A Book Review Essay by John Duncan Talbird.
Although Hiroda Onoda [as a central character in Werner Herzog’s debut novel] doesn’t carry any of the toxicity of many of Kinski’s roles – misogynist, racist, sense of entitlement, viciousness – he does have what nearly all of Herzog’s characters have, the compulsion to strive against the odds, to labor even under absurd circumstances, to behave as a real-world Sisyphus, struggling absurdly, endlessly pushing his boulder up a hill.”
Hiroo Onoda was a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines in the waning months of the war, he was ordered to stay behind as the Japanese army retreated. He was ordered to blow up the airstrip and the harbor pier so that the Americans who would be sure to claim the island wouldn’t be able to use them. He would then engage in guerilla warfare against that army, keeping the enemy in a constant state of agitation so that they could never truly settle in and build their defenses. He had been specially trained for this type of warfare, including how to survive in inhospitable climates like the jungles of the island. He was ordered not to surrender under any circumstances and not to kill himself. At some future date, the Japanese would return and retake the island. Onoda did as he was told and didn’t surrender until 1974, almost thirty years after the end of the war, when his commanding officer finally returned.
In 1997, Werner Herzog was in Tokyo to direct an opera and the emperor made the offer to grant the director a private audience. Herzog claimed that he wouldn’t know what to say to the emperor. His Japanese hosts were flabbergasted at the rejection of this high honor and asked him: If not the emperor, who in Japan would he like to meet? His immediate response: Hiroo Onoda.
This brief exchange is the opening scene to Herzog’s recent, and only, novel, The Twilight World. And immediately, we jump back in time, to 1974, when a lone adventurer sets up a tent on Lubang, the Japanese flag raised. The adventurer is Norio Suzuki who has quit his university education to undertake three adventures: 1) Find Hiroo Onoda, 2) Find the yeti (abominable snowman), and 3) go to the mountains of China to see the giant panda in its natural habitat, “In that order” (13). He will die in an avalanche attempting the second on this list and, after Onoda leaves the island, he will climb this mountain to the site of Suzuki’s death to pay homage. But for now, Onoda takes Suzuki captive since he believes that the war is still going on and that Suzuki is a spy sent to Lubang to either kill or capture him. After a night and a day of discussion, Onoda agrees to let Suzuki return to Japan and attempt to find and bring back to the island his commanding officer. If, indeed, he succeeds at this, Onoda says that he will surrender. Then we cut to December 1944, when Onoda is given his orders and the novel becomes a fairly straight-forward narrative. In fact, the novel is almost not a novel, but maybe a novella, less than 150 pages.
Why did Herzog write a novel at the age of seventy-nine? According to Alexandra Alter, who interviewed him for The New York Times, the director said that, in writing this novel, “he has finally found his medium.” This is not delivered as a direct quote, so who knows what he really said, but I’m skeptical that he said that. How insulting to suggest that after sixty years of filmmaking and multiple accolades for his work including awards at Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, and Venice, he finally figured out what he was doing and wrote this novel. But then Alter likely sees Herzog as a nutjob, a director “drawn to stories of zealots who go to extreme lengths to pursue their obsessions,” because she then outlines all the wacky things that he has done during his career, things that fans of the director already know: eating his boot, throwing himself into a cactus patch, walking over five hundred miles in three weeks from Munich to Paris, etc. What I suspect he really said is closer to this quote that she actually attributes: “My films are my voyage, and my writing is home.” Whereas she seems to conclude that this means that his prodigious and long film career was a journey to bring him “home” to this, his true, medium, I read this as a statement that these are two ways of thinking, being, and expressing, neither one superior to the other. In fact, this novel, in some ways, is just a more polished version of what Herzog has always done in preparing to make his films, his “scenarios,” some of which are published in English translation by University of Minnesota Press (see my reviews of two of those books here and here).
Instead of the EXT.-INT.-dialogue schematic that is the standard industry screenplay, Herzog writes these strange mishmashes of fiction, NF prose, and poetry, “fever dreams,” he has called them. They’re rough, sometimes sloppy, but always very compelling, readable, and works of art in their own right. You can read his scenario for Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and forget that you’re reading something that is meant to be something else. It’s a different experience than reading a novel after watching the film adaptation, more complex than “This is different than the film, this is different, this is different….” The reader has the sense that the authorial intelligence, despite all the plot, setting, and character differences – some minor, some major – is exactly the same. Another thing we can see from reading these texts – and I would include The Twilight World in this conversation as I would every single one of Herzog’s films – is that Herzog, like every director or novelist who is an artist (or “poet” as Herzog calls himself) and not a hack, is engaged in exploring the same existential (in both senses of the word) question: What does it mean to be human? In fact, let’s not mince words. Despite some late-career, mostly failed experiments with female-led plots (Queen of the Desert (2015), Salt and Fire (2016)) he is interested in what it means to be a man, and sometimes, like in his collaborations with the unstable and unpredictable Klaus Kinski (Aguirre, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Woyzeck (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Cobra Verde (1987)), what it means to be a toxic male.
Although Hiroda Onoda doesn’t carry any of the toxicity of many of Kinski’s roles – misogynist, racist, sense of entitlement, viciousness – he does have what nearly all of Herzog’s characters have, the compulsion to strive against the odds, to labor even under absurd circumstances, to behave as a real-world Sisyphus, struggling absurdly, endlessly pushing his boulder up a hill. There is a bit of Camus in The Twilight World – the character who behaves in a way that most of us wouldn’t, but in itself is entirely human and understandable. But there is also some Sartre here. In reading The Twilight World, I frequently thought about Nausea’s Roquentin who is repulsed by the exposed roots of the chestnut tree. Despite this disgust, though, Onoda, like Conrad’s Marlow, recognizes that “the horror” of the jungle is also the horror of man (pronoun intentional as it is men who instigate and participate in both colonialism and war). This ambivalence and acceptance can be seen throughout the novel. After failing to either destroy the pier or the airstrip Onoda, along with the one soldier he can find to accompany him, shoulder their packs and guns and disappear into the jungle. Onoda is also carrying his family’s 17th-century samurai sword as if to point out the absurdity of this action. Carrying swords in a world where one’s enemy drops atomic bombs is about as sensible as one man defending an island against an invading army.
There are moments of intense beauty in this slim novel like, for instance, the transitional chapter which takes us from that opening chapter in which Herzog rejects his guests’ offer to meet the emperor and the third in which Onoda confronts Suzuki at his little tent. Herzog describes the jungle foliage as if he, Herzog, were there, describes it with Conradian respect, Sartrean horror:
The night coils in fever dreams. No sooner awake than with an awful shudder, the landscape reveals itself as a durable daytime version of the same nightmare, crackling and flickering like loosely connected neon tubes. From daybreak the jungle has twitched in the ritual tortures of electricity. Rain. The storm is so distant that its thunder is not yet audible. A dream? Is it a dream? A wide path, on either side dense underbrush, rotting mulch on the ground, the leaves dripping. The jungle remains stiff, patient, humble, until the office of the rain has been celebrated (3).
Out of this chaos, Hiroo Onoda steps, perfectly camouflaged in wet leaves and green twigs so that only moments before he was invisible to the eye. As he comes forward, Herzog’s I/eye retreats to a more traditional omniscient narration. I miss it, not returning until the last few pages. I would have loved to hear more about this friendship that was forged between Herzog and Onoda. But he offers only a few pages near the end of the book.
Which is not to suggest that there aren’t pleasures to be had in the reading. It’s an adventure story in the pre-cinema tradition, owing something to Conrad, Stevenson, and Robinson Crusoe. There’s a wonderful almost magic realist moment where Onoda describes to Suzuki what it is like to be shot at, how, if the gun is fired from far enough away, you can actually see the bullet coming toward you. There is the detailed explanation of how Onoda and the three soldiers he’s in hiding with – all of whom either die or disappear over the years – figure out how to make palm oil from scratch in order to preserve Onoda’s samurai sword in the constantly wet climate. There is a wonderful moment where Onoda notices that the planes flying overhead have lost their propellers and a description of his cogitations over time as he works to figure out how a plane could stay aloft without them. There’s some clumsy writing, too. In an otherwise beautiful and poetic conclusion, there is this terrible sentence: “Among the terrors of the night was a horse with glowing eyes, smoking cigars” (132). We know what he means, but once you picture cartoon horses puffing on stogies, it’s hard to unsee it. I’m not sure if this is Herzog’s bad sentence or Michael Hofmann’s, his English translator. I blame the editor.
Still, the novel is an important addition to Herzog’s oeuvre and an important and enjoyable read for those who care about his work. I see it as not so much a departure as a crystallization of his process. He’s published a dozen of his scenarios after the films. Why not publish these texts in reverse chronology? I’m thinking of his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), the story of the German-American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler who was shot down and imprisoned by the Vietnamese during the early days of the Vietnam War. Herzog returned to that story nearly a decade later to film Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale as Dengler. I feel that neither is a superior text to the other, but both are part of a whole. I could imagine Herzog making both a documentary about Onoda now and an adaptation too. Or maybe better, some type of hybrid text. He’s almost eighty, but he’s working on both a documentary and a dramatic film at the moment. He could be making films for another ten years, maybe even twenty. If he never gets around to it, though, I’m glad that we at least have The Twilight World.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the novel The World Out There (Madville Publishing, 2020) and a chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar, 2016). His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Potomac Review, Ambit, Juked, The Literary Review, and Riddle Fence among many others. He is Associate Editor, Fiction, for Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon is on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern. A professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY, he lives with his wife and son in New York City.