A long and talky portrayal of a splintered doomsday-advancing cult

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I am puzzled that Oe Kenzaburo (1935-) was promoted by Grove Press publisher Barry Rossiter and remain dubious about awarding a Nobel Prize to him (for a then-living Japanese writer in 1994, I’d have picked Inoue Yasushi). In his speech accepting the award, Oe said that he was finished with autobiographical fiction. I think that his guilt about his brain-damaged son Hikari became tedious, and welcomed moving on to other topics.

His first post-prize novel, the 576-page 1999 Chugaeri,/Somersault, lacks the concision of his early and middle-period work. It was stimulated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult and the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system of 1995 that was the biggest trauma for Japanese between the atomic bombs/surrender/occupation and the 2011 Fukishima nuclear reactor explosions following the Tôhoku earthquake.

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The sprawling novel focuses on the revival of a cult that had been dissolved a decade earlier by its founders, Patron and Guide, appalled at a militant faction that was planning to seize a nuclear power plant. (This is the titular “somersault.”) A remnant (Technicians intent on speeding the end of the world) has kidnapped Guide, and Patron wants to lead an alternative, more peaceful group than that of his former followers.

Patron lacks convincing charisma and the characters of his circle seem forced notions with pat motivations and no substance. Kizu, a painter who has become new co-leader with Patron, is dying of colon cancer and discovers homoerotic feelings that seem borrowed from Thomas Mann’s (much shorter and focused novella, Death in Venice with an older, more brutish Tadzio, herein named Ikuo). The ghost of Dosteovesky (especially  Devils and The Possessed) also lies heavily on the cult members.

There is obsessive, very stilted dialogue about the cult (a toxic mix of Christianity, Judaism, animism, and Buddhism), its attempted dissolution, and the eschatological message of the Church of the New Man (with no new visions since Patron’s original ones, explicated by the now unreachable Guide, before the “somersault”). Oe does little to illuminate why some people join doomsday cults; Murakami’s Underground, comprised of interviews of Aum members and survivors of the subway attack casts more light and takes less effort slogging through turgid theological discussions and painstakingly detailed logistics of running a cult.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A chaotic, but IMHO better, Oe representation of a cult (of a particular saint) is

An Echo of Heaven. I’ve also written about earlier Oe fiction (in chronological order of their publication):

Nip the Bud Shoot the Kids

Prize Stock, etc. (early novellas)

A Personal Matter

The Silent Cry

A Quiet Life

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