The Changelingby Kenzaburo Oe
“It is a richly imagined, complex story full of the oddity, irony, and existential angst that have long been at the heart of Oe’s writing.” —Scott Esposito, Los Angeles Times
Winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenzaburo Oe is one of our most important and acclaimed international voices. In The Changeling, Oe takes readers from the forests of southern Japan to the washed-out streets of Berlin as he investigates the impact our real and imagined pasts have on the course of our lives.
Writer Kogito Choko is in his sixties when he rekindles a childhood friendship with his estranged brother-in-law, the renowned filmmaker Goro Hanawa. As part of their correspondence, Goro sends Kogito a trunk of tapes he has recorded; they contain his reflections on their youth and later estrangement. But as Kogito is listening to Goro’s cassettes one evening, he hears something odd. I’m going to head over to the Other Side now, Goro says in the recording, followed by a loud thud. But don’t worry, he continues, I’m not going to stop communicating with you. Later that night, Kogito’s wife rushes in; Goro has jumped to his death from the roof of his production company’s headquarters in a glitzy Tokyo neighborhood.
Goro’s suicide shakes Kogito to his core, but also spurs the aging writer on a mission to reacquaint himself with his late brother-in-law. Kogito begins a far-ranging search for clues about his friend’s path, a quest that takes him from Japan to Berlin and finally on an interior journey to the rural island of his youth. There, during the first months of the Occupation of Japan, he and Goro became involved in a right-wing paramilitary group. Their ill-conceived plot to attack an American military base would change Goro and their friendship forever.
A sweeping, richly textured work, The Changeling blends motifs from Japanese history, the writings of Arthur Rimbaud and Maurice Sendak, and snippets of modern filmmaking to form a stunning tale of brotherhood, loss, and artistic ambition one that confirms Kenzaburo Oe as a defining talent of our age.
“A dazzling and elaborate maze of memories and meditations . . . Oe’s deft mix of high intellectual reflection and absurd slapstick scenarios is polished to a high gloss, giving this book a tone that may remind American readers of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Japan’s greatest living novelist has brought the autobiographical novel and the roman . . . clef to the highest artistic distinction by merging them. . . . As in previous novels and with comparable mastery, Oe deeply ponders love, sex, art, friendship, family, and death in a rich, psychologically acute rhapsody of narration.” —Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)
“The message of this meditative novel: the extent to which life makes changelings of us all.” —Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review
“It is a richly imagined, complex story full of the oddity, irony, and existential angst that have long been at the heart of Oe’s writing.” —Scott Esposito, The Los Angeles Times
“The Japanese master evaluates his own form and technique in this late retrospective. A highly successful postmodern experiment, refusing to take easy refuger in the balms of nostalgic memory.” —Steve Paul, The Kansas City Star
“The Changeling . . . directly addresses the relationship between fact and fiction in literature. . . . It’s both a love letter to the creative process, as well as a philosophical treatise on the power of art and the way it reflects an inescapable past. . . . The Changeling reads very well; the sentences, though often long, flow with ease and with a powerful narrative sweep.” —William Eells, Three Percent
“Oe’s themes of abnormality, sexuality, and marginality are outside the tradition of Japanese equipoise. . . . His work has a gritty, grotesque quality, which makes him seem more akin to Mailer, Grass, or Roth than to many Japanese novelists.” —The New Yorker
“Kenzaburo Oe is a writer who with poetic force creates an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” —from the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Citation
“Oe reads and writes out of a conviction that literature has the power to transfigure and redeem reality with a grace that comes not through religion but through imagination and understanding.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“One of the world’s most important authors.” —The Baltimore Sun
Longlisted for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize
A Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010
A Kansas City Star Top 100 Books of the Year
Kogito was lying on the narrow army cot in his study, his ears enveloped in giant headphones, listening intently. The voice on the tape had just said, “So anyway, that’s it for today—I’m going to head over to the Other Side now,” when Kogito heard a loud thud. There was silence for a moment, then Goro’s voice continued: “But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you. That’s why I made a special point of setting up this system with Tagame and the tapes. Well, I know it’s probably getting late on your side. Good night!”
The recording ended on this rather vague and unsatisfactory note, and Kogito felt a sudden, excruciating sadness that seemed to rip him apart from his ears to the very depths of his eyes. After lying in that shattered state for a while, he put Tagame back on the nearest bookshelf and tried to go to sleep.
Thanks in part to the soporific cold medicine he’d taken earlier, he fell into a shallow doze, but then a slight noise wakened him and he saw his wife’s face glimmering palely under the fluorescent lights of the study’s slanted ceiling.
“Goro committed suicide,” she said softly. “I wanted to go out without waking you, but I was worried that Akari would be frightened by the rush of phone calls from the media.” That was how Chikashi broke the news about what had happened to her only brother, Goro, who had been Kogito’s close friend since high school. For a few moments Kogito just lay there in disbelieving shock—waiting, irrationally, for Tagame to start slowly vibrating, like a mobile phone receiving an incoming call. “The police have asked Umeko to identify the body, and I’m going to keep her company,” Chikashi added, her voice full of barely controlled emotion. “I’ll go along with you till you meet up with Goro’s family, and then I’ll come back here alone and deal with the telephone,” Kogito said, feeling as if he were paralyzed from head to foot. The avalanche of media calls probably wouldn’t begin for a few hours, at least
Chikashi continued to stand silently beneath the fluorescent lights. She watched attentively as Kogito got out of bed and slowly put on the wool shirt and corduroy trousers that were draped over a chair. (It was the dead of winter.) After Kogito had finished pulling a heavy sweater over his head he said, “Well, then,” and without thinking he reached out and grabbed Tagame off the bookshelf. “Wait a minute,” said Chikashi, the voice of reason. “What’s the point of taking that thing? It’s the cassette recorder you use to listen to the tapes Goro sent you, right? That’s exactly the sort of absurd behavior that always infuriates you when somebody else does it.”
Even in his late fifties, Kogito still took the streetcar to the pool, and he had noticed that he was usually the only person on board with an old-fashioned cassette recorder. Once in a while he would see a middle-aged male listening to a tape and moving his lips, from which Kogito deduced that the man must be practicing English conversation. Until recently, the streetcars had been teeming with crowds of youths listening to music on their Walkmans, but now those same kids were all busy chatting on mobile phones or nimbly typing text messages on the tiny keyboards. Kogito actually felt nostalgic for the days when the tinny cacophony of popular music used to leak out of the young people’s ubiquitous headphones, even though it had seemed annoying at the time. Nowadays, Kogito concealed his bulky pre-Walkman recorder in the gym bag with his swimming equipment and wore the oversized headphones clamped around his graying head. At times like that, he couldn’t help seeing himself as a lonely, isolated symbol of the generation gap, eating modernity’s dust.
The old-fashioned cassette recorder had originally been given to Goro, back in the days when he was still working as an actor, as a perk for appearing in a TV commercial for an electronics company. The recording device itself was just a common rectangular parallelepiped, but while the design of the machine was absolutely ordinary, the shape of the large, black, ear-covering headphones bore a curious resemblance to the giant medieval-armored water beetles known as tagame—pronounced “taga-may”—that Kogito used to catch in the mountain streams when he was a boy in the forests of Shikoku. As he told Goro, the first time he tried using the headphones he felt as if, after all this time, he suddenly had a couple of those perpetually useless beetles fastened onto both sides of his head, crushing his skull like a vise.
But Goro said coolly, “That just tells me that you were a kid who couldn’t catch anything worthwhile like eels or freshwater trout, so you had to be satisfied with those grotesque bugs. I know it’s a little late, but in any case, this is a gift from me to the pitiful little boy you used to be. You can call it Tagame or whatever, and maybe it’ll cheer that poor kid up, retroactively.” Goro seemed to think, somehow, that the tape recorder alone wasn’t a sufficiently grand gift for Kogito, who was not only an old friend but also his younger sister’s husband. That was probably why, along with the cassette recorder, he also gave Kogito a very attractive miniature trunk, made of duralumin—an item that demonstrated Goro’s genius for assembling interesting little props, whether to enhance his personal lifestyle or to add atmospheric complexity to one of his films. And in that beguiling minitrunk were twenty-five cassette tapes.
Goro presented Kogito with this quadripartite gift (trunk, tape recorder, headphones, tapes) one evening after they had both attended a sneak preview of one of Goro’s films at a large movie theater in downtown Tokyo. Afterward, riding home alone on the train, Kogito stuck one of the cassettes, each of which was identified only by a number stamped on a white label, into Tagame—for he had, in fact, already started to call the machine by the nickname Goro had suggested. As Kogito was fumbling around, trying to insert the headphone plug into the appropriate jack, he must have inadvertently hit the play button, or perhaps there was a feature that automatically started playback when you inserted a tape. In any case, his fellow passengers in the tightly packed train car looked extremely startled when a loud, brassy-sounding female voice suddenly began to emanate from the vicinity of Kogito’s lap. “Aaah!” the woman shrieked through the tiny speaker. “Oh my God! I think my uterus is falling out! Oh, no, I’m gonna come! Oh my God! I’m coming! Aaaaaah!”
As Kogito learned later, that tape was one of twenty similarly sensational recordings made by illegal electronic surveillance. Goro, who had a taste for such things, had been talked into buying the tapes by a colleague at a certain movie studio, and he had been wondering how to dispose of them. Since he seemed to consider loosening Kogito up to be one of his missions in life, Goro mischievously decided to bequeath the collection of “blue tapes” to his bookish brother-in-law.
Earlier in his life, Kogito wouldn’t have had the slightest interest in such sordid diversions, but at this particular time he threw himself into listening to the illicit recordings nonstop, over a hundred-day period, with a zeal bordering on mania. As it happened, Kogito was dealing with a rough patch in his life, and he had found himself plunged into an abyss of anxiety and depression. When Goro heard about this from Chikashi, he apparently said, “In that case, maybe he needs a little hair of the dog, so to speak. When you’re dealing with humanity in its coarsest, most vulgar form—I’m talking about that scumbag journalist—the best antidote is more of the same.” And so it was that when Goro presented Kogito with Tagame, he included a number of clandestinely recorded tapes that showcased the sleazier aspects of human behavior. Kogito heard about Goro’s prescription from Chikashi, after the fact, but she remained blissfully ignorant of the contents of the tapes. Kogito’s depression had been brought on by a series of vicious ad hominem attacks on him by the “scumbag journalist” Goro had mentioned, who was the star writer for a major newspaper. Needless to say, the highly personal criticisms of Kogito and his work—attacks that had been going on for more than a decade—were presented as the solemn discharge of the journalist’s civic and professional duty.
As long as Kogito was busy reading and working on various writing projects, he didn’t think much about his widely published enemy’s vendetta against him. But late at night when he suddenly found himself wide awake, or when he was out walking around town on some errand or other, the peculiarly abusive words of his nemesis (who was a talented writer, no question about it) kept running through his head like toxic sludge.
Even though the reporter was known for being meticulous in his newspaper work, when he sat down to compose his poison pen missives to Kogito he would take dirty-looking, mistakeridden manuscript pages and smudged faxes of galley proofs, cut them up into small pieces, scribble unpleasant “greetings” on those grubby scraps of recycled paper, and then mail them to Kogito’s home address along with copies of the journalist’s own books and magazine articles, many of which were obsessively devoted to Kogito-bashing.
In spite of himself, Kogito would immediately commit every word of the loathsome tirades to memory, but whenever it looked as if one of his enemy’s vitriolic insults might be about to pollute his brain again, all he had to do to calm himself down—whether he was lying in bed in his study, or out and about in Tokyo—was to don his headphones and listen to the honest voices of “vulgar humanity.” As Goro put it, “It’s really astonishing the way listening to trashy stuff like that can take your mind off whatever’s bothering you.”
Fifteen years went by, and one day Kogito was packing for an overseas trip. While he was searching for some of the research materials he needed to take with him, his eyes happened to light on the miniature duralumin trunk tucked away in a corner of his study. Over the years he had turned it into a repository for the libelous books and articles he was constantly receiving from his nemesis, the accursed journalist, but it still held those electronic-eavesdropping tapes as well. What if his plane crashed, and Chikashi happened to listen to those steamy tapes while she was putting his posthumous affairs in order? To avoid that potential catastrophe, he tossed the tapes into the trash and then asked Chikashi to find out whether the little brushed-aluminum trunk was something Goro might like to have returned.
Goro apparently said yes, and so it was that the duralumin trunk found its way back to its original owner. But then, after another two or three years had passed, the same elegant container turned up at Kogito’s house again while he was abroad, teaching in Boston. This time it was packed with a batch of thirty or so different cassettes—not lurid audiosurveillance tracks this time, but rather tapes of Goro rambling on about various topics. Goro explained to Chikashi that he would be sending new recordings as soon as he got them finished, with the goal of eventually filling the container to its fifty-tape capacity. When Goro mentioned that the contents were nothing urgent, Chikashi replied jokingly that since Kogito was approaching the age where he could soon begin losing his mental acuity, she might suggest that he save the tapes for his dotage. But when Kogito returned from the United States and saw the new batch of tapes, he was seized by a vague but insistent premonition and immediately popped one of them into Tagame. As Kogito had suspected, the voice that came booming through the headphones belonged to Goro, and it soon became evident that the purpose of the tapes was to tell the story, in no particular chronological order, of the things that happened to Kogito and Goro after they became friends at school in the Shikoku town of Matsuyama—”mat’chama,” in Goro’s idiosyncratic pronunciation. Goro’s way of speaking on the tapes wasn’t a monologue, exactly. Rather, it was as if he and Kogito were having an extended conversation on the telephone. Because of this, Kogito soon got into the habit of listening to the tapes before he went to sleep in his study. Lying on his side with the headphones on, he would listen to the recordings while a host of thoughts floated languidly through his mind.
As new tapes continued to arrive at regular intervals, Kogito would listen to each one, and then—almost as if they were having a real-time conversation—he would punctuate Goro’s recorded remarks from time to time by pressing the PAUSE button and giving voice to his own opinions. That practice quickly turned into a routine, and before long, even though Goro couldn’t hear Kogito’s responses, communicating by way of Tagame ended up almost entirely replacing their occasional phone chats. On the night in question, a few hours before he learned that Goro had plunged to his death from the roof of his production company’s office building in a posh section of Tokyo, Kogito was indulging in his customary bedtime ritual: lying in bed listening to the latest tape, which had been delivered by courier earlier that evening. While Goro rambled eloquently along, Kogito would stop the tape whenever the impulse struck him, and interpolate—not so much his own views, anymore, but rather his natural, spontaneous conversational responses to whatever Goro might be saying. What Kogito remembered about that evening’s session, in retrospect, is that he was suddenly struck with the idea of buying a tape recorder with editing capabilities, which would allow him to cobble together a third tape that incorporated both sides of his lively and occasionally contentious “dialogues” with Goro. At one point there was a stretch of silence on the tape, and when Goro began talking again his voice sounded very different. It was immediately clear from his blurry diction that he’d had a few drinks during the break and had forgotten to stop the tape. “So anyway, that’s it for today—I’m going to head over to the Other Side now,” Goro said, quite casually. After that declaration, there was a sound that Kogito eventually came to think of as the Terrible Thud. It was the sort of dramatic embellishment you would expect from a high-tech filmmaker like Goro, who was known for his skillful use of sound effects and composite recordings. Only later did Kogito realize that the thud was the noise you might hear when a heavy body fell from a high place and crashed onto the unyielding pavement below: Ka-thunk. “But don’t worry,” Goro went on, “I’m not going to stop communicating with you. That’s why I made a special point of setting up this system with Tagame and the tapes. Well, I know it’s probably getting late on your side. Good night!” he concluded cheerfully, in a voice that bore no trace of intoxication. Kogito actually thought, more than once, that maybe that portentous announcement (“I’m going to head over to the Other Side now”) was the last thing Goro said before he jumped, intentionally prerecorded to serve as his final words, and the remarks that followed the thud, made by a totally sober-sounding Goro, were the first dispatch from the Other Side, using the Tagame cassette recorder as a sort of interdimensional mobile phone. If that was true, then if Kogito just went on listening to the tapes using the same system, shouldn’t he be able to hear Goro’s voice from the Other Side? And so he continued his bedtime ritual of chatting with Goro almost every night, via the medium of Tagame, running through the collection of tapes in no particular order—except for the final tape, which he put away in the trunk without bothering to rewind.