Book review: Kenzaburo Oe’s ‘final’ novel explores uncertainty rather than resolve it
The Japanese Nobel laureate mines his own long life for material, in a work that continues his lifelong analysis of the ambiguities of Japan’s post-war psyche
Death by Water
by Kenzaburo Oe
When Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, he became the second Japanese laureate, following in the footsteps of Yasunari Kawabata almost three decades before. Oe was rewarded, the committee said, for being a writer “who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today”.
Death by Water, which Oe’s British publisher suggests is his final novel, fits this description, more or less. “Life” is represented in large part through Oe’s own: a rural upbringing in Shikoku; a revered man of letters oldish, if not quite old; an existence transformed by his father’s death 50 years before; a composer son who suffered severe brain damage at birth; a love of Rabelais, Dante and T.S. Eliot (from whose poem The Waste Land the title comes); and a continuing engagement with Japanese history, especially in the decades after the second world war.
Recalled in a restless mood, these facts are overlaid by various myths. Our hero, Kogito Choko, a dead ringer for Oe, has his own dead ringer – an imaginary friend, or doppelgänger, Kogii, who he claims was present at significant moments of his childhood. None is more significant than the death of Kogito’s father, who some years after world war two drowned in mysterious circumstances. The key to the enigma is rumoured to be contained inside a red leather trunk, which the father had taken on that final trip downriver. As the story spirals outwards, we learn that he had been involved in a ramshackle coup against the Japanese emperor. In a novel fleshed out with autobiographical details, it is striking that this central conceit is entirely fictional: Oe’s own father died fighting the Allied forces some years before he could have returned home to become embroiled in the fight for Japan’s post-war identity.
This leaves the question of the Nobel laureate’s human predicament. In Death by Water, this is most obviously the predicament of Kogito. Like Oe at the time of writing, he is 74, a revered if also mocked literary lion whose fate it is to be praised and denigrated by almost every character he encounters: from his sister, Asa, to a seemingly reverential theatre director, Masao Anai. Although Kogito’s pre-eminence as a novelist is often mentioned, he is, just as regularly, “dismissed … as an irrelevant fossil from the past”.
Other recurring barbs include falling sales, waning output and his proximity to death.
Even Kogito’s dead mother didn’t care much for him as a person or an artist, all but disowning her son when he mined (or, she argues, exploited) his father’s death in a tart novella, The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. The title is that of an actual novel by Oe from 1972. In Death by Water, this short work made up the lost ground when Kogito failed to complete a magnum opus about his father’s death, which he calls “the drowning novel”.
A belated attempt to finish this great work drives the main narrative of Oe’s own late work. After many years in Tokyo, Kogito returns to his childhood home to inspect the mysterious red trunk that his father took with him on his last voyage. As he tells Asa: “I was hoping against hope that if I could examine Father’s correspondence … those materials might provide come concrete evidence about the things I’ve been speculating about for decades – and might even resolve the lingering questions and ambiguities, once and for all.”
This too is a very Oe sort of thing to say. His Nobel acceptance speech was titled “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself”. As this hints, the writing that won him the highest form of literary recognition tended to explore uncertainty rather than untangle it.
Back in the novel, it’s hard to tell whether Kogito’s equanimity when he’s criticised and called a fossil is because he believes it’s true or has simply developed a thick skin. An unpleasantly obdurate side of his nature is exposed after he calls his brain-damaged, middle-aged son an “idiot” for scrawling on a musical score that he prizes for having a handwritten note by Edward Said, a real-life friend of Oe. Instead of apologising, Kogito promptly retreats into his own private world. He is similarly passive when his wife is diagnosed with cancer, although his own ill health may be a contributing factor. Indeed, for long stretches of the story, he feels less convincing as a character than Kogii his invented childhood companion. Kogii is an emotional filter for his creator’s childhood experiences: he represents, by turns, Kogito’s guilt (he was meant to accompany his father), his fear (he overheard his father’s part in a plot to bomb the Imperial Palace), his grief, both for his actual parent and the heroic ideal he represented, and finally the distortions of age and memory.
Other levels of narrative refraction abound within the novel. In addition to all those self-conscious allusions – to Oe’s own body of work, his own heroes Eliot and Rabelais – is a plot involving the Caveman Group, an avant-garde theatrical company that specialises in adapting his work for the stage. Unaiko, the company’s lead actress-provocateur, is a worthy foil for Kogito, even if it is unclear whether it is her mind he admires or the “resiliency of [her] thighs”. The troupe embark on an endless round of discussions, workshops, rehearsals and performances that eventually climax in a sudden burst of drama in the final chapters. This injection of action does not mark the suspicion that history, like so much else in Death by Water, is threatening to repeat itself.
Death By Water is a peculiar book. A knowingly late work of fiction, the mood is by turns light and ponderous, humble and self-indulgent, revealing and obscure. The central mystery and grand themes (the ambiguities of Showa-era Japan, the artist’s relationship to the past and present, suicide, misogyny) are absorbing. The unmistakable echoes of Oe’s own life are enticing if slippery.
Most unsettling is the relationship between Kogito and his son, Akari, who, like Oe’s own, suffered brain trauma, fell in love with birdsong then music and became a popular composer in his homeland. Kogito is, according to his own testimony, a doting, patient father. But in the action proper, he is impatient, frustrated, and cruel. When the rift opens between them, he chooses self-protection rather than maturity or compassion.
What hampers the mood of passionate playfulness is the endless speechifying. Oe seems intent on elevating the academic conference to the level of dramatic art: “For Choko, along with a kind of doctrinaire embracing of the postwar strain of anti-ultranationalism, there’s also a deeper, darker, more nuanced Japanese sensibility,” Masao Anai pontificates at one point. Civil strife is the story of post-war Japan and of Kogito’s father, who struggled to balance a defeated nation with the infallible Imperial power that entered the conflict, the liberal forces and nationalistic factions that later tussled for the nation’s future.
The unresolved and possibly unresolvable nature of the clash creates the novel’s circling, cyclical movement whose signature is echoes, reiterations and interpretations.
This looping arc creates its own whirling narrative momentum, but also tests the reader’s patience. Oe’s critic-characters love the sound of their own voices to such an extent that the reader suspects satirical ends. Kogito receives a preview of posthumous existence in which his voice is drowned out by younger, more earnest generations, albeit with “sinewy curves [and] small buttocks”. One chapter even takes the form of a Question and Answer session in which the interrogator’s Qs far outweigh Kogito’s As.
But after pages of monotonous exposition, sentences like “I really don’t care for that kind of over-wrought verbiage” sounds more like a review than ironic commentary.