Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe

Death by Water Kenzaburo OeTranslated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm, ‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburo Oe tells the story of Kogito Choko, an author aged in his 70s reflecting on his long career. For many years, he has struggled to write the “drowning” novel based on his father’s death shortly after the Second World War. Kogito returns to his rural home town to look at his father’s red leather trunk which his mother had instructed him not to open until ten years had passed after her death. However, it soon transpires that the contents of the trunk do not provide him with many answers, leaving Kogito limited time to unlock the secrets he needs to finish his book.

Given that ‘Death by Water’ will reportedly be Oe’s last novel after a long and successful career, there will inevitably be some comparisons between himself and the character of Kogito in terms of how much of his writing is directly autobiographical. I am generally a bit wary of novels about writer’s block which can sometimes be a bit tedious. Thankfully, ‘Death by Water’ doesn’t dwell on this aspect quite as much as I’d feared. There are some interesting reflections on his fictional alter ego’s legacy as a novelist and much of the story focuses on Kogito’s collaboration with a local avant-garde theatre troupe who adapt his early novels.

There were a number of passages which are told almost entirely through dialogue between various characters, with individuals often giving long speeches for several paragraphs at a time. As well as being a completely unnatural way of holding a conversation, this has the effect of “telling” the story to the reader too directly rather than”showing” it more subtly. Consequently, I found it more difficult to engage with the characters, as the stilted and often repetitive way in which they speak doesn’t really convey their feelings, even when discussing very emotionally charged topics related to darker episodes of Japan’s recent history.

Like Pamuk, Oe is a Nobel Prize-winning author who is new to me and as with A Strangeness in My Mind, I’m not entirely sure if ‘Death by Water’ is the best place to start or if his previous novels from the era before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994 are worth trying instead. Unlike Pamuk, Oe doesn’t appear to conform as much to Western styles of storytelling despite a similarly wide international reputation, which made ‘Death by Water’ a much more complex and challenging read compared to Pamuk’s longlisted novel.

‘Death by Water’ has been one of the most divisive books on the Man Booker International Prize longlist amongst the shadow panel members so far. Although I personally struggled with the monologues and relative lack of emotion in the narrative, this is clearly a matter of personal taste and it may well progress to the shortlist due to be announced on Thursday.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe

  1. I’ve never been much interested in Oe’s oeuvre despite my love for Japanese literature. Death by Water sounds closer to my taste but I think buying it just because I want to finally read an Oe novel is poor decision making, so I’ll skip this for now.

    Excellent review though. I always appreciate how informative and concise you are.

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  2. I’ve been tempted to try Oe for a long time. But truth is, I’m wary of the stoic Japanese way of writing, and I didn’t have a good experience with Mishima. Your review encouraged me a little, even if those monologues sound daunting. Will see how it go.

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  3. I was just thinking about picking us an Oe book… this review helps. I’m not sure whether or not I will like it to be honest. But well, if there’s anything by him in my library (which I’m sure there is) then I think I’ll give it a try. Great review by the way.

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  4. I’m halfway through this – like you I think I would like it much better as a lifelong fan of Oe’s work rather than a newcomer.

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  5. Thanks for the review – think I’ll pass on this one!

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  6. Thanks for the review. I always find something interesting on your blog. I enjoy Murakami, but haven’t read many other Japanese novels. Will see if his work has trickled into our library system.

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  7. Sounds a bit daunting for me – but an excellent review, I’m always just as happy to find out why I don’t want to read books as why I do!

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  8. I have now read Death by Water. To be brutally honest it kept straying to the bottom of the pile! Partly because I did struggle a bit with The Changeling, another KO novel I read a while back. Imagine my surprise on opening Death by Water to find all the same characters! I have read that many of Kenzaburo Oe’s work are autobiographical, they certainly contain a great deal of Japanese history and politics, as well as a lot of discussion – on the page presented as intensely long (and unnatural) conversations or letters or extracts from diaries and notebooks. In The Changeling the reader gets all the background story of the characters in this latest (and last?) novel. This writing is very “foreign” but it should not put readers off. My recommendation would be to try The Changeling first, if you can get hold of a copy. To read such a challenging work is worthwhile and mind-stretching, but not in my experience typically Japanese. But between the long sections, one gets a marvellous impression of post-war Japanese life and thought.
    I cannot praise this blog highly enough, by the way.

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  9. Pingback: The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami | A Little Blog of Books

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