Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe (translation Philip Gabriel)

Searching for a new voice in old age
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The Independent Culture

Ten years ago, so this novel suggests, the two leaders of a Japanese religious movement appeared on television to denounce their sect and renounce their beliefs, in what became known as the Somersault. Their message was that the end of the world was near. A radical group planned to hasten it by taking over a nuclear power plant and turning it into a bomb. Their leaders informed the authorities and abandoned their movement.

Now, with one leader seriously ill, the other - known as Patron - decides to start a new movement, and gathers followers. With Aum Shinrikyo's sarin attack on the Tokyo underground fresh in the public mind there's bound to be suspicion, especially when the inner circle and many old and radical members move into a new community.

This sounds like a fascinating story. With Japan's Kenzaburo Oe, a Nobel prize winner, expectations are high for this novel. But those expectations are dashed, page by weary page. The summary takes more than 300 pages. For most of the next 270, the group are settling into their new home.

Patron's inner circle consists of a young female dancer (called Dancer) whom we never see dancing, two dull young men, and a retired professor of art who has returned from to Japan from America to die of cancer. These four characters and Patron don't have conversations; they make speeches, often for pages at a time, telling each other things both they and we already know. As well as taking repetition to a ludicrous extreme, the novel is full of irrelevant detail. If it were a sparkling work of art, this might be acceptable - but whether the fault of author or translator, the prose is as flat as the content.

Part of the problem is that Patron's message has adorned sandwich boards for decades: "The End of the World is Nigh. Repent!" That's it. We're given no pearls of spiritual wisdom, no road to salvation. By the end, we know no more about Patron's message than at the beginning. Furthermore, most of Patron's inner circle aren't even believers; they are simply drawn to help him.

That suggests that Patron, like the leaders of many new religious movements, is a charismatic figure who attracts by the sheer magnetism of his personality. Except that Patron is drawn as a weak, sick, tired and muddled old man. For a new religion to take off, you must have either a message or a man, preferably both. Who knows why Patron has followers? There's nothing to tell us.

Known for his starkly autobiographical works, Oe has said that Somersault breaks away from his past; like Patron, he is looking for a new voice in old age. Patron's new message is vague, repetitious, short on content - as is Oe's novel. Staging a comeback is not a good idea unless you have something to say, and say it well.

David V Barrett is author of 'The New Believers' (Cassell)