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Encore: Werner Herzog's new novel is a story of the jungle and obsession and delusion


Renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog turned 80 years old yesterday, and he's still trying news things. Like, earlier this year, he published his first novel. The story behind it starts in 1997. Herzog was in Tokyo to direct an opera. His hosts informed him that the Japanese emperor might be open to meeting with him.

WERNER HERZOG: When this was reported to me, I said to my Japanese friends, for God's sake, it will be only formulaic and pleasantries and not a real conversation. I shouldn't do it.

SHAPIRO: A private audience with the emperor is an enormous honor, and Herzog knew instantly that he'd committed a massive faux pas.

HERZOG: It was so embarrassing that there was silence, silence, silence. And then somebody asked into the silence, whom else, if not the emperor, would you like to meet in Japan? And I said, Onoda. And they asked, Onoda, Onoda? And I said, yeah, Hiro Onoda.

SHAPIRO: Hiro Onoda was an icon in Japan, an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army with a story stranger than fiction.

HERZOG: He was the last soldier to surrender 29 years after the end of the Second World War.

SHAPIRO: In late 1944, Onoda was stationed on a small island in the Philippines. When the Japanese army evacuated, Onoda was ordered to stay and fight. And so when the Japanese surrendered in 1945...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Here just offshore from bloody Okinawa, the town No. 1 carrying part of the Japanese surrender delegation...

SHAPIRO: ...Onoda's private war went on. For 29 years, he waged a guerrilla campaign from the jungle, first with a few other soldiers and ultimately on his own. He stole food from local villagers. He killed civilians and fought gun battles with police officers he believed were enemy agents. And he resisted all attempts to convince him of the truth - leaflets dropped from planes, copies of current newspapers, even a personal appeal from his own brother. Onoda was sure they were all fabricated enemy propaganda.

HERZOG: His story is so big. There are very, very few stories that we have in our cultural history like, let's say, Jeanne d'Arc or Hiro Onoda or - a few more, and that's about it.

SHAPIRO: And so nearly 20 years after their meeting in Japan, Werner Herzog turned Onoda's story into a novel called "The Twilight World." It's a work of fiction based on the real story of a man who built his reality out of a fictional story. Herzog and I discussed how similar it is to the kinds of stories Herzog has told throughout his decades-long career.

Whether you're creating films or books or operas, you so often zero in on characters like Onoda, who are kind of single-minded in their pursuit of a belief. They are quixotic. They're in extreme situations. And so when you said, I want to meet Onoda, did any part of your brain think, because he is a Herzogian (ph) character; he's the kind of person who I've spent my life thinking and writing and creating about?

HERZOG: No, of course not. I'm not planning that way. Things come with me with a certain vehemence, and then at the end, I don't question much. And I go directly for the very hard core of the story. And this is why I met Onoda quite a few times. And we immediately had a rapport because I had been in the jungle under difficult circumstances for something entirely different, of course.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean for filmmaking?

HERZOG: Yes, sure. I did, for example, "Aguirre" and "Fitzcarraldo," where I had to move a 360-ton steamship over a mountain in the jungle. That was pretty wild. And he immediately nodded to me and acknowledged something I must have gone through as well. But, of course, you can't compare war action and doing a movie. That would be silly.

SHAPIRO: In the book, you write that - you say, I had worked under difficult conditions in the jungle myself and could ask him questions that no one else had asked him. Like what? What were those questions?

HERZOG: For example, the idea of time - that in the jungle, sometimes time does not occur. And then a drop of water drips down from a banana frond to the ground, and five months suddenly have passed. It goes in convulsions.

SHAPIRO: You write about this so beautifully. You say, a night bird shrieks, and a year passes. A fat drop of water on the waxy leaf of a banana plant glistens briefly in the sun, and another year is gone.

HERZOG: Thank you for correcting me. It's just - you are reading from the very text. And it's - I like that you do it because people think this is only some sort of part of my filmmaking. No. It's literature. I've always been a writer from the very earliest days.

SHAPIRO: Onoda's story is well-known, particularly in Japan. And he's often treated as a metaphor for blind loyalty or for disconnection from reality. As somebody who met and is writing about a real flesh-and-blood person, how do you balance the allegory with the nuanced, three-dimensional human that he was?

HERZOG: Well, there was so much evidence for him that he accumulated that it's almost like a religious belief system that he created. And we have to ask ourselves, how do we believe in, too, let's say, the belief systems of a crazy sect? People do believe in it, and they live their lives according to the dogma.

SHAPIRO: You're saying his farfetched beliefs may not actually have been that more extreme or disconnected from reality than the farfetched beliefs that millions of people subscribe to today.

HERZOG: I would say yes. And, of course, since it was a fictitious war, I'm asking myself, how much of a fiction do I live myself in my life? And, of course, we all do. We are performative. We are bound by cultural norms.

SHAPIRO: Your book treats Onoda as sort of a mythic figure, which is how he's often regarded. But for the islanders who lived under his shadow, he was a terror, a real-life monster hiding in the jungle.


SHAPIRO: Did you have any qualms about venerating someone who took so much innocent life?

HERZOG: You have to stop a moment. Do I venerate him or not? I do not. I describe his war, and I describe the unique situation in which he was. And as everybody on the island was an enemy combatant for him, he would fight them. And this was the reason why, after he surrendered, the Philippine president immediately granted him amnesty. He declared him an enemy combatant who performed his role as a soldier.

SHAPIRO: You told The New Yorker that you had this story in you for 20 years - not quite as long as Onoda spent fighting his imaginary war but a long time. Why do you think you held off writing it until now?

HERZOG: You see; I'm a working man. In these 20 years, I made 28 films.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

HERZOG: So that's the problem. And only during the pandemic, my wife said to me, why don't you write it down now?


SHAPIRO: That's Werner Herzog, author of "The Twilight World," still working as he turns 80 this week. Happy birthday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.