Time for a change


The next few months are going to be great for English readers of Japanese fiction. Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris is finally coming out in English, Miyuki Miyabe’s The Sleeping Dragon is coming out in April and Norton is rereleasing an old collection of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short fiction under the name The Beautiful and the Grotesque.
Since I ordered all these through Amazon, and Amazon loves to keep tabs on its customers, I’ve received a few emails about other upcoming releases in Japanese fiction. That’s how I found out about Kenzaburo Oe’s The Changeling. I’d never read Oe before—I prefer novels about murder, psychological torment or poop jokes to the deep and literary—and while The Changeling wasn’t really for me, it may be for you.
Kenzaburo Oe may be the most well-known Japanese author in North America. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994 and has a literary history that stretches to 1958, when he won the Akutagawa Prize—the most prestigious literary award for new novelists in Japan. He’s met Mao Zedong and Jean-Paul Sartre, and has covered numerous themes in his writing, from childhood to war to sexuality. He’s given talks and published essays along with his significant literary output. All in all, he’s an intellectual giant.
The Changeling was originally written in 2000 and has only just been released in an English translation. It tells the story of aged author Kogito Choko and his friend Goro Hanawa. One night, listening to a taped monologue by Goro, Kogito hears, “I’m going to head over to the Other Side now,” followed by a thud—the sound of a body hitting the pavement. The taped monologue is the first of many that Goro has left Kogito, and Kogito spends an unhealthy amount of time listening to the remaining Goro monologues on his oversized headphones, nicknamed “Tagame” for the water beetles they resemble. He stays up in his study, even interjecting his own comments to the recorded messages to create a simulated conversation.
It’s a pretty messed-up situation for the supernatural and psychological implications it brings up. This weird necromancy bothers his wife and son, who can hear him talking at night, and eventually Goro suggests via the monologues that Kogito take a trip to Berlin. On the other side of the world, Kogito ponders his past, his friendships and his art.
I’m sure that there’s something ingenious to The Changeling, but I don’t have the tools to dissect it right now. Fans of high literature won’t be disappointed, and if you’re an English major who enjoys reading the likes of Ondaatje and Vassanji, then you’ll probably find plenty to like in the sweeping themes and grand scope the novel takes on. On the other hand, if the ending semester has burned you out, if thinking straight is challenge enough without needing to grasp big ideas, or if, like me, you need a string of zombies, murders or ghosts to keep your attention, then you may fare better waiting a while to recover before tackling The Changeling.