Book review: Werner Herzog’s first novel revisits fanaticism and human folly

Werner Herzog has portrayed the poetic excesses of the human drama as a brilliant director, producer and screenwriter of over 60 feature films and documentaries, author of over 12 books and director of over a dozen operas.

His first novel, “The Twilight World”, is a free and lyrical tale about Hiroo Onoda, a real Japanese lieutenant who terrorized the Filipino villagers of Lubang Island with guerrilla tactics for 29 years after the end of the Second World War. World War.

Much like Herzog’s documentaries, which distill their central questions by piecing together fact as fiction under its signature philosophical storytelling, “The Twilight World” begins with the writer himself. In Tokyo in 1997 to conduct the feudal opera “Chushingura”, Herzog insults his hosts by declining an invitation from the Emperor of Japan. Shocked, someone asks Herzog who he would rather meet.

“Onoda,” he replies. “And a week later, I met him.”

Herzog’s mind-blowing tale looks back on Onoda’s 1974 encounter with high school dropout Norio Suzuki, who traveled to Lubang Island after compiling a to-do list for world adventures: Onoda, yeti, panda. Herzog briefly positions himself as narrator – insects, he writes, “I begin to hear with Onoda’s ears that their buzzing is not aggressive, not disturbed.” – before sliding into third person.

Did Onoda crave his family, his sex, or his safety as he navigated the jungle, changing sides at night, sometimes walking backwards to escape stalkers? “The Twilight World” largely eschews psychology and self-reflection, which Herzog called “major disasters of the 20th century,” to tell how Onoda and his fellow soldiers Shimada and Kozuka hid munitions in oil. palm house and misread (as evidence of WWII expansion) aircraft flying to later American wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Refusing to pass explicit judgment on his subject’s devastating refusal to accept that World War II was over, Herzog nonetheless narrows the focus on who he thinks is important: Onoda. Such highlighting of a man brings to mind Herzog’s 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo.” The infamous climax of this story recapped the depraved ambitions of a future rubber baron who enlists native villagers to drag a ship through a steep jungle denuded for this purpose.

In “Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From The Making of Fitzcarraldo”, Herzog wrote, “the feeling crept into me that my work, my vision, was going to destroy me, and for a fleeting moment I let myself be taken a long, hard look at me, which I wouldn’t otherwise – out of instinct, out of principle, out of self-preservation – looking at myself with objective curiosity to see if my vision hasn’t destroyed me already.

Onoda died in 2014 at the age of 91. Public fascination with his story evokes a corrupt nostalgia for codes of conduct that demand loyalty to the chain of command no matter what. But where is the honor to ambush the peasants who, recovering from an imposed war, harvest the rice?

Left with orders to destroy Lubang Island’s transport infrastructure but never to surrender or kill himself, Onoda is said to have killed up to 30 residents, injuring many more, for which he later been pardoned. Readers of “The Twilight World” would not learn the human cost of Onoda’s unwavering ignorance because the narrative adheres to his resourceful survival.

Beautifully translated from German to English by Michael Hofmann, “The Twilight World” reveals the soldiers’ companionship with nature and each other, but ends without examining the collective damage caused by their imperialist fantasy. Mimicking nesting dolls with time architecture from 1997 to 1974 to 1944, where she lingers before boomeranging back, the novel’s construction could have allowed for more in and around Onoda to be seen.

Herzog’s Onoda is not an ahistorical madman, but rather a man with admirable focus who clings to life and refuses to give up a fight. Onoda has been turned into an instrument of war, a stoic intention that obliges Herzog. “’Sometimes,’ says Onoda, ‘I feel like there’s something about these weapons that’s beyond human control. Do they have a life of their own, as soon as they are conceived? And doesn’t war also seem to have a life of its own? Does war dream of war? ”

Having lost his men to surrender and gunfire, Onoda “walks around alert, sees everything, hears everything. He is always ready. But he is not allowed to just be in the jungle, to be part of nature. He is apart and is part. Unaware of found diaries, dropped leaflets and loudspeaker recordings of his brother’s voice, he did not leave the jungle until 1974, after Suzuki brought the 88-year-old former commander of Onoda , to issue formal orders announcing the end of the war and relieving him of his duties. .

In his feverish search for ecstatic truths, Herzog gave readers a portal to human madness, self-discipline and domination – surely his life’s work.

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