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Books

Mind bending

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The Changeling By Kenzaburo Oe Atlantic Books 468 pages, Rs. 999

Kenzaburo Oe, Japan's Nobel Prize winning novelist combines in himself the qualities of what one expects of a trickster, a shape changing actor, fabulist and entertainer of awesome candour.

He combines in himself the gravity, the centredness of a Kabuki actor, in that he is wholly and typically Japanese, unlike a Murakami, who is much closer to being an American Japanese. Oe's work, monumental and serious, lifts him into a realm that is entirely his own.

In The Changeling - translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm - he returns to themes that he has explored in the past, events from his own life fractured as it has been by the death of his father in the bitterness of coming to terms with the diminished image, or perhaps even utterly humiliated condition of Japan after the War and the birth of a partially disabled son.

In real life too as in the case of Kogito, the protagonist who is a writer in the novel, Oe has been married to the sister of a well known film maker. He is the charismatic Goro, who becomes a successful filmmaker of avant-garde Japanese cinema in the period after the War. His one impulsive act right at the beginning precipitates the crisis in both the novel's structure that has a slight hint of a Catch-22 type of unexplained horror lurking at the heart of the story as well as in Kogito's rewinding of his life with its 'if onlys' and 'what ifs'.

Oe has been described as being the most Japanese of writers. Maybe it's in the sense of meditative rigour that he brings to Kogito's examination of every tiny gesture, word and argument that he has had with Goro in their past adventures together.

Or perhaps not really together, for they are too different, the plodding, pedantically inclined Kogito behaving very much like the turtle that somebody sends him and which he then hacks systematically in his kitchen to make turtle soup, the turtle retreating all the while into its shell, a piece of comic writing that is also filled with violence.

It's in Kogito's interactions with the very alienating, yet necessary for his recognition and that of Goro's, as envoys from the distant world of Japanese engagement with literature and film as represented by Berlin that Oe's own debt is repaid to the world of books. Oe could be seen as Japan's Gunter Grass, but his intense humanity allows him to don the many shapes that literature allows him to adopt and re-invent into a form and shape that transcends his immediate concerns into something that is wholly chimerical and full of tantalising possibilities.

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