The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm
A lot of fiction writers ask themselves this question: Is my work readable? By “readable,” I refer to literary gimmicks; things like archaic allusions, meta-fictional self-references, and convoluted plot lines. Most writers use these gimmicks sparingly, knowing that a reader will only tolerate so much mind-fucking (to use the technical term) before they throw in the towel.
Like his protagonist, however, Kenzaburo Oe is not the kind of writer who takes his readers' sensibilities into consideration. He writes the novel he wants to write, and readability be damned. As long as you can reconcile yourself to the fact that Oe is smarter, more talented, and way more well-read than you are, you can happily set yourself to decoding the multiple layers of meaning in The Changeling over and over and over.
The plot is ostensibly simple: It revolves around the relationship between two gifted artists, Kogito Choko and Goro Hanawa. Choko, a successful novelist in his sixties, is a poorly-disguised stand-in for Oe himself, and Goro is a successful filmmaker. While their friendship has become rather strained in the past few decades, they've developed a means of communication through a set of tapes that Goro sends to Kogito, who then plays them back over a tape recorder with a tacky, noise-canceling headset that he's named “Tagame,” or beetle.
One night, Goro tells Kogito that it's about time that he, Goro, went to the other side. There's a thump. Then Goro cheerfully reassures his friend that they'll be in touch, before signing off. As a disturbed Kogito is drowsing off to sleep, his wife enters his study to inform Kogito that Goro has just committed suicide by jumping off a building.
Goro's death prompts Kogito into an extended reverie that lasts for pretty much the rest of the book. Kogito -- and yes, that's from Descartes's “Cogito, ergo sum” -- takes a guest professorship in Berlin, where he muses on the nature of art, languages, the American occupation of Japan, relationships and memory. He thinks about his wife, his disabled son Akari (whose name is suspiciously similar to Oe's own disabled son, Hikari), some old scandals, and a joke that he told once. He gets around to musing about a pivotal childhood experience that he and Goro shared, which reveals that Goro is the titular changeling.
And finally, in an abrupt double take, Kogito's wife, Chikashi -- who is also Goro's sister -- takes up the narrative. She reveals things that Kogito didn't know, summarizes all the pertinent points in a neatly-numbered list, and leaves the bewildered reader with no choice but to start reading the book all over again. This time, with the help of the reader's guide.
Lest you get the wrong impression, The Changeling isn't really that hard to read. Oe's prose is so spare and conversational that it can seem facile, especially to a Western reader who has grown up on a steady diet of Nabokov and Faulkner. As Coco Chanel once said, “Elegance is refusal.” The language is simple, yet elegant. It's the ideas that are hard to process.
And there are so many ideas, and so many that are relevant today. I just picked up the novel and opened it to a random page. On this page, Kogito is relating a relatively minor incident that happened to Goro, Goro's wife Umeko, one of the people from Goro's company, and Chikashi at a sushi restaurant. As they were about to eat, the sushi chef suddenly turns pale and asks if they would mind moving from their seats. Goro nonchalantly refuses. When they leave, Chikashi sees a lot of large men wearing sunglasses, standing around the restaurant. Umeko explains that the head of a yakuza crime syndicate wanted to sit where they were sitting, and that because of Goro's refusal, she was honestly expecting to die at any minute.
Oe cycles back and back to this minor incident, one of hundreds that is, perhaps, not so minor at all. He uses the incident to further elucidate Goro's character, of course, but he also uses it to examine the nature of “dirty journalism.” A journalist has been dogging Kogito's career for decades, trashing Kogito to promote his own work. This journalist uses the incident at the sushi restaurant to write an article, saying that Kogito should learn to be more brave and more politically provocative, like his dashing, courageous brother-in-law.
Should he be more politically provocative? As an artist, does Kogito have political responsibility or does he only have to produce art? And what's the nature of journalism? Chikashi exclaims that it seems like the journalists were almost disappointed that nothing happened, and Goro agrees. It's easy for journalists to pretend that they merely report the news, not create it. But as Heisenberg proved, it's impossible to observe something without fundamentally changing it. Perhaps provoked by that article, the yakuza begin to torture Kogito, and do so for years.
Goro also brings up a story, about a journalist who was trying to incite outrage over the fact that Japan's current princess is a commoner by asking the Japanese public, “What will you do if she gets pregnant?” Goro says that he wouldn't be surprised if someone was incited to terrorism by this sort of moral crusading. Goro blames the media, saying that a normal person would never dream of encouraging such behavior. Shades of the murdered late-term abortion provider George Tiller are inescapable.
Now you have, perhaps, an inkling of why this book took so long to read. This was one incident, on one page. There are hundreds more.
But by far the most interesting event is, of course, the one that makes Goro into the changeling. The incident takes place in the rural town that Kogito grew up in, and involves the machinations of a right-wing paramilitary group that Kogito's father founded. We never actually see this catastrophic event (which makes it easier to avoid talking about in this review). Decades later and after Goro's death, Chikashi gives Kogito a screenplay of Goro's that was based on that incident.
There are two scenarios, written and storyboarded. But neither Kogito, nor Chikashi, nor we will ever learn what actually happened. This leads us, the readers, to ruminations on the very nature of inspiration, and fiction versus life. Oe's books are thought to be extremely personal. Indeed, a lot of details can be corroborated with evidence from Oe's own life -- such as the fact that he has a disabled son, and that son's name is Hikari. But just as Kogito will never know the truth of the incident, how can we know the truth of Oe's life? It's a very Don-Quixote-esque meta-fictional moment, one of many that bumps you unceremoniously off the page and off, somewhere, into space.
I'm not even going to try to talk about all the literary allusions. Oe is very well-read, and expects his readers to be the same. But I've barely even heard of Rimbaud -- to discuss his work as translated into French, English, German and Japanese is a little beyond me. And yes, Oe does throw in a little bit of all those languages, just to keep you entertained! He even italicizes the French phrases that Kogito has trouble translating, just in case you happen to be fluent in French yourself.
Can it be said that a novel is too thinky-thinky for its own good? Ah, but Oe has even anticipated this objection. Chikashi's neatly numbered summary at the finale of the book clarifies many points and summarizes the salient ones for readers who are too exhausted to remember everything that they've read in the preceding four hundred pages. But the reader also realizes: While Kogito has been musing on all these varied topics over the past few years, Chikashi has been saying little and doing much.
She reminds us that, like Goro, she has a tendency to keep her counsel in the face of mysteries, waiting until the clues come together before talking -- unlike Kogito, who has a tendency to start babbling the minute something occurs to him. And while Kogito spends most of the novel strenuously avoiding confrontation and complication with people, including his own family, Chikashi directly engages with the world around her. She paints; takes care of their son; and easily, without drama, solves the mystery of Goro's missing mistress. Her narration at the end comes as a blessed sigh of relief.
In the Internet age, it's hard to remember that information in these quantities was once stuffed into human brains, instead of being downloaded to KenzaburoOe.com. Yet try, if you can, both to resist the temptation to throw this book in a corner out of exasperation, or to run to Wikipedia every time you think you need to know more about German film, Japanese gangsters or Maurice Sendak to appreciate what Oe is trying to do. You don't need to know about all those things in order to appreciate this illuminating, entertaining, and occasionally infuriating book. What The Changeling isn't, is easy. But it just might be worth the effort.
The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm