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
    Paperback:
    Feb 2011, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Kogito’s depression had been brought on by a series of vicious ad hominem attacks on him by the “scumbag journalist” Goro had mentioned, who was the star writer for a major newspaper. Needless to say, the highly personal criticisms of Kogito and his work—attacks that had been going on for more than a decade—were presented as the solemn discharge of the journalist’s civic and professional duty.

As long as Kogito was busy reading and working on various writing projects, he didn’t think much about his widely published enemy’s vendetta against him. But late at night when he suddenly found himself wide awake, or when he was out walking around town on some errand or other, the peculiarly abusive words of his nemesis (who was a talented writer, no question about it) kept running through his head like toxic sludge.

Even though the reporter was known for being meticulous in his newspaper work, when he sat down to compose his poison pen missives to Kogito he would take dirty-looking, mistakeridden manuscript pages and smudged faxes of galley proofs, cut them up into small pieces, scribble unpleasant “greetings” on those grubby scraps of recycled paper, and then mail them to Kogito’s home address along with copies of the journalist’s own books and magazine articles, many of which were obsessively devoted to Kogito-bashing.

In spite of himself, Kogito would immediately commit every word of the loathsome tirades to memory, but whenever it looked as if one of his enemy’s vitriolic insults might be about to pollute his brain again, all he had to do to calm himself down—whether he was lying in bed in his study, or out and about in Tokyo—was to don his headphones and listen to the honest voices of “vulgar humanity.” As Goro put it, “It’s really astonishing the way listening to trashy stuff like that can take your mind off whatever’s bothering you.”

Fifteen years went by, and one day Kogito was packing for an overseas trip. While he was searching for some of the research materials he needed to take with him, his eyes happened to light on the miniature duralumin trunk tucked away in a corner of his study. Over the years he had turned it into a repository for the libelous books and articles he was constantly receiving from his nemesis, the accursed journalist, but it still held those electronic-eavesdropping tapes as well. What if his plane crashed, and Chikashi happened to listen to those steamy tapes while she was putting his posthumous affairs in order? To avoid that potential catastrophe, he tossed the tapes into the trash and then asked Chikashi to find out whether the little brushed-aluminum trunk was something Goro might like to have returned.

Goro apparently said yes, and so it was that the duralumin trunk found its way back to its original owner. But then, after another two or three years had passed, the same elegant container turned up at Kogito’s house again while he was abroad, teaching in Boston. This time it was packed with a batch of thirty or so different cassettes—not lurid audiosurveillance tracks this time, but rather tapes of Goro rambling on about various topics. Goro explained to Chikashi that he would be sending new recordings as soon as he got them finished, with the goal of eventually filling the container to its fifty-tape capacity. When Goro mentioned that the contents were nothing urgent, Chikashi replied jokingly that since Kogito was approaching the age where he could soon begin losing his mental acuity, she might suggest that he save the tapes for his dotage.

But when Kogito returned from the United States and saw the new batch of tapes, he was seized by a vague but insistent premonition and immediately popped one of them into Tagame. As Kogito had suspected, the voice that came booming through the headphones belonged to Goro, and it soon became evident that the purpose of the tapes was to tell the story, in no particular chronological order, of the things that happened to Kogito and Goro after they became friends at school in the Shikoku town of Matsuyama—“Mat’chama,” in Goro’s idiosyncratic pronunciation.

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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