Somersault, by Kenzaburo Oe. Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Grove Press. 720 pages. $26.
Imagine, for a moment, that members of a religious cult have infiltrated a nuclear power plant near a major metropolis. They intend to blow it up to hasten the end of the world, to persuade others to repent and follow their path. But when the cult's leaders find out, they are horrified. This was never part of their plan. To stop the bomb, they appear on national television just as their followers have broken into the plant. They disclose their whereabouts, renounce their teachings, abandon their followers. They sacrifice their church to save Japan.
Such is the scenario of Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault, his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 1994. Inspired by the events of Aum Shinrikyo, Somersault chronicles what happens to this fictional "Church of the New Man" after this about-face by its leaders -- a "somersault," in fact. Now 10 years later, the movement's Patron and Guide are living in a Tokyo suburb where they have been suffering for their sins. They are about to revive their church when Guide is kidnapped and killed -- sending Patron into an emotional tailspin.
On the surface, this plot may sound strange and enticing, but Somersault is a long and difficult book to read. More suited to the classroom than the commuter train, it establishes its themes of faith and salvation by crafting elaborate references to the Book of Jonah, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote and Hirohito's renunciation of his divinity that might be puzzling for readers less literate than Oe. Its pages are heavy with allegories and allusions in which few characters have genuine names and nothing really happens.
The most dramatic moment, the aborted nuclear catastrophe, occurs offstage before the story begins; mostly the characters engage in cryptic conversations about God. This makes Somersault less a novel than a work of creative philosophy in the Kierkegaardian tradition, meaning the "somersault" it is really about is Kenzaburo Oe's.
This is important because when Oe won the Nobel, he declared he would write no more novels. In his address, Oe explained that his trilogy A Flaming Green Tree would be "the culmination of my literary activities." Henceforth, he would focus on philosophy.
The result -- Somersault -- is intricate and intriguing; but in order to be appreciated, it must be accepted for what it is -- not so much literature as a social manifesto in which Oe excavates the emptiness of modern life and offers instead the fulfillment of syncretic religious traditions that exist in harmony with the environment. For most readers, focusing on the plot about the nuclear bomb would have been more exciting, but this is precisely Oe's point. For Oe, humanity itself needs to "somersault." To craft the new, we must embrace the old. To go forward, we must go back.
To this end, the principal characters in Somersault reject their families, their jobs, their possessions, their pasts and ultimately Japan's cities. They help Patron re-establish his church on the remote woodland island Shikoku in the abandoned temple complex of the Flaming Green Tree, thereby allowing Somersault to intersect with Oe's trilogy about village life and ancestral traditions.
If Somersault fails as a novel in that these figures rarely come to life -- and how could they with names like Dancer, Innocent Youth and the Professor? -- it succeeds as philosophy in showing how fulfillment can be found by forging this personal connection to God through nature and the arts. This makes Somersault a provocative exploration of spiritual emptiness and religious yearning by one of the world's most important authors. But it takes a leap of faith to persevere through its prose.
Kay Chubbuck is a lecturer at the Princeton Writing Program and previously was an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. She has published articles in Newsweek and other journals.