‘Aghwee the Sky Monster’ by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated by John Nathan

At least the children in ‘Weekend’ are real. The same can’t be said for the giant baby, “about the size of a kangaroo”, who takes a starring role in Kenzaburo Oe’s tale of a college graduate’s first job. Oe grew up in a village in rural Japan and was ten years old when the Americans occupied his country in 1945. Gifted with intelligence, he escaped the village to study at a Tokyo university. All looked set for a prosperous bourgeois future. Then, at 29, his first child born with serious brain damage. Everything I’ve read by Oe (Oh-way) deals with this catastrophe in one way or another. The pattern on a foundation level is a retreat into the realm of pure imagination, somewhat reminiscent of William Blake, who gets a mention towards the end of this story. Into his foundation, Oe cuts silicon-chip complexities uniquely his own and which sometimes take a bit of figuring out.

A first-person narrator is employed by a wealthy banker to be a ‘companion’ to his son, a thirty-year old composer who’s undergoing some sort of nervous breakdown and, the implication goes, needs protecting from himself. After encountering the man’s ex-wife and his movie actress mistress, our narrator discovers that there’s no nervous breakdown, but instead a madness inside the composer which exhibits itself in the form of an invisible friend who lives in the sky, and who pops down for a chat every now and then. The consensus is that this invisible friend is the imaginary ghost of the man’s dead and deformed baby, and it’s called ‘Aghwee’ because that was the single word the baby spoke while it lived. “That’s a pretty mushy way to name the ghost that’s haunting you, don’t you think?” comments the ex-wife bitterly. But is this ghost-baby really a delusion? By the closing pages the narrator himself has come to believe that Aghwee and other giant amoeba-like beings really do inhabit the sky, each representing a personal loss of great magnitude. Like William Blake watching his golden angels streaming above the roofs of Soho, he even sees them for a moment.

In real-life, Oe’s son, Hikari, did not die. According to John Nathan, Oe’s friend and translator: “Suffice to say that over the years as [the child] grew up, a fierce, exclusive, isolating bond developed between father and son.’” Now that son is a grown man, and Oe himself elderly. His 1996 book, A Healing Family, celebrates the small triumphs of their life together.

From Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness by Kenzaburo Oe, Marion Boyars, 1978