SOMERSAULT

By Kenzaburo Oe

Translated from the Japanese

By Philip Gabriel

Grove. 570 pp. $26

If we accept, as Ste{acute}phane Mallarme{acute} said, that everything exists to end up in a book, then perhaps we can explain the uncanny lack one senses in reading Kenzaburo Oe's first novel since he received the Nobel Prize in 1994. Everything, it seems, is here: religion, art, sex (straight and gay), terrorism, the fate of the Earth, even close analysis of Welsh poetry. Yet as one reads the many hundreds of pages, one feels keenly the absence of what does not exist.

We are compelled to read on in order to make sense of this lack; what are we missing? The same compulsion seems to drive the novel's major characters. Occasionally, something comes into their lives to suggest what is missing. In the prologue, Kizu, an artist reaching what he fears is a middle-age dead end, watches as a peculiarly ugly boy collides with a girl dancer when they swap places on a stage. The collision damages the prize model the boy is carrying, and, in an act of studied determination, he smashes it against the floor. Kizu is fascinated with "what radiated . . . from the boy's looks and attitude" as he made the decision to destroy his model. But what radiated, exactly? Perhaps Kizu's imagination was projecting a sign of self-assertion against a bleak future. How can he find out if it's more than that? Anyway, he doesn't forget.

Years later, after returning to Japan from a long spell as a professor at an American university, Kizu seeks out both the boy and the girl, who are now adults. He finds them and not only begins a sexual relationship with the boy but joins them as part of a small religious movement headed by a guru double act nicknamed Patron and Guide. While this isn't the only unconvincing coincidence in the novel, one is quite prepared to suspend disbelief as the story stirs hope that whatever is missing will appear. Is it spiritual salvation that hasn't yet arrived? Patron and Guide themselves are still looking for it. Ten years before, they had dissolved their first movement because a radical faction threatened acts of terrorism to further its demand for mass repentance. On national TV, the leaders performed the somersault of the novel's title, reversing their teachings by declaring them ridiculous -- "just a joke." Now, despite their diminished reputation, they want to relaunch the movement because Patron's premonitory trances have returned, promising apocalypse.

The bulk of Somersault is taken up with various characters talking about their lives and the future of the new church. The discussions are often so staged and leaden that the reader is impressed with Oe's determination to tell the story against the demands of realism and an impatient culture. However, not all of the discussions are dull. One in particular, in which Patron and Kizu share their love of R.S. Thomas's poetry, is charmingly perverse and stimulating. Patron recognizes that the tension between the poetic impulse and its expression in Thomas's poems is very similar if not identical to his own struggle with mystical experience. He has depended on Guide to interpret his ramblings after each trance, just as a poet relies on his craft.

When Guide is no longer able to provide this service, Kizu takes over and paints interpretations of Patron's trances instead. A triptych of his becomes a centerpiece in the design of the new church. Instead of the apocalypse, then, we get more art. For one character at least, this is not enough. What radiated from the boy when he destroyed his model was impatience to get beyond this human point. Some readers might share his feelings as the novel repeats itself and concludes in what could be interpreted as both a bang and a whimper.

When Oe received the Nobel Prize, the committee in Stockholm praised the "poetic force" of his work. It could not have been referring to his prose. I have never seen so many cliche{acute}s in a literary novel: Twice, Kizu is "cut" or "pierced" to the quick, and on one page the local economy gets "a shot in the arm" while terrorists's plans receive a "nip . . . in the bud." In fairness to the translator, Philip Gabriel, comparing Somersault to other translations of Oe's work suggests that the fault lies with the author.

Perhaps the unpretentious language is meant to direct our attention to the signs the novel's characters witness. To them, and to us, these signs promise great things. Yet they also torment, because what they presage is permanently delayed. Limited to reading and interpreting, one grows impatient. It could be that each sign, like the "poetic force" of this novel, is only a figment of the imagination. *

Stephen Mitchelmore is a freelance critic and writer living in Portsmouth, England.

Kenzaburo Oe