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Japan’s Nobel-Winning Author Suddenly a Best-Seller

October 20, 1994

TOKYO (AP) _ For most Japanese, two words used to describe the works of author Kenzaburo Oe have been ″too difficult.″

But now that Oe has won the Nobel Prize for literature, two more words may be needed: ″best-selling.″

In a matter of days, his Japanese publishers say, bookstores have snapped up the entire stock of Oe’s works. Now they’re begging customers to hold on until the end of the month, when they turn out new print runs of as many as 30,000 copies per work.

″We’ve got so many orders ... we can’t respond,″ said Yuzo Abe of Iwanami Shoten, one of Oe’s three Japanese publishers. ″Normally it takes a month, and no matter how much we hurry it takes 15 days″ to print more copies, he said.

Last week, the 59-year-old Oe (pronounced OH-eh) became the second Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize. Yasunari Kawabata won it in 1968.

Of course, it’s nothing unusual for a Nobel Prize to spark interest in an author. Still, Oe’s sudden popularity has taken many in the industry by surprise.

″This is just my personal opinion, but his books are difficult, so frankly speaking, I didn’t think they’d sell this well,″ Abe said.

One television station surveyed 40 students at Tokyo University, the nation’s most prestigious university and Oe’s alma mater, and found only six had read a book by Oe. All six said they found the first work tough going and haven’t read another.

″I’ve made a stab at any number of his books. But each time I quit part way through,″ confesses Tadahiko Arai of Shinchosha, another Oe publisher.

Oe’s novels are known for their modernistic, dark portrayals of human relationships. The Nobel academy said his novel ″The Silent Cry″ depicts ″a confusing world in which knowledge, passions, dreams, ambitions and attitudes merge into each other.″ The fact that Japanese are snapping up Oe’s works despite his reputation reflects the enormous prestige Europe carries in Japan in the fine arts. Japanese musicians who win competitions or good reviews in Europe can expect to play to full houses at home - even if no one was interested in hearing them previously.

Stephen Shaw, editorial director at English-language publisher Kodansha International, suggests beginners try the 1964 novel ″A Personal Matter.″

″It’s the most accessible, readable, personal of his books. It’s directly facing the problem of a father who’s about to have a brain-damaged child,″ he says.

Foreign readers can expect a raft of new translations of Oe’s works into English and other languages, Shaw says, including two previously untranslated novels coming out from Kodansha.

″Interest in Japanese literature has been comparatively small overseas, but with this we have great hopes that it will become popular,″ said Kodansha’s Nobuhiko Fujimoto.

DS-10-20-94 0759EDT

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