Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Somersault" by Kenzaburo Oe

Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe (570 pages, 1999, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel)

Somersault is the 11th work of Kenzaburo Oe (1935-) on which I have posted since I first discovered him last year.   Oe won the Nobel Prize in 1994.    He is a towering figure in contemporary Japanese literature.   In a revealing scene in Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (which I am currently reading) the lead character says his family owns a simple neighborhood book store that sells popular books, not "Tolstoy or Oe".

Somersault is Oe's longest book by far, being twice as long as most of his prior novels.  (The Japanese novel as a rule seems shorter than typical American or English works.)    I think it is not nearly as widely read as some of his earlier books.   The reviews of it on are more mixed than those for nearly all his other works.    As far as I could find there are no prior book blog posts on it.    Unlike many of his other works, there is little of an autobiographical nature in this book.   

Somersault is a strange kind of book.   I think most of those who do not like or "get" it are trying to hard to see it as a novel purely in the European tradition and this causes a failure of understanding.   I have talked about a similar matter in my post on The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea by Yukio Mishima.  
To get the flavor of this work, imagine Samuel Beckett writing a Kabuki play about the origin of religion with characters with names like "Patron", "Guide" and "Dancer" intended for an audience as cultured in the Japanese tradition as James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford are in the western.   Then your throw in some sex scenes (hetro and otherwise) worthy of Henry Miller just for fun.   Add in a terrorist plot and you get a bit of the idea.  

The book centers on a religious cult led and begun by Guide and Patron.   Ten years ago they did what is referred to as a somersault in which it was announced that the fundamental provisions of the religion which they then advocated and created were a deliberate fraud and that their religion was created for purely self seeking reasons, among them to have sex with adoring believers.   Now it is decided to revamp the religion (many of its thousands of followers-the figure is given as about 30,000) never accepted the literal truth of the somersault and saw it as a kind of revelation.    The religion of Guide and Patron is not an offshot of Christianity but they make use of Christian imagery in describing their beliefs.   Some try to see Guide and Patron as Antichrists-the response (one wonders if the play on words is as close in Japanese) is that they are antechrists.   They are making the way for the true God or his earthly representative.   The suggestion is there must be many antechrists and the true Christ will come only after there are many anti and ante Christs.   The leaders of the religion feel they will do best (some of the leaders are at least partially venal in their motives, others are true believers) if they can create a state of terror and chaos in society through terrorists acts.   They plan a spectacular act of terrorism that reminds us of the subway attacks in Tokyo.   A lot of Somersault is about the nature of religion and how religions get started.   Meaning to offend no one, it can almost be seen as a a fun house mirror account of the origins of several of the worlds major religions.  We have Guide who receives what some see as hallucinations and others see as divine revelations.   He is surrounded by followers of varying degrees of devotion and he dies a kind of martyr's death.   His word is then spread by Patron, sort of the Peter of his religion.   I think Oe choose to model his religion on that of Christianity as the way in which Christianity originated is central to the reasons to believe it.   Somersault can be see as a mockery of religion in general.    I recall in Oe's non-fiction work Hiroshima Notes his tremendous admiration for an elderly female bomb survivor who was badly injured and who lost many family members in the blast.  Oe saluted her for her ability to face what happens strongly without the crutch of a faith to prop her up.   

I recommend Somersault to those who have read at least 5 of his other works first and really liked them.   I would not advise anyone to make it their first Oe.    I understand why some do not like it, mainly for the fact that none of the characters are really developed much (this again comes from it being seen wrongly  as a purely European Novel).   Some will see it as a general attack on religion  and are probably right in thinking this.    I see Somersault as a very serious powerful  work and one of the major books of the post WWII Japanese novel.    


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, this looks like a fascinating book. I've never read any Oe, so I'll take your advice and get some of his other works first. But this one seems like it would be right up my alley as well. Cheers!

EstherHawdon said...

A inspiring review! I've finished The Somersault now and find your review helps me understand it better. Reading the novel, I've been puzzled all the time by the term "guide" "patron" "dancer" which as you clarify comes from Kabuki.(Thank you!) My impression of the book is Oe is very conscious of Aum Shinrikyo (religious cult in Japan) and their terrorism as the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo Subway (1995, just 4 years before this novel was written) In the final chapter Kizu said "we don't have to hear the voice of God - human should be free" (sorry for poor translation...) "I can say rejoice without God" - these are very impressive words. As you point out, Oe questions faith and religion. (to be honest this novel is difficult to understad so I can't reach to any conclusion) Thanks for thought-provoking review!