November 20, 2015

Death By Water - Kenzaburo Oe

Grove Press, October 6, 2015.

Three Stars

I have read Kenzaburo Oe in the past and really enjoyed it, but I had a hard time getting into this novel. It is an elaborately woven story of reality and myth, in which Oe’s literary alter-ego, Kogito Choko sets out to complete his literary masterpiece: the story of his father’s death by water.

The title of the novel is a euphemism for drowning that comes from a T.S. Eliot poem. Kogito uses it to describe the suspicious death of his father that occurred many years before. Kogito’s father was travelling by boat to an unknown destination, and after his death, all that was left was a red suitcase filled with important documents. Although his father risked his own life, he ensured that the suitcase would be found; however, Kogito’s mother refuses to let him access the secrets within.

Kogito is obsessed with recording the story of his father’s death – partly to cement his fame as a writer, and partly to allow himself to understand the events that led to the death. As he sifts through his own memories, facts are altered by imagination. He plans to use a fictional format to finally understand the death by water in what he calls “the drowning novel.” Kogito is easily discouraged, but he becomes inspired by the members of an avant-garde theatre group who are in the process of dramatizing his earlier novels – he is then re-inspired to create new work and preserve his legacy as a writer.

Like Kogito, his father also seemed preoccupied with his legacy. He hid his important papers and potential clues to his death so they wouldn’t be found – but he also ensured that they wouldn’t be lost. This is possibly hubris on his part, as a last hope for immortality. Kogito tells us that his father was on his way to “commit a doomed act of heroism when he drowned,” which has echoes of ritual suicide and reminds us of the deeply Japanese roots of this story. I think the cultural identity of this novel is important in understanding both Kogito’s and his father’s motivations, as well as the general tone and pace of the novel – it is slow and repetitive, but also complex.

I found the most interesting part to be the interactions between Kogito and his mother, although she has been deceased for ten years as the novel opens. She left the red suitcase in the safekeeping of Kogito’s sister, not allowing him to open it until a decade after her death. The many layers of Kogito’s identity are peeled back in the poem written by his mother, which is repeatedly analyzed by Kogito and the theatre group. She writes, “You didn’t get Kogii ready to go up into the forest,” which they read as a reflection on preparedness (or lack thereof) for death – both for Kogito himself, his father, and the future of Kogito’s son.

Mortality is a theme touched on repeatedly in Death By Water, and I don’t think Kogito ever truly comes to terms with it, but he does his best to explore its complexities. Losing his father at a young age made him more aware of his own mortality, and that of his son. He continually circles back to these issues, and while it becomes repetitive, I think Oe is successful in making the point that life is cyclical, and our legacy will live on through the next generation, if they choose to embrace it.

I received this book for free from Grove Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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