The Twilight World: A Novel
By Werner Herzog. Translated by Michael Hofmann.
Penguin Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 144 pages, $25.00.

Reviewed by Pedro Blas González.

Hiroo Onoda was a Japanese Imperial Army soldier who did not accept that Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945, thus bringing World War II to an end. Instead, Onoda lived in Lubang Island in the Philippines until he was forced out from hiding on March 9, 1974. 

As a teenager in the 1970s, I remember hearing about a Japanese soldier that never surrendered. I wondered how something like that can happen in a world replete with newspapers and television. What kind of headstrong man would sacrifice his life in that manner?

In the novel The Twilight World, German film director and writer Werner Herzog tells the unlikely tale. Herzog is best known for directing enigmatic feature films: Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Nosferatu the Vampyre; Fitzcarraldo, and many other short and documentary films.

In this novel, Herzog takes on Onoda’s deeply complex story. After leaving the jungle, Onoda was hailed as a hero who defended the honor of Japan’s Imperial Army. This is true. Yet, Onoda and three other soldiers that accompanied him for a portion of his time in the jungle are alleged to have killed over thirty soldiers and civilians.

Herzog’s novel ventures to answer the puzzle of Onoda’s character and his thirty years on Lubang. In 1997, while in Japan, Herzog met Onoda. A short epigram appears on the first page of the book: “What was important to the author was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed when he encountered the protagonist of his story.” The most captivating aspect of Herzog’s novel is the ‘essence’ of this nonconformist soldier. Hiroo Onoda died in Tokyo, on January 16, 2014, at the age of 91.

Part of Onoda’s success in remaining pro-active, as he imagined that he was still defending territory of the Japanese Imperial Army that was due to return to the island, was his ability to use the jungle to move stealthily to avoid his perceived enemies.

Unwavered by oppressive heat and humidity, monsoon rains, leeches, vicious mosquitoes, malaria, and the constant need to find food and shelter, Onoda kept to his singular purpose: to defend the island until the Imperial army returned. That was his assignment, and it became his mission.

The protagonist places wet leaves on his legs and green twigs on his body. He learns to imitate animal behavior, their defensive manners. Onoda became a champion of guerilla warfare. He believed that “Every human being on this island is my enemy.” Herzog describes Onoda as a man with a wiry body, lively eyes, and circumspect movements. Onoda’s ordered world and choreographed movements remind us of characters and mise en scène in Jean-Pierre Melville films.  

Herzog mesmerizes the reader with descriptions of the passage of time. He alerts us to time’s relative nature, especially as the lack of interaction with other people and awareness of human events slow down time for Onoda in the jungle. 

Beginning right before the end of Onoda’s time on the island, the novel tells Onoda’s story in retrospect. This gives the novel a certain coherence because the protagonist, who is proud of having survived one-hundred-eleven ambushes, encounters a young Japanese civilian, Norio Suzuki, who is camped in the jungle. Onoda believes the twenty-two-year-old man to be an American agent. The two men begin a conversation; Onoda holds the man prisoner. This is how the story unravels in earnest.

Onoda is told about the historical and human events that have unfolded since he took refuge in the thick jungle: Japan’s surrender in September 1945, the atomic bomb, the Korean War, and men landing on the moon. Onoda believes none of this. There is also Onoda’s discussion of what he perceives to be jet bombers cruising high above the jungle. He reasons that the airplanes are flying too high to be propeller powered. In 1971, Onoda finds a newspaper in the jungle. He is perplexed as to why the newspaper has more advertisement than copy.

Herzog’s tale explores the surreal quality of a modern-day Robinson Crusoe-like story of a man who has lived in what appears to be a dream world. The author suggests that human reality is broader than the human events that transpire in any generation, and which many people may be oblivious of. What is reality for Onoda? The Twilight World is a lyrical tale of human life—one man’s existence —and the passage of time, for: “The jungle does not recognize time.” This, then, is the “essence” of The Twilight World.  

The jungle is a metaphor for life and death, for as the narrator explains, “everything in the jungle is at pains to strangle everything else in the battle for sunlight.” The ocean is the same in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, where “everything kills everything else.” The narrator offers the reader many clues of Onoda’s psychical state of being and perspective regarding his alleged enemies.

The Twilight World is truly a meditation on timelessness. Onoda’s sense of time appears to re-emerge, when a small airplane circles low above the jungle, a man saying out of a loudspeaker, “this is your brother, Toshi.” Immediately, Onoda is transported to a time of family and youth. Adherence to the facts in a strict manner is not the point of this or any novel. The minutiae of Onoda’s saga must be filled by the reader’s imagination.

Toward the end of the novel the narrator ruminates on the nature of time. The present, he tells us, is fleeting because Onoda must keep busy cultivating his “invisibility.” The future, which is a not-yet, a longing and ambition, consumes the protagonist through his anticipation and fear of being captured.

Jorge Luis Borges’s notion that writers write between the lines, and that readers should learn to read by using the imagination, is an apt description of Herzog’s novel. 

Herzog’s poignant sense of the interplay of appearance and reality, and time and eternity make The Twilight World a reflection on the essence of man and the passage of time. Is Onoda’s life fulfilled, justified by his adherence to “saving face” and honor? Is his life wasted? Did Onoda’s thirty years in the jungle, fighting a phantom battle, make him a Quixote-like dreamer who fights windmills in the jungle?

Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated