Daily Archives: 10/29/2012

#42 Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that you knew wasn’t going to end well, but for some reason you stuck with it?  You had a sinking feeling in your stomach that slowly hardened into a rock and just sat there, pressing down, letting you know that things were not going to be OK at the end.  Bad things were coming.  You know it, but you’re going to stand here and watch.

That’s this entire book.

As soon as I started reading I kept asking myself “Are you sure you want to do this?”  For some reason I decided that yes, I did want to keep reading.  I prepared myself to be shocked, sad and depressed.  I knew before I even finished the introduction to the author and his writings that this was going to be one of those books that you can’t shrug off and walk away from and it was going to leave me physically affected.  I was going to be twitching off the sensation of not wanting to remember.  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien did this to me.  I kept wondering why I was reading the book and I had a sick feeling in my stomach, but the book felt important and I felt like I should know what happened, and that’s why I kept reading Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.

I haven’t even gotten to the part where I talk about the book and my face is already twisted into a grimace of not wanting to think about this anymore.

Here’s Goodread‘s summary:

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids recounts the exploits of 15 teenage reformatory boys evacuated in wartime to a remote mountain village where they are feared and detested by the local peasants. When plague breaks out, the villagers flee, blocking the boys inside the deserted town. Their brief attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love, and tribal valor is doomed in the face of death and the adult nightmare of war.

I read this and thought Lord of the Flies.  I can handle this.  I read Lord of the Flies.  Once.  In high school.  I don’t remember being freaked the fuck out by it.  I’m debating picking it up now to see if it will wash away the sadness of  Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids  by not being as horrible.

I don’t even know how to review this book.  There are semi-spoilers, but not specifics.

Basically if there’s anything in the book that you like, don’t.  It’s going die, or be killed, or get ruined, or go away.  There is no lasting happiness in this book.  A small event would happen that would be nice and a character would be happy and I would be destroyed because I knew something horrible was on the way.  The youngest, sweetest boy finds and falls in love with a dog.  Yep.  We all know what’s going to happen there.  A girl is left behind in the village with the boys.  Yep.  Although I was pleased that she didn’t get raped to death, so there’s a bonus.  The boys have a small victory by finding food and having a festival?  Yeah, that happiness will be done by the time the sun comes up.

The most painful and beautiful thing about this book is the love the nameless main character has for his little brother.  The narrator is older than most of the boys and is one of two unofficial leaders.  Minami is the other, and he is quickly revealed to be calculating and quick.  He doesn’t care for much other than survival and while he has moments of kindness and fun, you know he’ll drop it in a second if he thinks he can profit from cruelty   With the narrator, you get the sense that he is cold and you know that he has committed crimes because he is part of the reformatory school, yet he doesn’t come across as being as hard as Minami.  We see him cradle his little brother when he sleeps and tries to protect him from being cold and scared.  His brother is able to keep a piece of innocence even though he is surrounded by war and violence and the criminal boys.  The younger brother is not part of these boys.  When his father found out that they were being evacuated, he dropped the boy off, figuring he would be better provided for.  He is excited and enthralled by their tales, seeing them as daring creatures and not understanding the danger.

When the plague hits and the boys are left behind, Goodreads lies.  “Their brief attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love, and tribal valor” doesn’t happen.  They realize they are alone, they are pissed, and they break into all the houses to wreck things in their anger.  They don’t put anyone in charge, although they do listen to the narrator when he tries to organize things.  They eat and wander around and are bored.  There is no plan to create some sort of society.  They just kick around and wonder if the adults will come back.

I wonder what would happen if the adults hadn’t come back.  A Korean boy who was also left behind joins the group and teaches them how to hunt for birds and there was some food left behind, but there are no long term plans.  When people start to get sick, the boys panic.  Minami quickly moves into survival mode and will do anything to protect himself.  He works to gain the support from other boys, although I’m sure he’d easily knock them aside if he needed to.  If the narrator didn’t have his brother, he’d probably be the same way.  Minami is a great mirror character for him and I’m curious what this book would be if it was told from Minami’s point of view.

In the end, the adults do come back.  And of course they bring their power and their rules to these boys that they detest and were forced to take in.  They crush any semblance of independence they have created and the boys are immediately placed back into their powerless, outsider roles.

This brings us to the central question of this book: What would you do for the greater good?  For Minami, it’s about survival.  Will he stay independent if he thinks it will lead to escape and freedom, or will he stay put knowing he has a sense of power over the other boys?  Will the narrator fight for himself and his brother?  If you know that you will be defeated, is it better to fight and be knocked down, or to be silent and safe?  The villagers have no connection to these boys at all.  They could easily kill all of them, although they do fear the government and they soldiers who will return to check on them, but will they kill a boy or two if it means protecting their own families and friends?

Part of me wishes I hadn’t read this because it’s so horrible, but at the same time I’m glad I did because it is so powerful.  Having the story told through the boys gives it this sense of innocence even though they are anything but.  There are a lot of penises getting waved around.  But they are boys and this makes them powerless when adults are around.  But the adults are powerless when the soldiers are around.  And the soldiers are powerless when there is war.  People latch onto whatever is going to give them comfort or a sense of control, even if it means others are killed.  Will people protect a group, or will they kill everything if it means they individually get to live?

Having the introduction to Ōe, his life, and his writing was incredibly helpful.  I didn’t know anything about him, and reading this made me understand the story.  I think that’s the reason why I stuck with it and didn’t immediately return it to the library when I realized how ugly it was going to be.  It was truth, it was his truth and I felt by reading it, I was honoring it.

I don’t know who I would recommend this book to.  In a way, I don’t want people to read it because it’s so harsh, but at the same time, it should be read.  Just don’t pick it up if you’re feeling emotionally fragile.