Fractal designs, such as used to be popular twenty years ago, have the property that any part of them replicates the whole in miniature. If you zoom in on even the tiniest detail, you can reach an understanding of the entire shape. This analogy occurs to me after reading THE CHANGELING by Kenzaburo Oe, a late work by the Japanese Nobel Laureate, and so far the only thing by him that I have read. Where most novels have a linear narrative behind them, this one reads as a series of one-sided conversations, thoughts about literature and other arts, buried memories, and some bizarre incidents — all generally minor in themselves, but each seemingly endowed with immense hidden significance, each a clue to some overall design that only gradually emerges as the various details replicate and mirror one another.
Despite its abstract content, the book is easy to read and its framework simple. Kogito Choko, a celebrated writer, is listening to some tapes sent him by his brother-in-law Goro Hanawa, once his childhood friend and now a famous film director. At the end of one of the cassettes, Goro remarks “So anyway, that’s it for today — I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Immediately after, Goro throws himself out of the window of his high building. Kogito (an obsessive thinker, aptly named by his father from the phrase “cogito ergo sum”) engages in months of conversation with the dead Goro, playing snatches of the tapes, stopping them for his own response, and then continuing to hear his friend’s answer. When his wife suggests he needs to get away, he accepts a guest professorship in Berlin, where Goro had himself lived a few years back.
As an example of Oe’s method, take the chapter in which Kogito is being interviewed on television in connection with the Berlin Film Festival. There is a long section about how he gets to the interview, or almost doesn’t get to it: crossed wires with the person picking him up, confusion at the hotel where this is taking place, description of the technicians setting up the equipment in the hotel ballroom, the physical arrangement of the chairs, backdrop, camera, monitors, all in obsessive detail. And then, without further preamble, Kogito is shown a number of film clips on the monitor: samurai fighting off a peasant army, and a modern game of rugby football. He recognizes it as scenes from a book he had written, entitled RUGBY MATCH 1860. In the novel, he had used the battle and the game as metaphors, but he intrigued by the decision of these filmmakers to film them literally, with an acute feeling for the Japanese atmosphere. He is told that what he has just seen is the only footage from the project so far shot, but the young filmmakers have run out of money; would he be willing to concede them the rights for free? Kogito’s translator warns him that he is being ambushed, but he agrees, and the chapter ends.
The core of this chapter, I believe, lies in one of its smallest details, the samurai film clip. Certain aspects of it reflect other images we encounter involving Kogito’s father, who appears to have been something of a philosophical leader of an ultra-right-wing movement opposing the Japanese surrender to the US. Kogito’s own politics, on the other hand, are liberal, so perhaps he is the Changeling of the title? (Or one of them, along with Goro.) One begins to see that the whole novel is about change. In the background, there is the reconstruction of Japanese society after defeat. But this is worked out in terms of ideas — translation between languages, translation of one medium into another (writing into film or opera), and perhaps (as the example above would suggest) the handing over of ideas from one generation to another.
The fractal metaphor works on the personal level as well. From what I can gather, this novel reflects themes from every other book that Oe has written, and these in turn reflect the author’s life. His brother-in-law was indeed a famous film director, Juzo Itami, who committed suicide in a similar way. Like the fictional Kogito, Kenzaburo Oe has a son who was born brain-damaged, barely able to communicate in words, but who eventually found success as a composer. All Oe’s novels contain such a character, and the writer has spoken of his aim to give his son a voice denied to him in life. While the composer-son plays a relatively small role here, Oe shifts the relationship back a generation, as Kogito tries to understand the legacy of his own father and the huge changes between the Japan of his time and that of the present. The themes of rebirth and the passing of the torch between generations become clear only at the very end, but after so much mind-play they bring a lovely touch of simple human emotion.
Changeling, The; Oe, Kenzaburo; Atlantic Books; Penguin Group; Rs. 999