inspired the story, overcame his handicap to become a famous composer. I've included a YouTube clip of him below.


  1. Another great review - definitely a book I need to add to my J-Lit library :)

    1. Thanks Tony, especially for inspiring me to go Japanese this month. Really enjoying Out at the moment.