I wish I could tell you how much I enjoyed Werner Herzog’s latest book – it’s a more of a short story – but as the author states, “Most details are factually correct, some are not. What was important to the author was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed, when he encountered the protagonist of this story.” Uh-oh.
Yet the story he sets out to tell is about a real, live man, an officer in the Japanese army during World War II who refuses to give up the fight because his commanding officer has not told him to do so. Isolated on Lubang Island in the Philippines, Lt. Hiroo Onoda follows his last orders for 29 years.
But Onoda was more than just a man: he was mythic in his loyalty, a soldier or renown for never surrendering or shucking off his command responsibilities. In that way he is totemic and worthy of our respect and admiration, even though he was a parody of a soldier and a fool of a man. To me, he possessed the character of the Greek Ulysses, of Achilles, and countless soldiers across the millennia, who are now forgotten.
It’s a pity Herzog didn’t bring us a story that rises to such heights. Instead, we get chapter after episodic chapter, detailing Onoda’s slogging here and there as if they are significant or progress the story, but they don’t do either. The entirety of Onoda’s tale can, and is, told in the early chapter entitled “Lubang, Wakayama Territory, February 21, 1974” and from “Lubang, West Coast, 1971” to the conclusion. The chapters in between, almost all occurring in 1944-45, are simply filler, and I grew bored reading them.
The Twilight World is a very short book. In the hands of one of the greatest filmmakers for whom I have the greatest respect (Fitzcarraldo, Lessons of Darkness), it is a long essay of creative nonfiction. I’m sorry he felt he had to apologize for it, because that’s how I regarded his disclaimer above. Herzog is a dreamy kind of guy. He writes, “Onoda’s war is formed from the union of an imaginary nothing and a dream, but Onoda’s war, sired by nothing, is nevertheless overwhelming, an event extorted from eternity.” Please let me know if you can interpret that for me.
Similarly, Herzog end the book that begins with asking if Onoda was awake or dreaming his three decades on Lubang, followed by a long recitation about various forms of insect, animal, bird and sea life, concluding, “The night is over, and the swarms of fish know nothing.”
I imagine Werner Herzog is a significant enough celebrity/author and thus his manuscript did not receive the best attention from Penguin’s editorial process. More’s the pity. It would have been a better book.