The way we were

Oe’s autobiographical novel explores limits of memory and the ability of the artist to tell the truth

In this late-in-life work, Kenzaburo Oe questions his literary technique and his ability to handle intense human emotions. In this late-in-life work, Kenzaburo Oe questions his literary technique and his ability to handle intense human emotions. (China Photos/ Getty Images)
By Anis Shivani
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2010

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In 1997 Kenzaburo Oe’s brother-in-law Juzo Itami (best known in the West as director of “Tampopo’’) jumped off the roof of a Tokyo building. Mystery still surrounds his death: Was he the victim of Yakuza gangsters, about whom he had made a movie? Or did impending tabloid scandals over allegations of an affair drive him to suicide?

“The Changeling’’ is the first part of a trilogy, which also includes the as-yet untranslated “The Boy With a Melancholy Face’’ (2002) and “Farewell to My Books!’’ (2005). “The Changeling’’ focuses on the close friendship of Oe (Kogito in the novel) with Itami (Goro in the novel) since their Matsuyama high school days as fellow gifted students. Goro is exceptionally handsome and Kogito more grounded, as the two learn self-respect in the days after Japan’s World War II defeat.

The novel with its many autobiographical elements is an unflinching meditation on the limits of memory in creating redeeming narratives, and the power of silence to move us toward grace. Oe is an unremitting high modernist, but in “The Changeling’’ the Nobel laureate raises doubts about his own ability to handle the most intense human experiences. Edward Said uses the term “late style” to mean an author’s introducing contradictions toward his earlier work late in his oeuvre; “The Changeling’’ is important in this sense.

Often an artistic spirit — like Blake, Yeats, or Eliot — reigns over Oe’s fiction; in “The Changeling,’’ such authority is diffused. For a while, Rimbaud — whose “Adieu” the young Kogito and Goro drool over — seems a likely candidate, but later Maurice Sendak’s “Outside Over There’’ takes over. The major Oe subject — his son Hikari, who was born with a cranial hernia and whose life Oe could save only by deciding on an operation causing permanent mental damage — vanishes before his other perennial preoccupation, suicide.

Before killing himself, Goro has given Kogito a set of cassette tapes (that they call “Tagame’’), on the last of which he says: “I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. . . . But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” The novel unfolds — in Oe’s style of “reiterative divergence” (approaching themes by indirect increments) — as a conversation between one artist approaching death and another already there. In the “Rules of Tagame” Goro and Kogito arbitrarily decide to exclude discussion of the reasons for Goro’s suicide and the future.

The tapes keep coming back to a crucial incident in 1952 when Goro and Kogito as teenagers are drawn to a marginal ultranationalist leader, Daio, who plans a symbolic insurrection against American occupation. At the American library, Peter, a young American soldier who is pro-Japanese, is targeted by Daio through Kogito and Goro (the latter as a sexual offering to Peter) to get some guns. The proposed adventure comes to nothing, and Peter, in the midst of revelry, disappears. The incident later becomes the subject of a Goro screenplay, though it is never clear whether Peter was killed or whether he consummated his lust for Goro. Goro even proposes two possible endings for the screenplay.

Here Oe is sharply questioning the ability of the artist to tell the truth, a theme of abiding interest, particularly for a writer like Oe whose work tends toward the autobiographical. In “A Personal Matter’’ (1964), Oe’s main character must overcome moral weakness to make the gut-wrenching decision to save the life of his damaged newborn, a choice that Oe himself had to make. In “The Changeling, Oe’s affirmation of the sanctity of life, as it involves Goro’s girlfriend deciding not to abort her baby, is far more muted.

Similarly, Oe lives with a persistent low-level threat to his security (due to his left-leaning anti-nationalist stance) and the same concerns often plague his characters; in “The Changeling’’ the threats are more ominous against both Kogito and Goro. When Kogito advertises the fact that he suffers from gout, ultranationalists attack him on three occasions by dropping a miniature cannonball to crush his toes. When Daio dies, his followers send Kogito a live turtle, which he struggles to kill all night to make some soup; the kitchen battle strongly hints at Oe’s self-mockery for taking on retrograde political opponents.

If Oe were sanguinely approaching the end of his work, “The Changeling’’ would hardly be the title of choice; it suggests inauthenticity, identity confusion, an uncertain doubleness that threatens to implode. Is Oe the moral giant we think he is or has he always been pointing in the wrong direction like little Ida in Sendak’s story? Ida, wanting to save her abducted baby sister from goblins, errs by “falling out backward” from the window as she flies in pursuit.

After Peter’s disappearance, neither Kogito nor Goro remains the same. They are both changelings in the sense that wilier people have replaced the innocents, yet loss of innocence is necessary to create great art. Again, however, Oe seems to express profound doubt about his entire novelistic project, as there is something irredeemable about the incident with Peter.

“The Changeling’’ is as good a book as anything Oe has ever written, a miraculous production for his stage of life. It holds up well against his best works of the 1960s and 1970s, with a mature refinement of his autobiographical experience, always his best fictional subject. We might have forgiven him for wallowing in bathos over mortality, as writers in late career often do. Instead, he steps back to interrogate himself about how well his ambiguous circularity has served his purpose of moral clarification. And he does this by enhancing, not weakening, the deceptiveness of memory. At an early age, Rimbaud chose poetic silence; Oe is still trying to come full circle, taking pleasure in ripping up his own technique, even as we understand that none other would have served him as well.

Anis Shivani’s debut book, “Anatolia and Other Stories,“ has just been released by Black Lawrence. He is finishing a novel called “The Slums of Karachi.“

By Kenzaburo Oe
Translated, from the Japanese, by Deborah Boliver Boehm
Grove, 468 pp., $26