15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.