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SOMERSAULT by Kenzaburo Oe


by Kenzaburo Oe & translated by Philip Gabriel

Pub Date: March 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-8021-1738-4
Publisher: Grove

An intriguing but enormously overinflated 1999 novel, Oe’s first original fiction since receiving a 1994 Nobel Prize, concerns an austere, embattled, and eventually self-destructive religious cult.

The tedious first half details the dissolution of the cult (which act is labeled “the Somersault”) by its founders, known only as Patron and Guide, when its radical wing threatened a takeover of a nuclear power plant (one hears echoes here, of course, of the 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subways). It also introduces and develops the characters of Guide, stricken with an aneurysm and hospitalized; Patron, who creates a new cult (the Church of the New Man) ten years after the Somersault, when radicals kidnap and cause the death of Guide; and Patron’s acolytes and underlings: his publicist Ogi, his female secretary Dancer, and two men Dancer recruits—Kizu, a cancer-riddled middle-aged painter, and Ikuo, the muscular, brooding young man who becomes Kizu’s protégé, model, and lover. The second half records “the Church’s” development as a thriving rustic commune (whose beginnings Oe describes very skillfully) and presents a series of increasingly complex relationships and tensions. Newly prominent figures include “radical” physician Dr. Koga, a brain-damaged musical savant (another fictionalization of Oe’s own son Hikari), the narrowly fervent “Quiet Women,” and the menacing leader of the ardent “Young Fireflies,” teenaged true believer Gii. The final pages, embracing an ambitious summer conference and “Spirit Festival” and climaxing with a violent sacrifice, vibrate with dramatic energy. But it’s too little, too late: Patron’s interminable “sermons” articulating his cults’ history and aims have long since drained the life out of the narrative. Other characters, too, talk much more than they act. Only the figure of Kizu—artist, sensualist, wavering untrue believer—justifies the implied comparisons suggested by numerous pointed allusions to (Oe’s probable specific inspiration) the later novels of Dostoevsky.

Oe (Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, 2002, etc.) is a deeply flawed great writer, and Somersault, alas, is not one of his triumphs.