Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe (2009) translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm (2015) Grove Press (2015) 432 pp
Death by Water was my first experience reading anything by Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe. I’m so glad I’ve finally started this reading relationship because Death by Water is one of the bets books I’ve read this year, and one that leads me to Oe’s rich back catalog, much of which is actually brought up in this complex, profound, and strange work.
In Death by Water I finally met Oe’s fictional alter-ego Kogito Choko. It is my understanding — and I’m anxious to confirm this with my personal reading — that Oe’s books often feature Choko, a man with similar life experiences as Oe himself; indeed, Choko has written the same books, featuring, wouldn’t you know, a thinly-veiled alter-ego. This is further complicated by Choko’s childhood imaginary friend “who was an exact replica of me: same age, same face, same body.” It’s safe to say that Oe’s work is playful but also very personal.
Here, Choko is an elderly man. After decades away from home, in a kind of exile, he returns to fetch a red leather trunk that, he’s been told, holds the letters, articles, photographs, etc. that will help him finally understand how his father, over a half century earlier, died by drowning. As a relatively young author Choko started his “drowning novel,” an attempt to explore and perhaps make some sense of his father’s death, which he feels somewhat responsible for, though he was only ten. He always knew he was missing something, though: the red leather trunk his father had with him at the time of his death. The trunk was given to Choko’s mother, and she said that Choko could finally open it once she herself had been dead for ten years (the mother-son relationship, which was torn apart by Choko’s personal fiction, is a fascinating under-current in this novel). She has been dead ten years, bringing Choko back.
At home, Choko runs into the Caveman Group, an experimental theater group. The group hopes that, if he is around and willing, Choko will oversee their theater adaptation of his work, provide them with more personal insights.
Death by Water moves forward with all of this going on: the red leather trunk, the Caveman Group, all of the memories of home, the memories of his father’s death. Much of it is composed of expository conversations that turn into monologues of sorts. I know this has been off-putting to some, but this approach — the persistent digging, digging, digging for insight, turning phrases around to cast light on as many angles as possible — was invigorating to me. It was reflection compounded multiple times.
Such reflection is vital in Death by Water as the book is also about Choko’s confrontation with his own mortality and with his own threatened creative energy. After a bout with vertigo seizes his ability to consider almost anything beyond what is physically proximate, Choko retreats to back to where he’s lived for years, and where his grown, mentally disabled son Akari still lives.
Akari is a fascinating character, based on Oe’s own son Hikari, who comes up a lot in Oe’s fiction. Akari (and Hikari) are both developmentally disabled, both are musical savants, and both have always lived with his parents, parents who have done a lot to support their son in a culture that once saw such children as embarrassments. One of the most painful and powerful moments in this book is an ugly altercation between Choko and Akari, and book continues to plumb the personal, the public, and the political.