Death By Water by Kenzaburo Oe (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

“Death is going to find us all, no matter what, we still have to take active responsibility for what remains of our lives.”

This quote found early on in Death by Water is what I’m taking away from a novel with many themes. Kenzaburo Oe has written about parenting, aging, writing, and the future event we all will face, weaving them together in a novel which centers on a 74 year old author’s point of view.

Why the red leather suitcase in the photo above? Because it emerges again and again throughout the novel, though more acurately as a red leather trunk which Kogito’s mother bought at an antique store. It housed important papers and books and correspondence which Kogito’s father had taken with him the night he took a boat into the raging river and drowned.

But once Kogito is finally able to open it, he finds nothing of value to help him write “the drowning-novel”, the book he supposes will be his last. The book that he hopes will help answer the many questions he has about his father’s death. Why did he set out in his boat on such a perilous night? Was Kogito really with him, or did he dream the sequence of events while watching on the riverbank?

“I was looking for a way to express what a momentous occurrence my father’s drowning was for our family, but in a fit of cowardice I wrote the whole scene as if it were the recollection of a dream.”

The title of the novel, indeed its overarching theme, comes from these lines of poetry written by T. S. Eliot:

DEATH BY WATER

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.”

~T. S. Eliot

But the lines of T. S. Eliot’s poem is echoed in the first two lines of a poem that Kogito’s mother wrote, and the last three written by Kogito in response:

“You didn’t get Kogii ready to go up into the forest
And like the river current, you won’t return home
In Tokyo during the dry season
I’m remembering everything backward
From old age to earliest childhood.”

The name Kogii has many meanings. It refers to Kogito’s nickname, but also to an imaginary friend, a supernatural alter-ego if you will. Kogito has come to figure out that his mother used the name to reference his mentally disabled son, Akari, as well.

The phrase “to go up into the forest” is a Japanese euphemism for death, and it seems that she is chiding her son, Kogito, for not taking care of his son, Akari. For indeed, their relationship is a troubled one.

Akari has a mental disability, but a great passion for music. He listens to classical CDs which make up the environment of their home, and is able to read the scores of music to compare sonatas between Beethoven and Hayden. But when he uses a pen to mark up a particularly special sheet of music, instead of the soft lead pencil his father has given him, his father says, “You’re an idiot!” It causes what seems to be irreparable damage between them.

When I wondered why his father did not apologize, it occurred to me that perhaps he couldn’t. Perhaps he wasn’t sorry about accusing his son of what he saw as truth, no matter how hurtful it might have been. Perhaps he wasn’t sorry about expressing his frustration at living with a son who in many ways is still a child.

I have read of Oe describing a father’s frustration over having a handicapped child before, in his novel A Personal Matter. It seems that the themes he uses are from his own experience, that his novels resonate with truths which he has experienced.

Near the end of the novel, a theater critic interviews Kogito in his study, and makes these observations while discussing his previously published books:

“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 general novels? Generally speaking, books like this will never win over 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?

and the answer:

“I’ve often asked myself how I ended up following such a constricted path in my fiction, but I always seem to come back to the sobering realization that if I hadn’t used the quasi-autobiographical approach I wouldn’t have been able to write anything at all. In other words, I’ve had to maintain this narrow focus out of sheer necessity.”

We close with another line from T. S. Eliot’s poetry, a favorite of Kogito’s and therefore perhaps Oe’s as well:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

These words, uttered by Kogito, have made his friend Unaiko cry. Why? “She said it made her realize that even for an older author who has had a great deal of success, the struggle never ends; on the contrary, it goes on forever, until you die.”

As it does for all of us.

Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
424 pages

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13 thoughts on “Death By Water by Kenzaburo Oe (Man Booker International Prize Long List)”

  1. I was quite impressed by A Personal Matter, I just hope to have the time to read this one as well, hopefully during my summer holiday and of course, for the Japanese Challenge 🙂

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  2. Death by Water is much longer, and in many places I felt I had to struggle with it. But, when I closed the last page I found it profoundly moving. The books on the MBIP long list are not easy reads, but they are very, very powerful. They are of life experiences so different from my own, and yet I feel that I am living where each author has temporarily placed me.

    I am most moved by his relationship with Akari.

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    1. It really has been a Spring Break for me, reading all the translated books for the Man Booker International Prize. I only have four read from the list of thirteen, but I plan on finishing them all before the winner is announced in May. I hope one or two will appeal to you, too!

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  3. I gave this book to my son for Christmas, but it looked so intriguing I wanted to read it myself. I am looking forward to getting to know this author, he is now on my list. Thanks for your good review, I love the background info you’ve provided here.

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    1. Thanks for reading my review, and commenting! If you have not read Oe before, you may like beginning with A Personal Matter, but of course that is not necessary. This is a more complex novel, to me, but still carries his beautiful voice, his thought-provoking narrative. It is deceptively simple with much to think about underneath the story.

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  4. I’m a quarter of the way through this at the moment. Two initial thoughts: firstly, It’s quite repetitive (by that I mean it explains the same things frequently), and secondly, it’s probably best appreciated by someone acquainted with Oe’s work.

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    1. It has that distinctive Japanese quality of setting a mood, and being repetitive, and there’s something about every Japanese translation which is the same, and I can’t name it. Phrases are somehow stilted, and I can’t figure it if it’s a Japanese way of writing, or the only way to translate it. If you read enough of it, you may know of which I speak.

      As for being acquainted with Oe previously, I can only say that I read the much shorter A Personal Matter, and while he wrote of having a handicapped child there, the similarities were not more common than that. This one is much longer, much more complex, and in some places much drier (more boring?) than the other. There were passages I could barely get through of his sister’s letters.

      I look forward to your thoughts, truly.

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