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THE CHANGELING by Kenzaburo Oe Kirkus Star


by Kenzaburo Oe and translated by Deborah Boehm

Pub Date: March 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1936-0
Publisher: Grove

Once again introspection and autobiography are transmuted into compelling fiction in the latest from Japan’s 1994 Nobel laureate (Somersault, 2003, etc.).

Protagonist Kogito Choko is a bookish, self-effacing veteran novelist whose oeuvre had frequently influenced, and been influenced by, the accomplishments of his brother-in-law and best friend Goro Hanawa, a celebrated filmmaker. Shortly after Kogito learns that Goro has killed himself by jumping from a rooftop, he receives a number of audiocassettes bearing the message that Goro would cross to “the Other Side” but maintain contact with their recipient. As Kogito listens obsessively, his imagination revisits shared experiences and intellectual passions, including the two men’s boyhood experiences, the self-obsessed poetry of Rimbaud and the fiction of Kafka, the abortive wartime experiences of Kogito’s late father, violent abusive attacks perpetrated by hired yakuza thugs, and evidence of the filmmaker’s affectionate condescension toward the resolutely unglamorous author. This very discursive novel’s strengths and weaknesses reside together in the gradual revelation of Goro as Kogito’s soulmate, idol, muse, taskmaster—and doppelgänger (as we’re told directly when Kogito realizes that “all the scenes Goro had incorporated into…[his screenplays] were things he had actually experienced or observed”). The narrative contains numerous aslant allusions to Oe’s own fiction and critical reputation, and to his biography in a moving portrayal of Kogito’s long marriage to his devoted wife Chikashi, and yet another portrait (in the figure of their son Akari) of Oe’s immensely musically gifted son Hikari. This demanding, fascinating anatomy of the development of a writer’s sensibility asks much of the reader but offers several truly affecting sequences—even in an arguably unneeded “Epilogue” focused on Chikashi, which re-emphasizes the past’s grip on the present, and climaxes with a luminous benediction linked to another literary touchstone: a famous play written by African Nobel Prize–winning author Wole Soyinka.

Kogito, ergo sum. He thinks and remembers and imagines. Therefore, he is.