Thursday 7 October 2010

Review: The Changeling, Kenzaburo Oe (2010)

When Goro Hanawa, the famous Japanese filmmaker, kills himself by falling from the top of a building, the event touches the lives of many, but most especially those of his brother-in-law Kogito Choko and his sister Chikashi, Kogito's wife. As well as drawing the famous author and his wife to Goro's house to attend the funeral, on a psychological level the death - which had occurred soon after Goro had been viciously attacked by a pair of yakuza thugs in his garage as he got out of his Bentley - has aftershocks the couple struggle to deal with.

You would have thought that the effect on Chikashi would have been the greater, but what happens to Kogito is possibly even more unpleasant, and it impinges on the rest of his family, too. Some time before he died, Goro had given Kogito a set of cassette tapes and a curious, slightly antiquated cassette player the writer dubs 'Tagame' because it resembles a particular type of beetle that could be found near his family home in his ancestral town near the Shikoku city of Matsuyama, where he had got to know Goro and Chikashi in his youth.

(It's no accident that the name Kogito resembles Descarte's famous dictum, "Cogito ergo sum." Kogito's father was a community leader who chose the name because of this resemblance. Likewise, Oe's choosing 'Tagame' to refer to the fateful instrument constitutes a knowing gesture; it resembles the English nonsense phrase 'tape game.')

Goro and Kogito are fictional names but their stories are based, at least in part, on those of real people. Goro resembles Itami Juzo, whose ideosynchratic comedies, such as 1985's Tampopo and 1987's A Taxing Woman, are legendary for devotees of arthouse cinema. Juzo also adapted Oe's book A Quiet Life for the cinema, in 1995. He died in 1997. Kogito is based on Oe himself.

In their youth the two precocious students carefully read such European literature as the poetry of Rimbaud, and these tender exchanges are documented in the novel as Oe takes the reader back in time to a part of their shared lives of particular importance. There was something that happened to them at that time, over a period of two days when they accepted the invitation of an American cultural attache named Peter to visit a remote community run by a band of radicals who held Kogito's dead father in great esteem. The period in question was just after Japan's surrender to the Allies, who then moved their forces into Japan to complete the country's transformation from oligarchy to democracy. Some people, including the radical sect, deeply resented the defeat and planned retaliatory strikes. In their case, they wanted Peter to supply them with guns - albeit inoperable ones - so that they could storm an Army base nearby.

A shadowy, sinister figure, Peter has sexual designs on Goro and his invitation to the secluded farm is part of the grooming process. How far it develops cannot be understood by Kogito because he had, at a point of tension during the visit, quit the community in alarm and returned to his parents' home. Goro followed but by the time he arrived at the house many hours had passed. It is not clear to Kogito if Peter has been massacred by the young radicals, or what, exactly, Goro has experienced.

In his connubial residence, decades later, Kogito thinks about past events as he listens to Goro's voice speak to him from the tapes being played in Tagame. Because he has taken to playing them late into the night, disturbing his family's rest, he decides at some point to take a break. With this in mind, he accepts a teaching position from the Free University of Berlin, where it is winter. The voyage brings him closer to Goro, however, because his old friend had been in the city not long before, in his capacity as filmmaker.

When Kogito returns to Tokyo, he has gained some of the equilibrium news of the death cost him. In his luggage he has brought back a number of books, and one, in particular, interests Chikashi. It is a slim illustrated children's book by the American author Maurice Sendak and it is about a changeling and the efforts the child's sister expends in order to return the child to her home.

One day, a young woman named Ura Shima telephones the house and Chikashi answers the phone. She is surprised to hear from the woman, as Ura had featured in part of the Tagame tapes Kogito had passed to Chikashi to listen to. Those sections chronicled a powerful, enriching erotic experience Goro had enjoyed during a Berlin sojourn shortly before his fall and death. Ura is now in trouble and the child she carries in her womb, although it's other parent is not Goro, becomes a means by which Chikashi can adopt the role of the sister in the Sendak book: saving the child, the changeling, from the ogres who had taken it away, leaving an ice facsimile in its place. By helping to pay for an apartment in Berlin for Ura, Chikashi believes she can in some fashion help to bring back some part of Goro's person. It is a small price to pay for her spiritual peace.

As with Oe's novels generally, the autobiographical element, while explicitly present, is in no way irksome. Also like his work overall, The Changeling promotes a thoughtful state in the reader's mind, and this is why I enjoy reading his books so much.

Oe's prose is meticulous with specific effects achieved in an incremental and unhurried fashion that yet avoids ever being ponderous or frustrating the reader. It is a prose of such commanding purpose yet it seems to be quite ordinary by nature. There is, simply, nothing like it in the world of letters apart from that which is found in other Oe novels. The danger for the reviewer in recommending a book like The Changeling is that one risks appropriating part of the author's glamour by the mere act of giving such advice, and that very act feels somewhat presumptuous. However, I will recommend the book to those who take pleasure in their literature, and who enjoy feeling the irreplicable frisson that textual pleasure alone, it seems, can produce not only in the mind but also in the body itself.

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