IN 1995 THE religious cult Aum Shinrlkyo released Sarin gas into the Tokyo underground system, injuring hundreds of people and killing twelve. Just two months earlier, over five thousand people died in the Kobe earthquake and hundreds of thousands were left homeless, yet in the following months it was the gas attack that dominated the Japanese media. Japan was not simply shocked by the horror of such an attack but was disturbed by the apparent propensity of so many to abandon society and join reclusive religious cults. Eccentric, apocalyptic movements - recently, for example, the Panawavists - continue to make headlines and some of Japan's leadng novelists have been inspired to examine the phenomenon. After Haruki Murakami's non-fiction work Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche comes Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe.
Somersault is Oe's first novel since he won the Nobel Prize in 1994. He has previously written fairly short autobiographical novels about his disabled son Hikari but has written on national politics too. Somersault, a huge and complex tome, is concerned with devotion and zealotry. The story of a religious