Book Review: The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzburo Oe

Kenzburo Oe

My knowledge of Japanese literature is very limited. I know a few poets–mainly ancient masters of the haiku–and I knew two novelists: Yukio Mishma, who many of my generation would know as the author of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea,  and the contemporary novelist Haruki Murakami, whose critically acclaimed novels such as Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles have been international best sellers as well.

Well this summer, I was introduced to a new one–Kenzaburo Oe.  (It is evidence of my ignorance that Kenzaburo Oe won the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, but nevertheless unknown to me.)  I was introduced to him by a wonderful writer, reader, traveler and photographer who writes the erroneously named blog francescannotwrite and who spoke about picking up the novel in Geneva last year, having known nothing about it or the author either. Her comments on it stressed the intelligence of Oe and her fascination with the plot.  And it sent me searching for it.

She was right on both accounts.

The Changeling tells the story of an aging writer Kogito whose boy-hood friend is now his brother-in-law and a giant in the Japanese film industry. The brother-in-law, Goro, had once sent Kogito a tape-deck with a collections of tapes that he had made. These first tapes were of overheard (and recorded) conversations, eavesdropped moments, unsettling sounds that Goro collected to help Kogito put out of mind the vindictive journalist who has been hounding him.  Fifteen years later, Goro sent him a new collection of tapes, tapes that were, in his voice,  lectures, rants, philosophical  queries, friendly advice and mentoring, and most importantly–the announcement of his suicide.

Book cover for The Changeling

Book cover for The Changeling

In fact, it is on an early tape that Kogito learns of his friend’s death:

“So anyway, that’s it for today–I’m going to head over to the Other Side now,” Goro said casually. …”But don’t worry,” Goro went on, “I’m not going to stop communicating with you.”

And the rest of the tapes are Goro’s communication–from the Other Side. Each night Kogito listens, pauses the tapes, responds, pushes play again, responds again. In fact, each night after Goro’s death, Kogito has full-out conversations with his dead friend. Conversations that are filled with intelligence, logic, debate and argument and that are seeped in a great deal of memory.

After a while, Kogito’s wife–and Goro’s sister–asks him to stop. His loud conversations are upsetting both her and their disabled son.

Kogito does stop and accepts a guest teaching spot in Berlin. But Goro speaks to him in other ways there as well. There is a mysterious woman who claims to have known him, claims to know the real reason for Goro’s suicide. (The Japanese tabloids have been running with a scandalous story.)  But most importantly there are Kogito’s memories, which, alone in Berlin, he can recount, examine and analyze with much greater attention to detail.  Memories of Goro’s life, of his own, and of the two’s together.

We learn that Goro had been attacked and badly beaten by the henchman of Japanese organized crime (he had made an unflattering film about them), but then we learn that the left-leaning Kogito had years earlier been attacked  several times by right-wing groups. Goro’s attack made international news and he is fighting the thugs in court; Kogito never reported his assaults.

We also learn a disturbing secret of the two men’s shared childhood.  A secret that–when faced–shines much light on Kogito’s memories and the inward journey that Goro’s suicide precipitated.

Frances, of “francescannotwrite” mentions the intelligence with which the novel is imbued. And she is right.  The conversations between Goro and Kogito, one dead and one alive, are heady and range from art and politics to society and life, from French literature and Japanese gangsterism to the War and their childhoods.  In his tapes, Goro seems–from “the Other Side”–to be pushing his friend to a clarity that his life requires.

And it is a wonderful read. Like the art of Hokusai, where there are minimal lines but great power, Oe’s story is rich and dense and intelligent but it never feels that those things are in the foreground. The power is there in the conversations, the allusions, the references, but In the foreground is the fascinating history of Kogito and his dead friend.

It is a memorable story and a memorable novel.  So now, I need to find some others.