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.
Kenzaburô Ôe 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” (nobelprize.org).
His novel ‘The Changeling‘ was first published in 2000.
The story begins shortly after the suicide of Gorô, and is told from the perspective of Kogito. The two men have been intimate friends since childhood, and Gorô was also the brother of Kogito’s wife. It plays in an intellectual circle: Gorô worked as a well-known film producer and former actor. Kogito is a writer. The novel is mixed with autobiographical material of Kenzaburô Ôe’s life.
It is placed somewhere in the 1980s. Gorô was active in film-making and always somewhere on a business trip. When he was alone, he spoke into a microphone of an audio-recorder, and sent his personal audiotapes to Kogito. Something which sounds odd today.
Kogito listens to the tapes regularly. Sometimes he stops a tape in between and answers without recording, only to let the tape play and then stop again. This weird “dialogue” becomes a daily routine of Kogito and an essential part of his life.
After Gorô’s death he strengthens his efforts of listening in order to get an answer. He does not understand why he committed suicide. Gorô’s tapes are full of thoughts about literature, film, biography, philosophy, and everything about the life of Gorô. But answers?
Kogito gets an invitation as an assistant professor. He moves to Berlin for a couple of months. In Germany, he learns to know more details of Gorô’s past more or less involuntarily. Goro had often been stayed in Berlin due to his film business and the famous film festival ‘Berlinale’, and he had not always been faithful to his wife.
Now in Berlin, Kogito is followed by a mysterious woman, who had once a love affair with his friend. During his stay Kogito remembers scenes of his youth. The narrator is digging deeper into the past, and a vivid and multifaceted story going back to the 1930s comes to life.
Back in Japan this will not only influence Kogito’s life, but also his wife Chikashi will change in a way no one would have guessed in the beginning.
‘The Changeling’ is not easy to read. Kenzaburô Ôe 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 Kenzaburô Ôe states: Forget about the dead, forget about the living, but think alone of the unborn.
大江 健三郎. 取り替え子 (チェンジリング), 2000.
Kenzaburô Ôe. The Changeling. Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Grove Press, 2010 (Cover).
More book reviews of Kenzaburô Ôe’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop
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