Review: Death By Water, Kenzaburo Oe

By Luke Frostick


“Said added that work created later in life is not always as serene and transcendent as you might expect.”

Death by Water


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With Kazukgo Ishiguro winning the Nobel Prize for literature I thought it might be interesting to look at the work of another Japanese laureate of the prize, Kenzaburo Oe and his book Death By Water. He is one of Japan's greatest living writers and his 2009 book (also his last) is an interesting farewell.

The novel's main character is Kogito Choko, a stand-in for Oe himself, who, as a child, watched his father drown in a river. Now as an old man, a writer and a Nobel laureate himself, he returns to his family home. His father, who had controversial connections to post-World War II right wing extremists, left behind a red case containing, Kogito assumes, the answers to his father's life and his mysterious death in the river. Kogito wants to use the letter and documents contained in the case as the base for a new novel, his swan song, in which he plans to finally understand, and come to terms with his father's legacy and in turn secure his own. Added to Kogito’s problems, his wife has been diagnosed with cancer and he manages to estrange himself from his developmentally disabled but musically talented son. The final layer of the plot is the young experimental theatre-producer and actor Unaiko who is trying to adapt Kogito’s work for her own unique brand of theatre, while coming to terms with her own traumatic past. The plot takes place in part in Tokyo but is mostly focused on the forests of Shikoku and Kogito’s family home there.

Of course Oe was himself quite elderly when he wrote this book and it would not be a particularly controversial statement to say that he is vicariously working through the problems of aging, coming to terms with the past and ultimately preparing for death. The story is all about Kogito processing his father and mother’s death, the legacy they left behind and what he himself will leave. If that sounds like a vague description of the plot of a novel, that's because these are vague and difficult issues and the character Kogito is, throughout the course of the novel, in quite an indirect way, working through these problems himself. The sleight of hand trick that Oe pulls off is the slow reveal that Kogito, although the narrative is for the most part from his perspective, is not really the main character of the story: it’s Unaiko, the young theatre producer. Slowly, Kogito and the narrative passes the torch to Unaiko who becomes the plot’s focus and whose story will continue after the novel has reached it dramatic finish.

This is a very thematically rich story. In addition to the main theme of preparation for death, literature, poetry, theatre, right-wing politics, folklore, mental disability and coming to terms with abuse through art are all important. All of these interlocking themes are balanced throughout the narrative and are given enough oxygen to breathe and express themselves and their connections to each other within the plot. It could be argued that some of this comes across as clunky, in that some of these discussions take the form of long lectures from one character to another but it managed to keep my interest nonetheless. 

It is a very literary novel, some might say too much so. As I mentioned, the characters go on long discussions of literature, music and theatre, with key plot points being hidden in within literary discussions. For example, the opening chapters of the novel essentially boil down to an extended conversation between; Kogito, his sister Asa, Unaiko and the director of her theatre group Masao, about a poem that Kogito’s mother wrote about him and his reply. Through the discussion of the metaphors and allusions to folk law contained within the poem, Kogito explains his life and a lot about his current situation. Although it takes a long time to get there, it's an intriguing way to do exposition. Additionally, long stretches of the book are given over to descriptions of the theatre, including, in the middle of the book, several long letters from his sister describing, in detail, multiple productions of Natsumi Soseki’s Kokoro. I would be curious to ask a person with more knowledge of the theatre than me (I know nothing) how these scenes play out and if Uniko’s approach to theatre is indeed as revolutionary as the characters make it out to be. This kind of writing does, without a doubt, have the possibility of being tedious to the extreme. The theatre productions are interactive and involves the throwing of stuffed animals. This interaction between the performers and the audience creates an interest where otherwise there might not be. Even the second performance of Kokoro doesn't outstay its welcome. Seeing how the play and Unaiko’s artistic direction changes is fascinating as is the interpretation and discussion of Kokoro.

That brings me to another reason why I think some readers will perhaps find this book hard work. It is very Japanese. Not in a superficial food, clothes and sex life way, it's a far more complex beast. I mentioned above the long discussions of Kokoro, but the book deals with Japanese poetry, post-war right-wing nationalist politics in Shikoku and contrasts to modern nationalism in Japan. A lot of the stories the characters talk about are based on Japanese folklore, and the last play that Uniko puts on, which Kogito writes, is based on a folk story that I’d never heard of. It also very interested in language one of the main plot points and the ending itself is based on one of the characters misreading of a complex Kanji. Moreover, I’m always hesitant to criticise translators too strongly, they have to make difficult choices. Generally Deborah Boliver Boehm has done a fantastic job, but there is an important moment that drives the middle parts of the book where Kogito, in a moment of frustration, calls his developmentally challenged son an idiot. This causes a major rift between the two and the repairing of it is a key part of the story. To a lot of English-speaking readers ‘idiot’, although not a nice thing to say to a disabled man, doesn’t seem that strong. This is where a little  knowledge of the language is useful. Although I haven’t read the Japanese, I think that the original Japanese word could be Baka, which does mean idiot, but has a similar strength to something like fuck or shit, so it might be more accurate to say that Kogito in a moment of frustration calls his son a fucking idiot or a retard.

Death by Water is a complex book that's longer than it needs to be in places but was a rewarding read and shows why Oe is one of the Japanese writers who has earned the Nobel.

Maybe next year, Murakami.




You can find Death By Water here