Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
The unexpected and sudden loss of a person close to us usually leaves us in a state of shock and disbelief, even more so when the cause of death happens to be suicide. In some cases friends and family might (just might) have had a chance to see it coming if they had paid more attention, while in other cases the reasons remain unexplained and mysterious, sometimes forever. In their grief many bereaved will start to ponder about what went wrong and what they could have done to prevent the fatal step. To come to terms with the void after his close friend and brother-in-law jumped off the roof of his office building in Tōkyō without a warning, the protagonist of The Changeling by Ōe Kenzaburō takes to conversing with him on the Other Side with the help of a stack of old-fashioned cassette tapes that the deceased recorded for him until shortly before his suicide.
Ōe Kenzaburō (大江 健三郎) was born in Uchiko, Ehime, Japan, in January 1935. Starting in 1957 he produced an enormous body of fiction as well as non-fiction up to this date, but only some of it has been translated into English. The author’s international fame is largely based on early novels like Seventeen (セヴンティーン: 1961), A Personal Matter (個人的な体験: 1964), The Silent Cry (万延元年のフットボール: 1967), and The Pinch Runner Memorandum (ピンチランナー調書: 1976). 同時代ゲーム (1979; The Contemporary Game) marked a turning point in his style which made his work less accessible and inevitably less popular with readers. Nonetheless, the novels Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! (新しい人よ眼ざめよ: 1983), An Echo of Heaven (人生の親戚: 1989) and A Quiet Life (静かな生活: 1990) still received some acclaim, while 燃えあがる緑の木 第一部 (1993-95; The Flaming Green Tree Trilogy) is quite overlooked. In 1994 the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Ōe Kenzaburō, but it didn’t result in his work being more widely translated. Among the author’s later novels only Somersault (宙返り: 1999) and The Changeling (取り替え子 [チェンジリング]: 2000; part 1 of the Pseudo-Couple Trilogy) seem to be available in English. Ōe Kenzaburō lives in Japan with his wife and their son, the musician Ōe Hikari.
At the beginning of The Changeling stands a small duralumin trunk filled with old-fashioned cassette tapes that film director Goro Hanawa recorded for his old high school friend and brother-in-law, the renowned writer Kogito Choko. On the tapes there are conversation-style monologues, but listening to them Kogito has taken to pressing the PAUSE button every so often to answer his absent friend as if they were speaking on the phone. One night after such a talk Kogito’s wife Chikashi tells him that her brother Goro killed himself jumping off his office building. After this inexplicable suicide Kogito’s conversations with Goro become an obsession in which he indulges daily well into the wee hours. Only several months later Chikashi finally takes the heart to ask him to stop because his nightly séances are increasingly worrying her and their son Akari. Kogito is reluctant to give up his habit, but it’s Goro himself who gives him the decisive advice from the Other Side:
“Anyway, I’ve been thinking about your situation, and I was wondering – how would it be if you took a little breather and left town for a while? You’ve been toiling away at the novelist’s life for all these years, and I really think you could use some quarantine time right about now. ...”
Thus on a day in November Kogito heads for Germany to begin a lectureship at the Berlin Free University. He travels with light luggage leaving behind Goro’s tapes, but despite all Goro is often on his mind during the one hundred days of self-imposed quarantine. In Berlin Kogito has much time to think about their relationship and their lives, especially a horrible event in their youth that both only refer to as THAT and that changed Goro so drastically that Chikashi felt as if he had been exchanged with another.
Like in many of Ōe Kenzaburō’s works the main characters of The Changeling bear a striking resemblance to the people surrounding him in true life. Here they are clearly based on himself and on his brother-in-law Itami Jūzō, but also his wife Yukari and his son Hikari are recognisable without difficulty. Kogito can be called with due right the author’s literary alter ego and the rather eventless plot shows many parallels to the biography of the Nobel laureate, and yet, I’m uncertain whether it is justified to call it a semi-autobiographical novel. Without doubt it is at least an unusual homage or memorial to his brother-in-law Itami Jūzō who in fact was an important Japanese film director and committed suicide jumping off his office building in 1997. The circumstances of his death were widely covered by the media at the time and Japanese – unlike foreign – readers probably still remembered most of it very well, when Ōe Kenzaburō released his novel. Reminiscences and reflections of the past along with other contemplations take up the greatest part of the book leaving little room for action and giving the author ample opportunity to indulge in more or less complex references to works of (usually western) literature, philosophy and the visual arts. Constant changes between the novel’s present and flashbacks sometimes make it difficult to keep track of the story although the language is simple and clear.
This was my first experience with a work of this Nobel laureate and I can say that I enjoyed The Changeling by Ōe Kenzaburō quite a lot. Admittedly, certain parts of the novel felt a bit bizarre and the author’s obvious obsession with violence and cruelty definitely isn’t my cup of tea, but the respective scenes weren’t enough to spoil my pleasure. Moreover, I was prepared for some of it because I read a critical study of his work – The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburō by the Australian scholar Yasuko Claremont – along with the book. It was helpful to better understand the workings of his mind. In any case, it is a good book and was worth the time. It’s not an easy read, but certainly one that I can recommend.
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