Magill's Literary Annual 2011
Author: Kenzaburo Oe (1935- )
First Published: Torikae ko (Chenjiringu), 2000, in Japan
Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publisher: Grove Press (New York). 468 pp. $26.00; paperback $15.95
Type of Work: Novel
Time: 1997 to 1999, with flashbacks as far back as 1952
Locale: Tokyo, Matsuyama, and Ehime prefecture, Japan
Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Oe's novel successfully mixes autobiography and magical realism to explore meaningfully the ideas of friendship, identity, trauma, artistic creation, and the problem of suicide. His characters struggle with some key issues arising from contemporary human existence
Kogito Choko, a novelist thrown into crisis by the suicide of his close
Goro Hanawa, film director who commits suicide at the beginning of the
novel and is considered a changeling by his sister Chikashi
Chikashi Choko, Kogito's wife, sister of Goro
Daio, one-armed leader of a band of young, right-wing disciples whom
he inherited from Kogito's late father in 1945
Peter, a homosexual U.S. Army officer serving in Japan in 1952
Mitsu Azuma-Böme, a mysterious older Japanese woman who seeks
Kogito out in Berlin
Akira Choko, Kogito's son and slightly mentally handicapped composer
Ura Shima, Goro's teenage lover in Berlin one year before his suicide
The Changeling offers readers an intellectually rich portrayal of the friendship between a movie director and a novelist that is cut short by the director's tragic suicide. Even though the novel is built on a strong autobiographical link to its Japanese author, Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, with key characters modeled on himself and his real friends and family, it can be enjoyed as a literary work of considerable stature on its own. A certain dose of magical realism, familiar from other works by Oe and stemming from the influence of Gabriel García Márquez, gives a certain unreal, and often darkly humorous, flair to some sections. With Deborah Boliver Boehm's graceful and attentive translation, The Changeling is accessible to an English speaking readership. Readers are likely to enjoy this novel for its literary quality and scope of intellectual inquiry.
Beginning on the night when film director Goro Hanawa commits suicide by jumping to his death from the roof of his eight-story office building, The Changeling follows the process by which his friend and brother-in-law Kogito Choko and Goro's sister Chikashi Choko try to make sense of Goro's desperate act. The novel quickly hints that at least one important key to Goro's suicide may lie in the past, when he and Kogito were high school students in years immediately following World War II. In due course, Oe sets before the reader an intricate pattern of inquiry into the souls of Kogito, Goro, and their families and friends, all of whom occupy a place in the artistic scene of contemporary Japan.
Coincidentally, on the night of Goro's suicide, Kogito is listening to the last of more than thirty cassette tapes filled with Goro's musings that he had send Kogito over the previous few years. Kogito has been listening to these tapes with an outdated tape recorder. The shape of its two huge black headphones, Kogito explains, each "bore a curious resemblance to the giant medieval-armored water beetles known as tagame--pronounced "taga-may"--that Kogito used to catch . . . as a boy." For this reason, Kogito refers to the machine as Tagame. On the last tape, Goro announces "I'm going to head over to the other side now." After a loud thud, his voice resumes, promising to continue to communicate to Kogito through Tagame, that is, his tapes.
Indicative of the fine line between the magical world and reality that Oe treads in The Changeling, the brief resumption of Goro's last recording after the thud may hint at a posthumous message. For a realistic explanation, Kogito wonders if Goro jumped to his death while recording. Because his wife insists he should not view the corpse at Goro's wake, Kogito cannot find out if Goro's face bears an imprint from headphones, which would have proved he continued his last message after his fall, just before dying from his injuries. On the other hand, throughout the novel, there are no more messages from Goro. His communication with Kogito comes through Goro's prerecorded tapes alone. Oe hints here at the possibility that Kogito and Goro's friendship has become mutually solipsistic.
Kogito quickly becomes obsessed with this peculiar way of conversing with his dead friend. Ensconcing himself in his study at night, he picks up one of the tapes and inserts it into the Tagame machine. He listens to his friend's musings, and when he feels compelled to reply, he hits the pause button and speaks his own words before resuming the tape. Oe uses Kogito's obsession to develop a series of philosophical dialogues on the meaning of death, friendship, memory, and artistic creation. Oe gives Kogito the conviction that he is playing a mind game related by Kogito to the real-life theories of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin about such an endeavor. This insight deliberately links the action of the novel to concepts from literary theory.
On the realistic side of The Changeling, Kogito's wife and their mildly mentally handicapped son, Akari, who successfully composes contemporary music, ask Kogito to stop his disturbing conversations via Tagame. As low as Kogito responds, his voice is still audible in Chikashi and Akari's rooms below Kogito's second-floor study. In response, Kogito submits himself to what he calls a "Tagame-free quarantine in Berlin." Goro actually suggested this to him on one of his last tapes. Agreeing to a one-term lectureship at the Free University of Berlin, an actual school, Kogito leaves without taking Tagame.
Oe uses Kogito's stay in Berlin both to develop The Changeling as a substantial novel of ideas and to have his protagonist pursue possible motives for Goro's suicide. This makes for interesting reading across different genres of writing offered by Oe's text. One possible reason for the suicide becomes evident: It may have been in response to a tabloid threatening to expose Goro's involvement in a sex scandal that began a year before his suicide when he was in Berlin. This might fit with Kogito being accosted there by the mysterious older Japanese expatriate woman Mitsu Azuma-Böme, who may be the mother of the young girl involved in the scandal. On the other hand, Kogito reveals that Goro was attacked and slashed in the face by yakuza thugs a few years earlier. The thugs objected to Goro's satirical treatment of the yakuza in one of his movies. However, The Changeling, in a rare moment of certainty, through the character of Kogito's police officer brother, Chu, rejects the idea that the yakuza killed Goro and faked his suicide.
Chikashi, Goro's sister and Kogito's wife, offers a third explanation. Goro's suicide may be the direct logical result of a change occurring in him after a traumatic experience he had, alongside Kogito, when he was eighteen years old in 1952. With this clue, The Changeling offers its first interlude of magical realism. Kogito reveals a surrealist phenomenon that may parallel Goro being attacked for his work. Whenever Kogito had written something critical of a group of right-wing paramilitarists in his home province of Ehime, on Japan's southwest island of Shikoku, he was attacked by three local thugs. Each time, one of them dropped an antique "miniature cannonball onto the second joint of his big toe" as punishment. Continuing his musings in this vein, Kogito tells how, as a high school student in 1952, he was accosted by one-armed Daio, leading a band of youthful right-wingers. Daio inherited the group from the original leader, Kogito's father. The older Kogito died in a surreal, botched bank robbery the day after Japan's surrender on August 16, 1945.
Mirroring Goro's ridicule of the yakuza in his movie to make them look less fearful, The Changeling paints an absurd picture of a bizarre right-wing group. It is linked to a traumatic event in Goro's and Kogito's past, somewhat overominously referred to as "THAT" by the two characters in the novel. Daio befriends Kogito and Goro because of the latter's friendship with Peter, an officer in the U.S. Army occupying Japan after World War II. Inviting Peter and the boys to his forest training camp, Daio hopes to persuade Peter to provide him with some broken weapons for a suicidal mock attack on the American base in Matsuyama. The Changeling reveals that both Peter and Daio are pederasts who try to molest Goro and Kogito. Thwarted, Daio has his disciples throw a freshly cut calf skin over the two boys that leaves them bloody and traumatized.
Deliberately ambiguous, Oe provides two possible endings for the incident through the technique of a text within a text. Goro's unfinished last screenplay that is delivered to Kogito back in Japan contains two versions. In one, Goro was sent home by Daio as Peter engaged in sexual intercourse with minors. In the other, Peter was murdered by Daio's disciples. Chikashi acknowledges that the truth could have been found if the boys had asked the Americans "whether Peter had returned safely, but perhaps they could not bring themselves to go back there," thus keeping the ending open.
Chikashi believes that this incident in 1952 turned her brother Goro into a changeling, according to a folk myth about goblins exchanging human babies for one of their own. By supporting Goro's lover from Berlin, young Japanese student Ura Shima, in carrying her pregnancy to term, Chikashi believes Goro will be reborn.
Readers not familiar with Oe's work and life can still enjoy The Changeling without following up on all its superabundant autobiographical and historical references. Most important, Kogito stands in for Oe himself. Goro is modeled very closely on Oe's friend, Japanese filmmaker Juzo Itami (pseudonym of Yoshihiro Ikeuchi). Itami committed suicide on December 20, 1997, in the fashion described in The Changeling. In the United States, Itami's best-known film is Tampopo (1985; also released as Dandelion). It is mentioned in the novel along with his other films, some with slightly different titles, as is done in the case of Kogito's/Oe's novels. Like Goro, who shares his first name with the protagonists of Tampopo and a later Itami movie, Itami was attacked by a gang of yakuza in 1992 for his satirical movie Minbo no Onnna (1992; Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion). However, the magical realist parts of The Changeling are clearly fiction; also, Oe's father died in 1944 and not in the manner of Kogito's father at all.
At the end of The Changeling, Oe reflects on his technique to write the novel according to the theory voiced by Kogito that "meaning emerges from the progression of slight variations." For the novel, it means that by slightly and also drastically changing events from his own life and work and that of his friends, Oe seeks to arrive at some profound truths about contemporary human existence and the plight of the artistic soul. The Changeling offers a disarming self-awareness of many of its literary techniques and methods. About Kogito's unusual, not really Japanese name, for instance, the novel has its character Daio state the obvious implication: Kogito's grandfather named him for René Descartes's famous lines, "Cogito, ergo sum." As cogito means "I think" in Latin, it is an apt, tongue-in-cheek name for Oe's deep-thinking protagonist. Kogito reappeared in Oe's later novel Sayonara, watashi no hon yo! (2005; Farewell, my books).
Critical reception of The Changeling has been positive. Some critics noticed that Oe's books have not attracted the huge international readership of the novels of his Japanese contemporary Haruki Murakami. The Changeling itself comments at various times on the loss of readership of Kogito's books in Japan. This is an autobiographical hint that Oe's politically committed, antinationalistic, and philosophically minded books often mixing magical realism and realist observations about contemporary Japanese culture may be uncomfortable for some readers. As the rich substance of The Changeling demonstrates, this is a pity and a loss for those disinclined to engage with Oe's powerful work. The Changeling shows Oe again as a leading, if challenging, contemporary master storyteller from Japan.
R. C. LutzReview Sources
Booklist 106, no. 13 (March 1, 2010): 48.
Library Journal 135, no. 6 (April 1, 2010): 69-70.
The New York Times Book Review, May 16, 2010, p. 28.
The New Yorker 86, no. 6 (March 29, 2010): 101.
Publishers Weekly 256, no. 48 (November 30, 2009): 26.
The Times Literary Supplement, June 18, 2010, pp. 19-20.
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