Book review: Michael Dirda reviews "The Changeling," by Kenzaburo Oe

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, March 25, 2010


By Kenzaburo Oe

Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm

Grove. 468 pp. $26

Most novels contain at least some autobiography. In Saul Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift" and "Ravelstein," for instance, we can recognize two of the author's old friends, the writer Delmore Schwartz and the University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom. In his biography of Proust, George Painter identifies all the original people behind the characters of "In Search of Lost Time." Frederick Exley's still underappreciated novel "A Fan's Notes" is a memoir in every way that counts.

Throughout his career, Kenzaburo Oe -- who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994 -- has hewn closely to his own history in both his fiction and nonfiction. This is so much so in his most recently translated novel, "The Changeling," that one is tempted to repeat the famous line of an early television police drama: "Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."

If you look up Oe in reference books or online, you will discover these facts: He is a longtime critic of Japanese nationalism and the right wing. He has often written about his brain-damaged son, who grew up to develop considerable musical talent. Oe's wife is the sister of his high school friend Juzo Itami, who became a celebrated actor and filmmaker. Itami was once ambushed and slashed in the face by yakuza thugs and later committed suicide by jumping to his death, ostensibly because of a sexual scandal.

All these details -- and many others -- are used in "The Changeling," though Oe is called Kogito Choko and Itami is named Goro Hanawa. Indeed, so close are the analogues between the novel and real life that it's altogether distracting. One of Kogito's novels is referred to by its German translation as "Der Stumme Schrei"; in English this would mean "The Silent Cry," the title of one of Oe's best-known books.

"The Changeling" opens with Goro's suicide. The filmmaker has been in the habit of sending Kogito cassette tapes in which he talks about writing, their youthful days together, the poetry of Rimbaud, filmmaking and much else. On the most recent tape, Goro casually says, "So anyway, that's it for today -- I'm going to head over to the Other Side now," followed by a loud thud.

Why has Goro jumped to his death?

Kogito finds himself obsessed with listening over and over again to the 30 or so cassettes that Goro sent him. Worried about her husband, Kogito's wife, Chikashi, insists that he snap out of it and move on. The novelist ends up taking her advice literally: He accepts a one-semester teaching job in Berlin, where Goro once worked on a film and apparently became involved with a mysterious young woman.

Later, after he returns to Japan, Kogito discovers that Goro was developing a screenplay based on an incident in their adolescence. It seems that Kogito's father was a right-wing nationalist who died in a suicidal bank robbery. His surviving followers continued to honor their sensei's memory, living as outlaws in a forest retreat. One weekend, the teenage Goro and Kogito, as well as a youthful Japanese-speaking American military officer named Peter, ended up as guests of this fanatical group. They feasted on delicious food, drank potent home-brew and . . . things happened.

While "The Changeling" obviously contains elements of mystery, psychological fiction and bildungsroman, it sadly lacks a clear and compelling narrative line. People who seem to be significant suddenly drop out of the story. Key plot elements are never clearly resolved. Chapters ramble and digress, and the prose is often cliche-ridden ("a hard nut to crack," "once in a blue moon," "in like Flynn," "all his ducks in a row"). The whole book isn't only long, it feels long -- and this is just the first volume of a trilogy about Kogito. The title, however, seems to refer to both Goro and Kogito's disabled son, Akari.

Perhaps the best parts of "The Changeling" are the discussions of art. On one tape, Goro wonders whether there are any great, transcendent writers alive, and, if so, whether any of them are Japanese. Kogito is modestly doubtful. He later admits that his own more mature prose lacks the sparkle of his earlier work due to his "having read too many Cambridge University Press research monographs about everyone from Blake to Dante." Goro maintains that one can't really watch a movie multiple times: "From the second viewing on, isn't our hypothetical viewer really watching what you might call a meta-movie of the film he saw the first time? In which case, unlike the strong emotional effect you get from seeing a new film, isn't it just a separate, diluted experience?" At a key moment, we learn the Japanese word "enbo," which means "bitter envious resentment."

I'd never read any of Oe's fiction before "The Changeling," and perhaps I've been unlucky in choosing to discover him in this late work. Even though the novel is full of intriguing elements, it never really springs to life. There's certainly no enbo involved in my reaction, only disappointment.

At one point, Goro critiques Kogito's gloomy, earnest fiction: "Why do you always have to make such a big fuss about yourself and insert yourself into the story under some contrived pseudonym?" Whatever the answer, autobiographical fiction isn't in itself objectionable. Being more than a little tedious is another matter.

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