The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe

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The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: This novel is a literary (with a capital L) work of fiction: a big book grappling with big ideas and issues. Oe gives the reader insight and hopefully understanding into the way in which his main characters tick and what ultimately influences their choices in life.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Atlantic Books
ISBN: 978-1843547341

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The novel starts at the end. Therefore we know that one of the two principal characters, namely Goro, appears to have committed suicide. The question is why. And the whole novel is an attempt to provide that elusive answer. Goro was an extremely successful film director of international repute. He was based in his native Japan but travelled extensively with his work. And you have to ask yourself why would a man such as this decide to end his life?

His brother-in-law, writer Kogito carefully and painstakingly retraces Goro's life. His chosen medium of investigation, if you like, is through numerous pre-recorded cassette tapes in which Goro has thoughtfully put down his innermost thoughts. It's like one big memory bank. Sounds like a daunting task for anyone and it is for Kogito. But the two men have been close since they were teenagers and intellectual Kogito seems to relish this task.

Oe shares the Japanese landscape with his readers on numerous occasions but right at the start of the novel we get an initial taste of things to come with ... Kogito started walking up a long, narrow lane that had been carved out of a hillside of mandarin orange trees ... Very evocative and exotic at the same time. You also sense the fact that this novel is very much a translation into the English language. The sentences throughout are extremely precise (some may say too precise for a work of fiction) and at the same time quite charming in its literal translation. Nothing is lost in translation here. And as for the language, it's flowing and fluid with a nice line in descriptive text all over the place ... just like cherry blossom trees in a high wind. So for example, Oe gives us The tsunami of scorn ...

The reader is taken back in time to the shared teenage years of Goro and Kogito. They are of a similar age and both have carved out successful careers in the creative industries. But there have been gaps in their lives when they have failed to keep in contact. Why? Is there some sort of secret in their past?

The pair 'converse' through these tapes post-suicide. They talk about many and varied subjects: philosophy, the old Japan, the new Japan, the war years. All heady stuff. They used to enjoy a good old debate and Kogito is trying to keep up this tradition - albeit it's one-sided now. These lofty debates and discussions are central to the novel. We get to see inside Goro's head, if you like, see what makes him tick. Quite fascinating.

This novel is all about the intangibles of life. Therefore, it may not appeal to some readers. Some may call it a bit airy-fairy. Oe touches on the darker side of life - sexuality, about being disabled. But all of this is wrapped up in Oe's powerful, unique voice. He also touches on how the rest of the world (and in particular America) views his Japanese films. Do they travel well? The two men seem to take criticism to heart. But one of them has his own particular cross to bear. They are both old enough to have known the more traditional way of Japanese life but are also intellectually aware of the new, brasher, cosmopolitan Japan. Is one better than the other? Or are they simply peering through rose-tinted spectacles? This novel will certainly make you stop and think. An intriguing read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might like to try The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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