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Death by Water Hardcover – October 6, 2015
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One of the San Francisco Chronicle's Best Books of the Year
"[Oe’s] an eloquent spokesman for a generation that can remember, vividly and viscerally, all sides of Japan’s ambiguitiesa generation that’s beginning to exit the stage. . . . The combination of this seriousness with a fearsome, graphic candortrained on himself most of allmakes him formidable, whether he’s describing the challenges of being a parent or the sins of history. . . . A thoughtful reprise of a lifetime of literary endeavor. . . . You have to admire his serene and total conviction." Janice P. Nimura, New York Times Book Review
"The densest and most rewarding 432 pages you’ll experience this year . . . a wild ride of epic proportions . . . an absorbing, complex collage of multi-layered prose, poetic reference, memories and dreams . . . an essential revelation." Terry Hong, Christian Science Monitor
"[Oe’s] novels continue to bewilder and amaze . . . Death by Water masterfully captures the vertigo of [an] old writer’s vivid inner world. That he accomplishes this while also looking outwardexploring the state of a nation and the passing of a generation, and what stands to be lost in the processis nothing short of remarkable." Gregory Leon Miller, San Francisco Chronicle
"An epic . . . Oe grapples with the idea of duty to family, self, and country but is firmly critical of glamorizing the past." Elle
"[A] deeply layered portrait of an elderly man blown backward into the future, his eyes planted squarely on the past." NPR
"It’s taken six years for this big novel by Japanese Nobel laureate Oe to reach Anglophone readers, but that wait has been for something immensely worthwhile . . . it is enchanting." Booklist (starred review)
"[A] pensive novel, at once autobiographical and philosophical. . . . It's vintage Oe: provocative, doubtful without being cynical, elegant without being precious." Kirkus Reviews
"Layered and reflexive . . . Told in echoing and overlapping accounts of conversations, telephone calls, and stage performances, Oe’s deceptively tranquil idiom scans the violent history of postwar Japan and its present-day manifestations, in the end finding redemption." Publishers Weekly
About the Author
In 1960, Oe traveled to China where he met Mao Zedong, and the following year he traveled Paris where he met one of his influences, Jean-Paul Sartre. His prolific body of work has won almost every major international honor, including the 1989 Prix Europalia and the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. His many translated works include A Personal Matter (1964), Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1969), The Silent Cry (1967), Hiroshima Notes (1965), and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (1958).
Top customer reviews
At the novel’s center is the novelist Kogito Choko, the alter ego of Kenzaburo Oe, but Choko is the least intellectual (or perhaps the least chatty) of the characters. His sister and other admirers spend most of their time dissecting Choko’s work or, more often, his life. My impression was that the characters love hearing themselves talk, even when they don’t have much to say -- which I suppose makes the characters realistic, if not particularly interesting.
The novel begins with Choko’s preparation to write the story of his father’s drowning. Since Choko cannot rely on his own memory, which he has either suppressed or is unable to distinguish from his dreams, he needs access to a red leather trunk that, he believes, contains the story of his father’s life. His mother has instructed Choko’s sister Asa to give Choko the trunk ten years after his mother’s death. His mother lives to the age of 95, making Choko a senior citizen before he can claim the trunk. Returning to his childhood home to do so, he consents to being interviewed by The Caveman Group, an acting troupe that wants to incorporate the interviews into stage adaptations of Choko’s work. That setup enables many of the conversations with Choko that drive the novel.
The core of the story is promising. Choko plans to write about his father through the prism of the “Death by Water” section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” As Choko discusses his past and his writing with members of The Caveman Group, we learn about Choko as both a person and an artist. We also learn about the process of making art from the perspective of a craftsman who uses art to reflect himself.
The best segments of Death by Water involve Choko’s attempt to understand his recurring dream about his father’s disappearance in a small boat. According to Asa, Choko’s dim memories of his father and of the flood in which he drowned have been conflated with Choko’s childhood fantasies, which include an imaginary friend named Kogii who is young Choko’s exact duplicate. Choko also wants to view his father as brave and heroic, although he portrayed his father in quite a different way in one of his novels. Choko is unprepared for the reality of his father’s political extremism -- a reality from which Choko’s mother wanted to shelter him. Unfortunately, anticipation of learning the truth about Choko’s father’s death builds and then wanes as the story gets sidetracked by endless conversations concerning the details of Choko’s life, including his inability to make a connection with his developmentally disabled son.
I had difficulty developing the same keen interest in Choko's life that the characters have. No incident in Choko's life and no sentence in his writing seems too trivial to dissect at length. I also had difficulty caring about the acting troupe’s artistic achievements, which mainly consist of having audience members throw stuffed dogs at actors who are performing dramatic readings of Choko’s work.
Key themes in Death by Water include folklore and myth in world and Japanese history, the nationalist movement in post-World War II Japan, the relationship between aging and attachment to (or detachment from) an era, and whether an aging writer (or any other artist) whose best works are thought to be behind him might still be capable of producing something memorable. Rebirth might be the most important theme, as explored through the discussions of folklore and of Japan and as applied to the life of Choko. At least to me, those themes are more intellectually interesting than emotionally engaging.
The novel might be more meaningful to someone with greater interest in Japan’s uneven transition from “traditional/imperial” to “modern/democratic.” It may be more enjoyable to someone who has more patience than I possess. It is a serious novel, to be sure, but I found it to be more self-important than elevating. If Oe wonders why Japanese readers are turning to modern writers instead of, well, to novels like this one, perhaps it is because they do not want to undertake all the uphill climbs that Oe, despite his sincerity and perceptive analysis of modern Japan, forces them to endure.
Its themes of regret and loss saturate the book with a heavy sense of sadness it’s difficult to shake, flirting with the point of wallowing. Oe doesn’t shy away from the bald illustration the sins of the fathers are often visited upon the sons, the mistakes of one generation teaching subsequent generations little about averting the same disastrous behavior.
Choko is a writer haunted for a lifetime by the sudden and violent death of his father, when Choko was a child, a death obscured by secrecy and silence. As a result of his loss, grief and guilt infuse all his relationships, threaten to destroy his mental state, and stunt his career. The specter of his father’s last moments torture him, to the extent happiness in any other aspect of his life is severely compromised. Oe has created a man damned by his own regret, a character nearly impossible to sympathize with due to his single-minded intention to see all his life through a prism of self-imposed, exaggerated mourning.
The adults in the protagonist’s life made matters far worse for Choko by remaining closed-mouthed, shrouding the already traumatic event in forbidden mystery, leaving him to think the worst. Reeling, all he knows for certain is documents locked inside a red leather trunk, an object he will spend the greater part of his life coveting, can explain all. Little else is said, next to no effort made to comfort the child, to help him move beyond his sadness. Small wonder he found himself stymied.
A later rift with his mother denies Choko hope of exploring the secrets contained in the trunk, his one link to revealing the past. Having published a novel speculating on one possibility explaining his father’s death, his mother becomes so irate at what she sees as a weak and pathetic characterization of her husband she cuts off her only son, disowning him.
It’s only later, when Choko’s son is born with a defect in his skull—mirroring a situation in Oe’s own life, leading him to create Choko’s story—that she relents. Even then, by the time he’s allowed possession, ten years later, he finds his mother has decimated the contents, burning the most damning documents.
What she did leave, however, was an audiocassette containing an explanation of the truth. Ironically, this truth leaves Choko with little useful information for use as the framework of his final novel. It had been his dream to end his career by writing his father’s story, through the lens of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Death by Water,” from which poem Oe takes the title of this book. In one final punch to the stomach, Choko sees his dream slip away. For better or worse, his mother has won.
Fortunately for the novelist, a company of actors known as the Caveman Group has dedicated itself to the revival of his by now languishing canon. Through the determination of a young actress and budding director, Unaiko, as well as the theatre’s manager, Masao, his deflated dream will be revived, the story’s focus changed from his father’s death to the imaginary friend he created as a child, named Kogii, a name his family had chosen as a fond diminutive of his own. This creature of his imagination, always a larger than life figure to him, takes center stage in the dramatization of his works.
For the first time in his 70 years of life, focus is shifted from his loss to a much more positive childhood experience. In an unexpected reversal, the curse of disappointment suffered from the empty trunk becomes a blessing.
For all Choko’s newfound renewal, he fails to notice how his great hypocrisy toward his own son is perhaps an even more grievous and abhorrent transgression than any perpetrated on him. His justification for his behavior, that his son is a great disappointment, reflects frustration in the face of his failed quest. Despite the lift he feels from his exciting new project, he remains unable to change the landscape of his life, neglecting to turn lessons learned from traumatic childhood experiences into the chance for happiness with his own family.
Once again Choko has suffered a loss, this time one he can’t seem to recognize, in the way of estrangement from his son. Nearing the end of his life, he has become a very selfish, hardened man toward all but the members of the theater company who stroke his ego. But, in yet another twist, life swiftly delivers a strong reprisal, a consequence so severe it can’t help but change him. At last, things have come full circle.
Death by Water is ostensibly the prolonged keening of a son for his lost father, running parallel with the story of a mother’s grief for the son whose fixation with her husband’s death threatens to destroy his relationship with his own son. While it does have the redeeming grace of interesting sub-plots, the whole of it is fixated on often-repetitive expressions of misery. This, as well as the often simplistic, occasionally pedestrian prose is a large flaw. Whether the prose failings are a result of translation is difficult to say. In any event, the novel could have stood deeper editing.
Not having read the previous novels in the series may be a hindrance; I can only speculate on that. Still, knowing more of the backstory of Kogito Choko would do nothing to rectify the shortfalls in the prose.
Overall, the story is a moving one. Regret and loss are powerful forces in a life, the loss of large parts of childhood a travesty. Oe does a masterful job expressing these themes through his characters. Unfortunately, the novel is alternately so stylistically over-wrought and stilted as to jerk the reader out of the tale, inhibiting its flow and power.
Pruned to a leaner work, Death by Water may have been a thoroughly impressive book. As it is, the story is weakened, its truths strained. If this is the last we see of main character Kogito Choko, it seems a sad farewell.
After seven novels, the reader can’t help believing this semi-autobiographical character deserved so much more.
- Lisa Guidarini, New York Journal of Books