There have been a couple of posts between my review of Maylis de Kerangal’s “Mend The Living” (translated by Jessica Moore) and this look at Kenzaburō Ōe’s “Death by Water”, however I did read these books back-to-back. Moving from the stilted, awkward style of the French novel to the smooth, eloquence associated with J-Lit. I can assure you the stark contrast was startling.
The title “Death by Water” is taken from a phrase for drowning used by T.S. Eliot in the poem “The Waste Land”
Our novel focuses on the ageing famous writer, Kogito Choko (Kenzaburō Ōe), and opens with his return to the family home, ten years after his mother’s death, at his sister’s request. This reconciliation of family now gives Choko the, long deferred, opportunity to finish his novel that is about his father’s drowning death. As we explore more of this time it is also a reflection by Choko on his family relationships, his childhood memories and his imaginary friend Kogii. When our narrator returns home he meets up with a theatre troupe, the Caveman Group, who is planning to adapt all of his writings for the stage, a devise for the author to discuss his previous works with the theatre group whilst researching his “drowning novel”. The reflection on other works by Ōe are interspersed with interviews with Choko and (of course) the author’s internal musings.
One of the key prompts for Choko’s upcoming novel, apparently his last, is a family heirloom, a “red trunk”, hopefully it contains his family’s history, letters, feedback on his first draft of the ‘drowning man’ novel that he sent to his estranged (now dead) mother and further riches.
When Kogito Choko opens the red trunk his first discovery is three volumes of the English book “The Golden Bough”…later we learn “the myth of the Forest King of Nemi is one of the underlying themes of the whole ‘Golden Bough’, from beginning to end. The archetypal myth about the new king who kills his aged predecessor, thus engendering a renascence of fertility in the world.” Is this a reference to post-war Japan and the rule of Emperor Hirohito? Is this a reference to the passing on of the patriarchal role from Choko senior to Choko junior? Are these anthropological and folkloric principles a metaphor for modern Japanese politics? You’ll have to read this book yourself to find out….
However I jump ahead of myself, very early on in the novel do we learn of our narrator’s (and writer’s) fate, when he states: “what if the novelist himself ended up being sucked into the whirlpool in a single gulp when he was finished telling his story?”
As the inner sleeve explains this is “an interweaving of myth, history and autobiography…a shimmering masterpiece. Reportedly the last novel that Kenzaburō Ōe will ever write, this is an exhilarating ending for the great literary character of Kogito Choko and a deeply personal denouement for one of the world’s most important and influential living authors.”
There are many many layers to this work however for this exercise of reviewing the work I will primarily focus on the character of Kogito Choko as a mirror for Kenzaburō Ōe. For example when reflecting upon a theatrical representation of his work “The Day Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away” (written in 1972, published in English in the collection “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness”) which features Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56’, Choko’s sister says
“It’s just that you’re about to embark on what (considering your age) may well turn out to be your final project. I realize your main focus will be on exploring the contents of the red leather trunk, with the help of the Caveman Group, but I can’t help wondering what might happen if some echoes of the ultranationalist German song were to show up in the book you ultimately write.”
This is a subtle, understated novel, blending repetitive tales of Choko’s memories or current day actions with folklore, local spirits, samurai, female warriors and references to Kenzaburō Ōe’s other writings or even Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro”. A ‘letter” in Chapter six, part 5, is very pertinent; although talking about the novel “Kokoro” the reflection of the book we are now reading is almost mirror like, “writing a sort of regretful retrospective was apparently his only means of talking about his own conduct after decades of silence.” Kenzaburō Ōe’s “The Changeling” appearing in 2000 (nine years before “Suishi”, this work, appeared in Japan).
The literary references are so rich I can’t help but quote these wonderful passages;
“In your work to date, you’ve portrayed Father as a grotesquely exaggerated character, almost a cartoon – sometimes ludicrous, sometimes tragic, sometimes a bit heroic – but really, your take on him has been all over the map. In other words, for you, there was no clarity so there can be no absolution or closure, either.”
Therefore, as you are reading this “fiction” the revelations as to an unreliable narrator, the knowledge that you will have no closure is slowly appearing, as a reader you are complicit in the novelist’s journey.
“In my novels, I usually portray characters who exist in very private worlds, but even so, my ultimate goal is to somehow express the spirit of the era I’m writing about. I’m not claiming there’s any special merit in my approach – and, as you’ve so kindly pointed out, my readership has nearly dried up as a result. This may seem like a stretch, but if I should die I can’t help thinking that it would almost be as if I were committing junshi myself: following my own era (and the principles I’ve fought for) into death. I’m speaking metaphorically of course.”
Like a number of Japanese novels I have read, the melancholic, meditative, almost Buddhist contemplation, is prominent in both the style and the content. “Although at the same time they saw something interesting in the slightly retro, nostalgic feeling that infuses so much of his work – what you might call a divergence from the now.”
One of the other prominent characters is Uniako, a thirty-something, determined actress, part of the Caveman Group, she has her own distinctive style which includes a ‘dog-tossing’ model, in the Prologue we are introduced to Rabelais and his work Pantagruel, a tale about rabid dogs. Yes, don’t let any reference, however small, slip through, it may pop up later, however you never know it could be a “McGuffin” (see Enrique Vila-Matas’ “The Illogic of Kassel” if you’d like more on McGuffins).
Is this work a Japanese Karl-Ove Knausgaard? Is Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” a Norwegian Kenzaburō Ōe? Am I now just being ridiculous? Maybe I should leave the final word to the author!
“For Mr. Choko, this, probably is a “serious novel,” both in terms of structure and literary style. However, the thing is, over the past ten or fifteen years all of Mr. Choko’s long works of fiction have more or less been cut from the same cloth, most notably in terms of the protagonist (who is often the first-person narrator as well). Not to put too fine a point on it, but the author’s alter ego is nearly always the main character in his books. At some point, doesn’t it become overkill? I mean, can these serial slices of thinly veiled memoir really be considered genuine novels? Generally speaking, books like this will never win over the people who want to read a novel that’s actually novelistic: that is, an imaginative work of fiction. So at the risk of seeming rude, I really have to ask: Why do you choose to write about such a solipsistic and narrowly circumscribed world?”
So “generally speaking” this style of novel hasn’t won over the judges of the Man Booker International Prize – it not making the shortlist was one of the personal shocks to myself. I may be more inclined to enjoy Japanese novels than the general public, I may also be more inclined towards the male centred, solipsistic, paternalistic works, the first-person ramblings. With that in mind, take my recommendation with a grain of salt, but this is one of the better works on the longlist of thirteen, a subtle work, that creeps into your consciousness, a meditative repetitive piece that works simply as a tale of writer’s block, but also as an allegory for post-war Japan, also as a mystery of a drowning death, also as a cryptic tale of youthful folklore spirits speaking through mature adults, a novel that is both shallow and deep that the same time, a bit like a deep forest (you’ll have to read it to know what that means).