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The Changeling [Paperback]

Kenzaburo Oe , Deborah (Trn) Boehm

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Book Description

3 Mar 2011
Kogito is a writer, and is in his sixties when he rekindles a childhood friendship with his estranged brother-in-law Goro. Goro sends Kogito a number of cassette tapes onto which he has recorded reflections about their friendship. But one night, Goro's message takes a profoundly unsettling turn: 'I'm going to head over to the Other Side now,' Goro says, and then Kogito hears a loud thud. After a moment of silence, Goro's voice continues: 'But don't worry, I'm not going to stop communicating with you.' Moments later, Kogito's wife rings to tell him that Goro has jumped to his death from the roof of a building. Kogito begins a search to understand what drove his brother-in-law to suicide. The Changeling takes readers from the forests of southern Japan to the streets of Berlin in a profound exploration of the ways in which the past - both real and imagined - affects our lives.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author

Considered one Japan's leading post-war writers, Kenzaburo Oe is also the author of A Personal Matter, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, and A Quiet Life, among others. He has won almost every major international honour, including the 1989 Prix Europalia and the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.7 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life in Fractals 5 Aug 2010
By Roger Brunyate - Published on
Fractal designs, such as used to be popular twenty years ago, have the property that any part of them replicates the whole in miniature. If you zoom in on even the tiniest detail, you can reach an understanding of the entire shape. This analogy occurs to me after reading THE CHANGELING by Kenzaburo Oe, a late work by the Japanese Nobel Laureate, and so far the only thing by him that I have read. Where most novels have a linear narrative behind them, this one reads as a series of one-sided conversations, thoughts about literature and other arts, buried memories, and some bizarre incidents -- all generally minor in themselves, but each seemingly endowed with immense hidden significance, each a clue to some overall design that only gradually emerges as the various details replicate and mirror one another.

Despite its abstract content, the book is easy to read and its framework simple. Kogito Choko, a celebrated writer, is listening to some tapes sent him by his brother-in-law Goro Hanawa, once his childhood friend and now a famous film director. At the end of one of the cassettes, Goro remarks "So anyway, that's it for today -- I'm going to head over to the Other Side now. But don't worry, I'm not going to stop communicating with you." Immediately after, Goro throws himself out of the window of his high building. Kogito (an obsessive thinker, aptly named by his father from the phrase "cogito ergo sum") engages in months of conversation with the dead Goro, playing snatches of the tapes, stopping them for his own response, and then continuing to hear his friend's answer. When his wife suggests he needs to get away, he accepts a guest professorship in Berlin, where Goro had himself lived a few years back.

As an example of Oe's method, take the chapter in which Kogito is being interviewed on television in connection with the Berlin Film Festival. There is a long section about how he gets to the interview, or almost doesn't get to it: crossed wires with the person picking him up, confusion at the hotel where this is taking place, description of the technicians setting up the equipment in the hotel ballroom, the physical arrangement of the chairs, backdrop, camera, monitors, all in obsessive detail. And then, without further preamble, Kogito is shown a number of film clips on the monitor: samurai fighting off a peasant army, and a modern game of rugby football. He recognizes it as scenes from a book he had written, entitled RUGBY MATCH 1860. In the novel, he had used the battle and the game as metaphors, but he intrigued by the decision of these filmmakers to film them literally, with an acute feeling for the Japanese atmosphere. He is told that what he has just seen is the only footage from the project so far shot, but the young filmmakers have run out of money; would he be willing to concede them the rights for free? Kogito's translator warns him that he is being ambushed, but he agrees, and the chapter ends.

The core of this chapter, I believe, lies in one of its smallest details, the samurai film clip. Certain aspects of it reflect other images we encounter involving Kogito's father, who appears to have been something of a philosophical leader of an ultra-right-wing movement opposing the Japanese surrender to the US. Kogito's own politics, on the other hand, are liberal, so perhaps he is the Changeling of the title? (Or one of them, along with Goro.) One begins to see that the whole novel is about change. In the background, there is the reconstruction of Japanese society after defeat. But this is worked out in terms of ideas -- translation between languages, translation of one medium into another (writing into film or opera), and perhaps (as the example above would suggest) the handing over of ideas from one generation to another.

The fractal metaphor works on the personal level as well. From what I can gather, this novel reflects themes from every other book that Oe has written, and these in turn reflect the author's life. His brother-in-law was indeed a famous film director, Juzo Itami, who committed suicide in a similar way. Like the fictional Kogito, Kenzaburo Oe has a son who was born brain-damaged, barely able to communicate in words, but who eventually found success as a composer. All Oe's novels contain such a character, and the writer has spoken of his aim to give his son a voice denied to him in life. While the composer-son plays a relatively small role here, Oe shifts the relationship back a generation, as Kogito tries to understand the legacy of his own father and the huge changes between the Japan of his time and that of the present. The themes of rebirth and the passing of the torch between generations become clear only at the very end, but after so much mind-play they bring a lovely touch of simple human emotion.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All alone on the Other Side 20 May 2011
By H. Schneider - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The master is back in grand style. I had given up on Oe as a novelist, after the rather boring previous Somersault. His latest, originally from 2000, but in the translated version copyrighted 2010, is a magnificent hoax, a piece of double talk strewn with traps and resonant with the basso ostinato of relentless self-mockery. I am sure there are even readers who are fooled into thinking that this is a piece of darkness, loaded with the search for the meaning of death. Is there life after death, is there a soul different from the body? Where does it go?

The novel is based on real life events, mainly a brother-in-law's suicide in 1997, but essentially all the way back to WW2.
Oe gives us a self-portrait under the name of Kogito Choko. The hero is a writer of international fame, a brooding man, with a handicapped son (who has turned into a composer). Even Choko's book titles are identical with Oe's. Kogito has most of Oe's life, he comes from a place in the hinterland, surrounded by forests. He had studied French literature, and later, after having become famous, taken teaching assignments in the US and in Germany. He speaks English that is hard to follow. Germany is his second foreign market, after the US. His fame has somewhat subsided, and there are opponents, specially a journalist at home, who likes to attack him viciously. He has a childhood friend, Goro, who has made it in the film world, as an actor and as a director. Goro has made a film of Choko/Oe's `A Quiet Life'. Kogito has married Goro's sister.

The story starts with a bang: the friend/ brother-in-law commits suicide by jumping from a high place. He had previously taken up the habit of sending Kogito cassette tapes with long ranting monologues. Kogito will listen to the tapes at night, and make his own comments. It is a dialogue of sorts. The comments are not sent back. There are 30 tapes.

One day, while listening to a tape, Kogito hears an announcement from Goro that he is now going to the other side, and that he will stay in contact. Then follows a noise like a thud, which Kogito will later call the Terrible Thud. Then he hears Goro say some more words.
Later he learns that the suicide had happened some hours before. From then on, listening and re-listening to the collected tapes becomes an obsession, as does looking for other ways of contact with the friend, who is now assumed lonely on the Other Side.

We learn that Goro had messed with Kogito's life since a long time, setting up hoaxes, with him and also against him. Together they had cooked up the project that Kogito would invent an unknown, unpublished, aging Japanese writer, would publish conversations with him, would start inventing pieces of the man's work, would then let him die and then start editing the man's life work, thus merging into him.

We find that the tapes are full of similar pranks. Kogito is thus manipulated, from the `other side' so to say, into accepting a teaching job in Berlin in the winter 1999/2000. This excursion turns into an expedition into Goro's past, and possibly into the reasons for the suicide.
As the lives of the two men were intertwined for decades, the expedition also leads into Kogito's own past, and beyond that to his father's role as a leader of a short-lived right-wing insurrection which had tried to oppose Japan's surrender. Kogito has made enemies by his literary treatment of this past.
In a ponderous way we are gradually dragged into a literary mystery with a political dimension, where the awareness of time and of causality becomes shaky. The word cogitacious (or cogitational?) does not yet exist, but I propose to admit it to general use for books like this. Or do you believe Oe calls his `hero' `Kogito' for no reason?

The book's language is cogitacious not just in content, but also in style. That requires some getting into. As I don't read Japanese, I can't tell if it is equivalent to Oe's own style. It might well be that Oe builds walls to make it harder for us to enter his hermetic world, or to make us believe that he is serious.
It could also be the translator's fault. Since the text and the story move in the cultural rectangle of Japanese, English, French, and German, we meet quite a few international quotes and names. I am not always convinced that either Oe or his translator has handled all those quite properly. I have noted some cases, but won't bore you with them. They are trifles, but should be removed for a next edition.

A great novel, a true Nabokovian delight, just in time to revive my confidence in contemporary writers. Oe is not done yet. The book picks up on his old themes and works them into his new life story chapter. More should follow.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique masterpiece 6 May 2010
By Jonathan A. Weiss - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Kenzuboro Oe deserved the Nobel prize but is a very erratic writer with some defective works interspersed with major accomplishments. This book may be his best. It certainly is quirky so that it may not be to everyone's taste. The story which intertwines lives and changes narrative perspective (successfully) in the last section actually revolves around tape recordings by a person who committed suicide after a triumphs in the movies in a dialogue with a novelist who shares traits with the author. Quite a conceit. The pivotal event in the past deals with the novelist's father's last patriotic suicidal attack on a bank. The novel is richly textured, very vivid, carefully reflective, the characters extremely well portrayed. Sometimes the writing seems as if were meant to be translated as explanations of Japanese phrases follow. Immersion in this book will produce a profound understanding of post World War II Japanese reactions and the intellectual world that then developed. An adventure indeed and one worth taking for any lively mind.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mediaitons on the Death of a Director 27 Feb 2014
By Patrick Mc Coy - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I was intrigued to read Kenzaburo Oe’s novel The Changeling (2010) when I heard that it was about Oe’s brother-in-law the deceased filmmaker Juzo Itami. I had read mysterious reports about Itami’s suicide that suggested that it might have come at the hands of yakuza, which had earlier slashed his face for his portrayal of them in one of his films. It is clear from the tone of the novel that Oe believes it was a suicide; there were reports that one of the women he was cavorting with was going to cause a scandal-and this aspect is addressed in the book albeit in a way that seems entirely fictional. Although, there are many factual aspects to the novel, it is essentially a piece of fiction. But as I mentioned it was the real life aspects of the novel that attracted it to me. There is a lot about growing up in Matsuyama in Shikoku, a place that I had recently visited. The only other work of fiction by Oe that I had read was two novellas, 17 & J, one story was about a 17-year-old right wing nationalist fanatic who tried to become an assassin. There is apart of this novel that also addresses this right wing fanaticism that Oe finds so unpleasant. In the book his father had led a paramilitary group that brings in Kogito (the Oe character) and Goro (the Itami character) in an attempt to somehow get them to contribute to a terrorist plan to protest the signing of the Peace Treaty with the US. This night is focal point for each young man and in their relationship that remains close throughout life. This is shown in the tapes that Goro has left behind for Kogtio after his death, in which Kogtio tries to understand why Goro has killed himself. Oe brings in the concept of “the changeling” from a surprisingly non-literary source, Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Outside There. It was a complex and engaging novel about identity and meaning in life.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A decent offering from Oe (3.5 stars) 23 Aug 2010
By N. Johnson - Published on
"The Changeling", the latest available book from Oe in the US, is a decent offering. It moves quickly in parts, and it is a book that requires the reader's full attention and concentration as there is much introspection inserted throughout the novel.

As noted, the "The Changeling" deals with the suicide of Kogito Choko's brother-in-law, a world famous director, and Kogito's best friend since they were both about 18 (now in his 60's), and an earlier event the two experienced together. Although the book itself is relatively straightforward in construction, time is very important, and it can sometimes be difficult to determine seamlessly when in time certain events are taking place.

The shift in point of view for the last part is done to show a different perspective that is almost haunting, but incredibly interesting; to have read from this point of view throughout the entirety of the novel could have made for some good story-making. Oe mostly handles two difficult and saddening events with clarity and gentleness.
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