Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, has always been a novelist concerned with big, important ideas and big, important problems, and yet his works are always written on a much smaller scale, focusing on that one individual character and how he is affected by the world around him. One may never read a narrative so intimate and personal as Oe’s, which leads to some pretty dark places. It’s like reading someone’s private diary—inherently compelling, but afterwards you’re left with a sick, guilty feeling with the realization that you learned some things that probably should have been well left alone.
Oe has a profoundly honest view of what it is to be human, especially the parts we don’t always like to acknowledge: the selfish, self-destructing, contradictory parts. And Oe seems to achieve this power because his works really are very personal—events from his own life are often the main events of his novels, often with little dress up. Obviously writers draw from personal experience, but Oe’s seem to be the most transparent and forthcoming about the events in his life, for instance the well of novels, including A Personal Matter, that have sprung up because of his handicapped son Hikari.
The Changeling, Oe’s most recently translated novel published by Grove Press, is a work that directly addresses the relationship between fact and fiction in literature. The protagonist of the story is an established sixty-odd year old Japanese author who is sent a case of cassette tapes from his brother-in-law, a friend since their teenage years and now a famous movie director. The tapes are a series of monologues by the brother-in-law, in which he reminisces about their relationship over the years along with ruminations about their mutual artistic endeavors. On the last tape, the brother-in-law cryptically announces that he is now “going to the Other Side”, and then, nothing but a loud thump. And as soon as the protagonist hears this, his wife comes in to tell him that his brother-in-law was found dead—he had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his office building.
The rest of the novel follows the protagonist as he tries to piece together why his brother-in-law committed suicide. He obsesses over the contents of the tapes by starting a nightly ritual of “talking” to his dead friend, an addiction so compelling he takes a year-long guest professorship at a university in Berlin to leave the tapes behind and free himself. However, the majority of the novel is set in periodic flashbacks, highlighting important events in their lives that led them down the paths they take today.
The Changeling is thus a long meditation on the power of real life events and how they shape a person and their fiction. It’s both a love letter to the creative process, as well as a philosophical treatise on the power of art and the way it reflects an inescapable past. In a way, The Changeling feels like it might be a work more personal to Oe than even a novel like A Personal Matter. It’s a direct view into the soul of Oe the writer, as opposed to Oe the father or Japanese citizen, and in a way, that’s more powerful:
Perhaps the feeling of loss—even downfall—that accompanied his sense of relief was due to the constant awareness that he was growing old and irrelevant, and that he would live out the remainder of his days without ever being able to liberate the heart inside his skull from this vast collection of beloved, familiar books, which were an anchor but also, at times, an albatross.
The Changeling reads very well; the sentences, though often long, flow with ease and with a powerful narrative sweep. However, because the novel is in its essence more interested in certain philosophical ideas than the physical happenings of the plot, the characters, who are otherwise characterized and behave like human beings, often end up as mouthpieces for Oe, and talk almost exclusively in monologues instead of really talking to each other. The translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm is solid, although there are places where cultural explanations are awkwardly shoehorned into parentheses as opposed to being more integrated into the text. Finally, there is a seventy page long epilogue that suddenly switches perspectives to the protagonist’s wife, which seems almost jarring after what seemed like a perfect conclusion by the protagonist; however, in the end it does tie the work together nicely and is the section from which the work gets its title.
The line between fact and fiction is blurred in The Changeling, and how the reader sees the novel can change depending on how much the reader knows about Kenzaburo Oe’s personal life. It’s amazing that the novel can work on these two completely different levels: as a total fabrication and as a work of fiction that can be traced along the lines of real life events. In any other novel, it would be irrelevant as to what personal experiences go into what, in the end, is supposed to be a piece of fiction. But in The Changeling, it’s the novel’s raison d’etre. The question of what is real and what is fiction, while interesting to ponder, are overshadowed by the real question: which one, in the end, is more important to not just the reader, but to the author.