<B>A cult's apocalyptic endgame</B> The most recent works by Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe have tended to be readable, thinly veiled autobiographies featuring his mentally challenged son, Hikari. But his massive new novel, <B>Somersault</B> as ambitious as it is ambiguous focuses on the Japanese fascination with quasi-Christian, apocalyptic cults.

Inspired by the Aum Shinrikyo cult that attacked a Tokyo subway with nerve gas, Oe's fictional cult is led by two men named Patron and Guide. They believe that humanity is doomed, the world moribund, and repentance our only chance. The cult prepares to convert a nuclear power plant into a nuclear bomb to be used in expediting Armageddon. But Guide has second thoughts, so the leaders publicly recant. This is the somersault of the title.

For a decade the leaders go into exile or, as they put it, into "hell." But just as they contemplate a re-emergence, some of their former adherents kidnap and interrogate the ailing Guide, who dies in the process. Enter Kizu, an art teacher who is groomed to become the new Guide. Inspired by Kizu's lover Ikuo, a group of young militants called the Fireflies join in the preparations for the "end time." Drawing on his experience with Hikari and with the Hiroshima victims, Oe has always been preoccupied with mayhem, distortion and death. But he has also sought transcendence through the imagination or its close cousin, religion. Perhaps the best-known living Japanese writer, Oe offers an invaluable vision of post-War Japan. Gone are sake, sushi, the Shinto shrine, haiku and Mt. Fuji. Instead we find beer-and-whisky, ham-and-eggs, future shock, repetition and the superstore.

Not a pleasant read, but a timely one. For should the curtain fall on humankind, perhaps our successors will find a few copies of <B>Somersault</B> among the ruins, better to understand our anxious last days.

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