Book Review: The Changeling by Ôe Kenzaburô

A changeling is someone, who is born with talent loved by everyone in his childhood and youth, admired by his surroundings but then changes into a human with a mysterious aura.

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Ôe Kenzaburô is one of the most outstanding Japanese authors, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, “who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today” (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1994/).

His novel The Changeling was first published in 2000.

The story begins shortly after the suicide of Gorô and is told in the perspective of Kogito. The two men have been intimate friends since childhood and Gorô was also the brother of Kogitos wife.
The setting is intellectual: Gorô worked as a well-known film producer and former actor. Kogito is a writer. The novel is mixed with much autobiographical material of Ôe Kenzaburô.

It is placed somewhere in the 80‘s. Gorô was active in film-making and always on a business trip. When he was alone, he spoke into a microphone of his audio-recorder and sent his personal audiotapes to Kogito. Something which sounds odd today.

Kogito on the other hand is listening to the tapes regularly one after another and again. Sometimes he stops a tape in between and answers into the air, only to let the tape play and then stop again. This weird „dialogue“ became a daily routine for Kogito and an essential part of his life.
After Gorôs death he strengthens his efforts of listening in order to get an answer. He does not understand why he committed suicide. Gorôs tapes are full of thoughts about literature, film, biography, philosophy and everything about the world of Gorô. But answers?

Soon after Kogito is invited as an assistant professor. He moves to Berlin for a couple of month. In Germany he learns to know more of Gorôs past involuntarily. As he had been stayed often in Berlin due to his film business and the famous film festival Berlinale Gorô have not always been faithful to his wife.

Now in Berlin Kogito is hunted by a mysterious woman, who had a love affair with his friend. During his lonely stay Kogito remembers scenes of his youth with Gorô, and the story of both men grows more complex. The reader steps deeper into a vivid and multifaceted story going back to the Thirties.

Returned to Japan it will not only influence Kogitos life. His wife Chikashi will change in a way one would not guess in the beginning.

It‘s not an easy read. Ôe Kenzaburô is a very talented writer though. He takes his time to develop the story. Skillfully he combines the storyline with memories, audiotapes, documents and the thoughts of Kogito. When you think the story gets a bit slow, then sure there will be a shift and you get excited again. Personal and political history intertwines in a subtle way.

It is a modern story dealing with friendship, 20th century history of Japan, violence and rebirth. In the end Ôe Kenzaburô states: Forget about the dead, forget about the living, but think alone of the unborn.

Ôe Kenzaburô The Changeling. Torikaeko- Chenjiringu 取り替え子 (チェンジリング)

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