Excerpt from The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Changeling

by Kenzaburo Oe

The Changeling
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 480 pages
    Feb 2011, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Print Excerpt

The old-fashioned cassette recorder had originally been given to Goro, back in the days when he was still working as an actor, as a perk for appearing in a TV commercial for an electronics company. The recording device itself was just a common rectangular parallelepiped, but while the design of the machine was absolutely ordinary, the shape of the large, black, ear-covering headphones bore a curious resemblance to the giant medieval-armored water beetles known as tagame— pronounced “taga-may”—that Kogito used to catch in the mountain streams when he was a boy in the forests of Shikoku. As he told Goro, the first time he tried using the headphones he felt as if, after all this time, he suddenly had a couple of those perpetually useless beetles fastened onto both sides of his head, crushing his skull like a vise.

But Goro said coolly, “That just tells me that you were a kid who couldn’t catch anything worthwhile like eels or freshwater trout, so you had to be satisfied with those grotesque bugs. I know it’s a little late, but in any case, this is a gift from me to the pitiful little boy you used to be. You can call it Tagame or whatever, and maybe it’ll cheer that poor kid up, retroactively.”

Goro seemed to think, somehow, that the tape recorder alone wasn’t a sufficiently grand gift for Kogito, who was not only an old friend but also his younger sister’s husband. That was probably why, along with the cassette recorder, he also gave Kogito a very attractive miniature trunk, made of duralumin— an item that demonstrated Goro’s genius for assembling interesting little props, whether to enhance his personal lifestyle or to add atmospheric complexity to one of his films. And in that beguiling minitrunk were twenty-five cassette tapes.

Goro presented Kogito with this quadripartite gift (trunk, tape recorder, headphones, tapes) one evening after they had both attended a sneak preview of one of Goro’s films at a large movie theater in downtown Tokyo. Afterward, riding home alone on the train, Kogito stuck one of the cassettes, each of which was identified only by a number stamped on a white label, into Tagame—for he had, in fact, already started to call the machine by the nickname Goro had suggested.

As Kogito was fumbling around, trying to insert the headphone plug into the appropriate jack, he must have inadvertently hit the play button, or perhaps there was a feature that automatically started playback when you inserted a tape. In any case, his fellow passengers in the tightly packed train car looked extremely startled when a loud, brassy-sounding female voice suddenly began to emanate from the vicinity of Kogito’s lap. “Aaah!” the woman shrieked through the tiny speaker. “Oh my God! I think my uterus is falling out! Oh, no, I’m gonna come! Oh my God! I’m coming! Aaaaaah!”

As Kogito learned later, that tape was one of twenty similarly sensational recordings made by illegal electronic surveillance. Goro, who had a taste for such things, had been talked into buying the tapes by a colleague at a certain movie studio, and he had been wondering how to dispose of them. Since he seemed to consider loosening Kogito up to be one of his missions in life, Goro mischievously decided to bequeath the collection of “blue tapes” to his bookish brother-in-law.

Earlier in his life, Kogito wouldn’t have had the slightest interest in such sordid diversions, but at this particular time he threw himself into listening to the illicit recordings nonstop, over a hundred-day period, with a zeal bordering on mania. As it happened, Kogito was dealing with a rough patch in his life, and he had found himself plunged into an abyss of anxiety and depression. When Goro heard about this from Chikashi, he apparently said, “In that case, maybe he needs a little hair of the dog, so to speak. When you’re dealing with humanity in its coarsest, most vulgar form—I’m talking about that scumbag journalist—the best antidote is more of the same.” And so it was that when Goro presented Kogito with Tagame, he included a number of clandestinely recorded tapes that showcased the sleazier aspects of human behavior. Kogito heard about Goro’s prescription from Chikashi, after the fact, but she remained blissfully ignorant of the contents of the tapes.

Excerpted from The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe. Copyright © 2010 by Kenzaburo Oe. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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