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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Book review: The Changeling, Kenzaburo Oe (2010)

Kenzaburo Oe.
I first reviewed this book a bit more than two years ago, and in that blog post I detail the novel's major elements, so you might want to read that post as well. What I did not talk about at any length in that review, and what strikes me as most significant about the novel, now, after a second reading more than two years later, is the place that dark forces occupy in Japan and, by extension, in the world. In a real sense, the novel is "about" those dark forces and how good people are affected by them, and how they combat them.

It's not just about the signal event of the novel, which Kogito, the writer, calls "THAT", during which 17-year-old Kogito and Goro, his friend, face a severe test of character when Peter, the American, and the group of "warriors" living in the forest, try to use Goro for their own purposes. What Oe does is to tie this seminal event to the yakuza attack on Goro, the adult filmmaker, and to a series of attacks that Kogito is subject to by a group of unknown people who speak in the dialect of his home town, when they crush his big toe, periodically over a number of years, using a rusty, miniature cannonball. Goro's suicide was the result of one of these acts of violence. Kogito, with whom Goro used to, as a youth, work to translate pooetry from French into Japanese, fares better.

Japan is famous for its politeness and reserve but within the scope of Oe's novel we see a dark side of the country, a thing that seemingly has no name in polite discourse for the Japanese themselves, but that is every bit as real as the famous tea ceremony or the polite bow that is used on first encounters. And this dark side is linked with Japanese nationalism in the novel, not just through the agency of the young "warriors" who try to get Peter to give them unusable guns so that they can stage a rebellious attack on the occupying forces, just after WWII, and so go down in a blaze of glory. The urge felt by these young men to publicly oppose the American military who have taken control of Japan as a result of the victory in war of 1945, also appears among the yakuza who attack Goro with knives, which is the event that clearly leads to Goro's suicide, the event that opens the novel. The two men, friends in youth when they lived in Shikoku, an island of Japan, have somehow, by reaching outside Japan to the rich smorgasbord of global culture, offended against Japan's honour and must, these people think, be punished.

The dark forces affect Chikashi, Kogito's wife and Goro's sister, too. It was Chikashi who took in the two young men when they returned from their two-day adventure that Kogito calls "THAT" in the story, helped them to bathe, put out fresh, clean clothes for them, and laid down the futons so that they could sleep. Now, after Goro's death and after seeing how that event has affected her husband, Chikashi takes on a key role in the narrative. In a book by Maurice Sendak she sees herself figured as a young girl who combats the goblins that have taken away her younger sister, a baby. In place of the baby the goblins left a baby made of ice, and the girl ventures into their hideout to reclaim her lost sibling, the changeling. In the final pages of the book, Chikashi finds a way to reclaim her brother, lost to goblins, and help to raise a changeling in his place. It is a profoundly positive step to take, as Chikashi realises that she also can contribute to inventing a better future by taking concrete steps to help the young woman who comes to her, and who communicates with her tears the effect that the novel's dark forces are having on her.

In my earlier review I talked briefly about the "irreplicable frisson that textual pleasure alone, it seems, can produce not only in the mind but also in the body itself" and how the text produces "a thoughtful state in the reader's mind". Truly, there is something mesmeric about Oe's prose. In the book, through the agency of Goro, Oe is even able to criticise his own style, its complexity and self-referentiality. But I think that clever readers will find, here, something that cannot be found anywhere else in the world of letters. Within these pages is a grand narrative in the style of the masters of the distant past. But where those writers employed a large cast of characters to give movement to their plots - Tolstoy, say, or Dickens - in an Oe novel the action takes place amid a small band of people. We're talking depth and we're talking intimacy, and it's also about ensuring that no opportunity is missed to convey meaning. Even the disabled son who appears in many other Oe novels makes an appearance here.

Wishing merely to illustrate my admiration for Oe I will call the class the 'domestic novel of association', and leave it to another to agree or disagree. For my part, I always put down a novel by Oe with a feeling of reverence, and that, surely, is a precious and rare thing.

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