Death By Water – Kenzaburō Ōe (translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

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).

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A Cat, a Man, and Two Women – Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (translated by Paul McCarthy)

In the early years of the 11th Century, noblewoman and lady-in-waiting, Murasaki Shikibu, composed the classic work of Japanese literature, “The Tale of Genji”. Given this work is close to one thousand years old, there is of course conjecture as to the authorship, I’ll leave those debates and assertions to the scholars and analysts of style. The work is complex and lengthy (with Royall Tyler’s 2001 English translation running to 1,256 pages). Putting the significance of this work into context, it was written about 600 years before Cervantes “Don Quixote”, a similar amount of time to the publication of Shakespeare’s “First Folio” in 1623, and about 350 years before Chaucer (sometimes called “the Father of English literature”!!!). Therefore, it is not a hard stretch to say that “The Tale of Genji” is a significant work in the history of human literature.
Junichiro Tanizaki, (1886-1965) dedicated six-years (from late 1935 through to 1941) devoted to his translation of “The Tale of Genji” into modern Japanese, only one original work was produced during this six year period, “A Cat, a Man, and Two Women”. Prior to taking on his translation he had sixteen published works, and since 1965 now has an annual literary prize named in his honour and with a large oeuvre of works translated into English, he is a well known figure in the west when debating Japanese literature. Therefore when this book appeared on my doorstep it was a welcome invite to enjoy his world of early 20th Century Japan.
This collection actually contains three works, the title story “A Cat, a Man, and Two Women”, and two shorter pieces, “The Little Kingdom” and “Professor Rado”. I’ll look at each separately, although the themes of dominance and submission in relationships are to the fore in each work. The “Introduction” by translator Paul McCarthy gives wonderful detail and context to the three works, including enlightening information on Japanese cultural and social norms that are relevant in these works.
Our title work opens with a letter to Fukuko, Shozo’s new wife, from his ex-wife. This letter is asking…pleading, for Fukuko and Shozo to give up the cat Lily. In the letter the seeds of doubt are sown about the pecking order of Shozo and his relationships, the cat comes first, his women second. “I might be able to do without you,…but do without Lily? Never!”
However this is not a simple love quadrangle, the cat Lily is the key to all the relationships in this story, including Shozo’s mother.
Now, Fukuko was a cousin of Shozo’s; and, given the circumstances under which she became his wife, there was no need for her to worry about pleasing a difficult mother-in-law. So form her second day of married life, she did just as she pleased in everything. All the same, she could hardly stand by and watch her husband trying to wield a kitchen knife, so in the end she made marinated fish for both of them, though under protest. To make matters worse, they had been dining on mackerel for five or six days running. Then, two or three days ago, it had struck her: Shozo wasn’t even eating the food he’d insisted on having, ignoring his wife’s complaints; instead , he was giving it all to the cat! The more she thought about it, the clearer it all became: the mackerel were small, with little bones, easily chewed; there was no need to fillet them, and they could be served cold; and one got a lot for one’s money – in other words, they were an ideal food to serve to the cat on a daily basis. They weren’t Shozo’s favourite dish, but that cat’s! In this household, the husband ignoring his wife’s preferences, planned the evening menu with his pet alone in mind. Fukuko had been prepared to sacrifice her own tastes for her husband’s sake, while in fact it was for the cat that she cooked; she had become a companion to the cat.
The seed of doubt sown by Shozo’s first wife, Shinako, were beginning to sprout, however it is not a simple case of giving up Lily to Shinako as this would mean she has gained the upper hand, however Fukuko cannot allow for herself to be lower on the pecking order than Lily, she needs to wrangle some power too. This story quickly becomes a tale of supplication, of domination, dominance and submission, a like the order in the title itself, the top of the pyramid is Lily, the cat!
When Shozo stroked her head and said “There’s nothing to worry about, You’re going to be a mother, that’s all,” she placed her forepaws on his knee as if to cling to him, uttered one “meeoww,” and looked at him as though trying her best to understand what he was telling her. Shozo carried her back to the closet and placed her in the box. “Now you stay right here, okay? You’re not to come out. Okay? You understand?” Having made this little speech, he closed the door and started to stand up, when there was another plaintive “meeeoow.” It seemed to be saying “Wait a moment. Don’t go away.” Shozo melted at the sound and opened the door just a crack to peek in. There in the farthest corner of the closet, which was filled with a jumble of trunks and cloth-wrapped bundles, was the box with Lily’s head sticking out. “Meeooow,” she cried, gazing at him. “She may be just an animal,” thought Shozo, “but what a loving look she has in those eyes of here!” it was strange, but Lily’s eyes shining in the closet’s dim recesses were no longer those of a mischievous little kitten. In that instant they had become truly feminine, full of an inexpressible sadness and seduction. Shozo had never seen a woman in childbirth; but he was sure that if she were young and beautiful, she would call he her husband with just the same pained, reproachful look as this. Any number of times he closed the closet door and began to walk away, only to go back for another look; and each time Lily would poke her head out of the box and peer at him, like a child playing peekaboo.
After many power struggles the cat is eventually returned to Shinako and despite her drastic measures to win her affection and keep her, Lily simply runs away….to learn of Lily’s fate you’ll have to read this novella yourself.
“The Little Kingdom”, follows the story of school-teacher Kaijima Shokichi, a man with six children and another on the way, his meagre salary as a “licensed schoolmaster” is not enough to support a family.
Kaijima’s father, however, died when he was twenty-four, and shortly afterward he married; little by little his former drive and ambition were worn away. In the first place, he was very much in love with his wife. Up till then he had been so engrossed in his studies that he never even looked at a woman. Now, as he experienced more and more of the joys of married life, he gradually became contented with his not very distinguished lot; without even being aware of it, he was becoming more like the lass of ordinary men. Meanwhile, children were born, his salary rose a little, and in the end he lost all of his earlier determination to success and make a name for himself.
A new pupil Numakura arrives in his class and within weeks he has the whole class as followers, does the teacher Kaijima crush or develop this leadership skill? Another tale of domination, manipulation, submission and supplication.
Our collection ends with “Professor Rado” a story of a sadomasochist with a foot fetish. A wonderful character study of an arrogant man who keeps his desires hidden, a man who barely speaks in public, a renowned scholar with an interesting set of desires. Quite obvious that again the theme of domination, repression, submission, comes to the fore.
These stories are cheeky in style, an author who seems to be poking fun as he peels back the layers of these characters, not at all reading like a work that is eighty years old and addressing what we would think are contemporary issues. It is very obvious that Tanizaki was a cat lover, with his “Lily” in the title story being the central theme, to such an extent that my back cover quotes Choice – “One of the finest pieces of literature concerning cats ever written.”

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

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