The Changeling Hardcover – 1 Jun 2010
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The new work from Nobel prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe, The Changeling is an ambitious, sweeping novel about friendship and the distances we are prepared to travel to preserve it.
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.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
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.