Pensive novel, at once autobiographical and philosophical, by Nobel Prize–winner Oe (The Changeling, 2010, etc.).
It’s a scenario that conjures up the director of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, perhaps the only person who could film it: Oe, now 80 years old, returns to his hometown in the person of alter ego Kogito Choko and looks deep into a past that might have been. In real life, Oe’s father died in World War II; here, Choko’s father has died during the war years in a drowning incident on a Japanese river, and now Choko, having endured decades of writer’s block on the matter, is circling back to his youth to excavate the contents of a mysterious red leather trunk, “a small part of my clan’s proprietary strange and funny lore,” in the hope of reclaiming his literary birthright. What’s in the trunk? And why did his father die? Was it really an accident? Mystery abounds, especially when it develops that Choko père was working to help alleviate wartime famine by detoxifying lilies. That’s a matter of some complexity, and Oe lingers over the details without any apparent rush to get back to the main story; indeed, he takes a leisurely pace throughout, having set aside the fraught intensity of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness and other early works. Complicating Choko’s quest in the nearly idyllic countryside of his youth is the presence of an avant-garde theatrical collective, whose members are trying to stage Choko’s ouevre and now puzzle over the story as it develops: “the part of the story where the writer sifts through the contents of the red leather trunk as the entire drowning novel unfolds before us is just a vague concept.” Indeed, and part of the reader’s task is to accommodate Oe’s vagueness and misdirection to arrive at a crafty ending, embracing twists and turns and plot points that are, among other things, “radical and potentially scandalous.” Like, say, a “pubic-hair fetish.”
In other words, it’s vintage Oe: provocative, doubtful without being cynical, elegant without being precious.