Plumbing the depths of a suicide obsession


When Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in literature, chose to become a writer rather than a teacher or literary scholar, his mentor at Tokyo University told him that it would be necessary for him to continue his studies on his own.

THE CHANGELING, by Kenzaburo Oe. Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Grove, 468 pp., $24 (cloth)

Oe took his mentor’s advice: “I have two cycles,” he explained in a Paris Review interview, “a five-year rotation, which centers on a specific writer or thinker; and a three-year rotation on a particular theme. I have been doing that since I was 25. I have had more than a dozen of the three-year periods. When I am working on a single theme, I often spend from morning to evening reading. I read everything written by that writer and all of the scholarship on that writer’s work.”

It is this earnestness — a quality that, oddly, is sometimes held against Oe — that has allowed him over his long career to keep growing as a writer, and that enables him to continue more than 50 years after his debut to offer us fiction that is fresh, nourished by his wide-ranging intellectual exploration.

Oe’s 2000 novel, “The Changeling,” has finally made it into English in 2010. In it he returns to the autobiographical concerns that have driven much of his fiction.

The protagonist is an Oe stand-in called Kogito. And the central event is the suicide of the protagonist’s friend and brother-in-law, a filmmaker called Goro in whom readers will recognize Juzo Itami, Oe’s real-life brother-in-law who killed himself (though some have suggested that he was murdered) three years before “The Changeling” was published.

The attempt to solve the mystery of a suicide can be — and has often been — the basis for an engaging novel. For a writer less able and ambitious than Oe the conundrum of a character’s self destruction — why did he do it? — would likely have been enough.

Oe, however, is not the sort of artist — not at this point in his career — who can be satisfied with such simplicity. The question of why Goro destroyed himself is at the center of the novel, but it is not the desire for a solution to this mystery that keeps us turning pages. Rather it is the further questions to which Goro’s suicide gives rise, questions that lead us, thanks to the lively mind of Kogito/Oe, through, among other things: biblical exegesis, film, nationalist politics, art, theories of the novel, and much besides. It is a journey we are privileged to join.

Atypically for Oe, “The Changeling” is told in the third person. This allows Oe, beginning with the long, rambling rants that Goro has taped for Kogito, to introduce a multiplicity of voices, stories, essays, and encounters into his tale. In one of these diversions, he describes the method employed in “The Changeling.”

We learn that Kogito has maintained in a book he wrote on the form that in novels “meaning emerges from the progression of slight variations.”

Thus, just as nationalist thugs appear periodically to torment Kogito by dropping a cannonball onto his left foot and breaking the joint of his big toe, so, in a variation on that story, Goro is tormented by yakuza (and probably nationalist) thugs who severely beat him. Likewise, Goro and Kogito’s boyhood humiliation at the hands of a nationalist sect, an encounter we are lead to believe might be relevant to Goro’s suicide, resonates with the earlier humiliation Kogito’s father experienced when, riding in “a clumsily converted, foul-smelling wooden box that had originally been filled with herring fertilizer,” he led an earlier incarnation of the same nationalist sect in an attempt to rob a bank.

Perhaps most significant among these correspondences, Kogito’s son, the brain-damaged Akari, born wizened and old-appearing, is perceived as a sort of changeling. This is echoed in the boy’s mother’s belief that the Goro who returned home after the event at the nationalist camp was not the man he had previously been.

And — Oe being Oe — all of these events are further reiterated in the books the characters read and discuss: Maurice Sendak’s story of a changeling, “Outside Over There,” for example, and the constant invocations of Rimbaud, a poet who, in giving up poetry and decamping for Africa, appears to have jettisoned one self in favor of another.

The normally perceptive book critic Michael Dirda has complained that Oe’s “Changeling” lacks a “clear and compelling narrative line,” but in fact the lack of a simple first-this-happened- then-that-happened plot is in no way regrettable. The form Oe employs, at once more intricate and more freewheeling, is in fact among the novel’s most exciting aspects.

Perhaps Oe ties up some of the loose ends that disturb Dirda in the remaining two volumes of the trilogy “The Changeling” begins, but an artist as rigorous as Oe will surely do so in a way that respects, rather than reduces, the complexity of life.