The Changeling

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In The Changeling, Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo 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 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 of reflections about their ...

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The Changeling

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In The Changeling, Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo 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 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 of reflections about their friendship. But as Kogito is listening one night, he hears something odd. "I'm going to head over to the Other Side now," Goro says, and then Kogito hears a loud thud. After a moment of silence, Goro's voice continues, "But don't worry, I'm not going to stop communicating with you." Moments later, Kogito's wife rushes in; Goro has jumped to his death from the roof of a building.

With that, Kogito begins a far-ranging search to understand what drove his brother-in-law to suicide. The quest takes him to Berlin, where he confronts ghosts from both his own past, and that of his lifelong, but departed, friend.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
One night, as writer Kogito Choko is listening to a tape his brother-in-law, Goro, has given him, he hears Goro say that he is heading over to the Other Side. Just after these words, Kogito hears a loud thud, and then the words continue with Goro's promise that he will not stop communicating with Kogito. After a few moments, Kogito's wife, Chikashi, informs him that Goro has committed suicide. Left with a trunk full of cassette tapes from Goro, Kogito sets off on a quest to recover his own and his brother-in-law's past—a journey that carries him from Japan to Berlin. It is Kogito's wife, however, who discovers Goro's real secrets and that life's meaning is not to be found among the living or the dead but among the unborn, those who can change (a changeling) from a child into a cunning trickster. VERDICT Nobel Prize winner Oe's sometimes turgid, sometimes lyrical novel offers haunting perspectives on the nature of life and death. While Oe's fans comprise the main audience for this new novel, fans of Milan Kundera and Günter Grass will also appreciate the magical way in which Oe weaves inquiries into the haunting nature of the past with questions about the nature of human identity and memory. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/09.]—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews
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 audioKogito, ergo sum. He thinks and remembers and imagines. Therefore, he is.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Kenzaburo Oe's novel The Changeling (translated by Deborah Bolivar Boehm) begins in a tried-and-true fashion: with a dead body and a suitcase of posthumous correspondence that may contain the secrets behind the tragedy. Internationally esteemed film director Goro Hanawa has leapt to his death from his Tokyo apartment window. His friend and brother-in-law Kogito Choko has a small trunk with dozens of cassette tapes on which Goro has recorded hours of alternately sober and whisky-fueled monologues, concluding with the announcement that he's going to the "Other Side," followed by a macabre simulation of the "Terrible Thud" of a body striking pavement. Kogito becomes obsessed with the recordings -- they contain ramblings about Goro's films, his sex life, and his friendship with Kogito dating to their university days, among other subjects -- and is haunted by the thought that they are a conduit to the spirit world through which Goro is trying to explain his suicide.

You could, then, reasonably expect The Changeling to unfold in the manner of other psychological mysteries, with the cassettes yielding up a succession of clues to a hidden past. And indeed, in its 468 pages a number of false leads are introduced and discarded. A sex scandal that makes Goro a tabloid mainstay, threats from violent right-wing nationalists, and a diagnosis of presenile depression are all offered as possible motives, until finally Kogito traces the origin of Goro's demons to a shared trauma from their teenage years, an event they refer to simply as "THAT." But Oe, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994, has not followed the traditional dramatic arc. Instead, The Changeling is structured in a strange and exasperatingly passive way -- so passive, in fact, that it seems to have no organization at all. We learn of Goro's past less through the cassettes than through Kogito's sporadic and confused recollections. Because Kogito, an aging writer and intellectual, is so depressed by Goro's suicide, a blue funk lays over his quest to understand it, slowing the story's pace to a distracted crawl.

That Kogito is a thinly veiled version of Oe will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Oe's previous romans à clef. Fiction has been his means of exploring personal subjects, especially his childhood in occupied Japan and the challenges of raising his mentally disabled son Hikari (who plays a peripheral role as Akari in The Changeling). A Personal Matter (1967), for instance, about a young man faced with the terrifying responsibility of raising a brain-damaged child, is charged with a candid mixture of anger and despair that you sense Oe has dredged from the dark corners of his own experience. His trick has been to animate the autobiography with sometimes wildly figurative language; discussing Kogito's novels, Goro speaks of their "radically unfamiliar images and esoteric allusions and convoluted sentences," and this well describes the swerving, jazzy language of Oe's early work.

The Changeling, in contrast, has a muted, dossier-like quality that is more interested in documenting biographical facts than dramatizing them. Two astonishing details stand out in particular: we learn that Goro was once attacked and mutilated by right-wing yakuza gangsters and that Kogito is the victim of terrorism at the hands of mountain-dwelling nationalists who abduct him and, for some reason, drop a cannonball on his foot. Yet these extraordinary events are retailed almost as casual asides; they're never adequately explained. Even the climactic revelations of "THAT" are vague and undeveloped, as if Oe is content merely to echo themes from his past work. Far too much in this book seems to have been included for no reason except that it happened to Oe in real life. You wish he would examine the beam in his own eye when he has Kogito complain that "English writing can be a bit of a slog -- rather like a local train that stops at every station."

Only in the epilogue, which leaves behind the mopey Kogito and inhabits the perspective of his wife (and Goro's sister) Chikashi, does The Changeling acquire a beating pulse. Chikashi meets a former lover of Goro's who is pregnant from another man, and the two think of the unborn child as a chance to renew what they have lost in Goro. For Chikashi, too, the baby offers further healing from her own traumatic "THAT": when she gave birth to an "abnormal child" and, she recalls, "beyond my two naked, elevated legs, I heard the nurse who had just caught the newborn baby exclaim, 'Oh, my God!'"

Here at the book's close is an imaginative layering of experience that injects the depleting sadness of a loved one's death with deeper feelings of pity and reconciliation. It may be too little too late for most readers, however. Oe is now 75, and it's natural that his writing should become ruminative and elegiac. The Changeling, though, is not just quiet but quiescent. The brute material of real life is present, but Oe has not been able to distill meaning from it.

--Sam Sacks

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802145239
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/8/2011
  • Edition description: Translatio
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 789,019
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

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