Translated 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.