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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Death by Water

Oe Kenzaburo

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To purchase Death by Water

Title: Death by Water
Author: Oe Kenzaburo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 424 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Death by Water - US
Death by Water - UK
Death by Water - Canada
Death by Water - India
  • Japanese title: 水死
  • Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm

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Our Assessment:

A- : compelling study/discussion of artistic treatment of the deeply personal and the political

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B 2/10/2015 Keith Staskiewicz
The Guardian . 18/12/2015 Steven Poole
Harper's . 10/2015 Joshua Cohen
The Independent . 21/12/2015 James Kidd
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/10/2015 Janice P. Nimura
San Francisco Chronicle A 12/11/2015 G.L. Miller
The Telegraph . 4/12/2015 Christopher Harding

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is a certain impenetrability and slogginess for the unfamiliar reader, but the novel ultimately rewards patience." - Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

  • "This all proceeds in a meandering, looping, and often stifling fashion. Even once one has accepted the occupational hazard, in reading Japanese books in translation, of American slanginess ("down here in the boonies"; "Holy cow, Kogito"), it challenges the reader’s patience. (...) The ending is quite some coup." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Oe’s oeuvre has conventionally been read as a response to the legacy of Japanese imperialism. But seventy years after V-J Day, his sad, sardonic metafiction seems more like the fallout from our own empire, which firebombs its enemies and then writes them new constitutions that illegalize war." - Joshua Cohen, Harper's

  • "The plot, and this term is pushing it, revolves around the death of Kogito’s father half a century before. (...) Death By Water is a pretty peculiar book. The central mystery and grand themes (the ambiguities of Showa-era Japan, the artist’s relationship to the past and present, suicide, gender) are absorbing. (...) What hampers the mood of passionate playfulness is the endless speechifying." - James Kidd, The Independent

  • "Death by Water is not a transporting novel. (...) True Oe devotees may find this thrill in Death by Water, but thrilling or not, it remains a thoughtful reprise of a lifetime of literary endeavor. It’s like the story of the emperor’s new clothes, only with the man in question gazing calmly at his audience and declaring yes, it’s true, he’s completely naked and he wouldn’t have it any other way." - Janice P. Nimura, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Oe’s slow pace -- his painstaking, repetitious mélange of history, dream, hallucination, summary, interpretation and lengthy speculation -- is exactly the right vehicle. Its success depends on the slow unfolding of time. (...) Death by Water masterfully captures the vertigo of this old writer’s vivid inner world." - Gregory Leon Miller, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Only towards the end of the book does Oe’s control over all this begin to dawn. This really is a portrait of enfeeblement, not a feeble book." - Christopher Harding, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Death by Water is narrated by Kogito -- called 'Kogii' by his family -- Choko, an author bearing a close resemblance to author Ōe: he has written books with the same titles as Ōe, has the same family history and lives in similar circumstances as Ōe -- and also writes books featuring a thinly veiled alter ego; as someone notes: "Not to put too fine a point on it, but the author's alter ego is nearly always the the main character in his books". Doubling down, Kogii is also presented as having had an imaginary friend in childhood:

Although no one else could see him, I had a constant companion who was an exact replica of me: same age, same face, same body. We were alike as two peas in a pod, as the saying goes. I called this doppelgänger by my nickname, Kogii, and we lived together in perfect harmony -- right up until the midsummer day when he took off and wafted up into the forest, leaving me behind.
       Then as now the separation isn't complete, the figment of his imagination even less tangible perhaps, and yet still in a way accompanying him: as someone notes: "the notional alter ego, Kogii, runs through your novels as a sort of supernatural leitmotif".
       While forcing some distance by employing a different name, Death by Water is, like many of Ōe's novels, a very personal work, and a working-through of very personal history, and these alter ego(s) allow for a secondary refracting lens, a slightly shifted perspective through/from which to do so. Death by Water is also specifically about the attempt to transform the personal into art, specifically (but not solely) in Kogito's efforts at writing what he calls the 'drowning novel' -- "a definitive novel about my father" -- that Kogito began decades earlier and abandoned.
       In 1945, when Kogito was ten, his father drowned in somewhat unusual circumstances. He had with him a red leather trunk that was later recovered and returned to the family; ten years after the death of their mother, Kogito's sister Asa, says it is time for him to have the trunk, and he hopes to find in it material that will help him finally write the novel about his father's death and his own confused childhood memories of that time. Asa arranges for him to get the trunk at the family's countryside 'Forest House', suggesting he spend some time there doing research while at the same time an experimental theater group, the Caveman Group, who have dramatized one of his works and are working on another stage-adaptation sets up there too -- hoping also to take advantage of his presence to get input from him on their undertaking.
       Much of Death by Water is then discussion, about Kogito's life and writing (and his struggles with both) as well as the Caveman Group's theatrical productions -- from an adaptation of Sōseki's Kokoro to, especially, the evolution of the unusual performance piece, 'Tossing the Dead Dogs'. Letters -- especially from his sister Asa --, interview-sessions, even a recording from his mother give a documentary feel to much of the novel, but then Kogito also hopes to base his novel on the documentary evidence in the trunk. Yet even in these documentary pieces, and much of the straightforward-seeming exposition Ōe manages to delve deep into the difficulties of transforming the personal into art.
       One member of the Caveman Group is Unaiko, and she plays an important role in the development of 'Tossing the Dead Dogs', an approach that she uses as a springboard for another, more personal performance piece that then becomes the central art-work in the later part of the book (as Kogito largely abandons work on his drowning novel). Mirroring Ōe's own novel -- even as the approach is more stylized and absurdist:
     Typically for one of Unaiko's productions, there was more exposition than in a conventional play
       So too the novel -- so too even in its description of the play itself. (In what is also perhaps a bit of wishful thinking Ōe insists on the success (or at least potential) of the method: "the audience seemed to be listening raptly" -- though admittedly readers who have made it to this point (very late in the novel) have presumably also been won over by the Ōe-method.)
       Unaiko's play also dredges up deep and very personal history from many years earlier -- hushed-up at the time, and with those at the center trying (rather outlandishly) to hush it up again. It is a political issue, too, and not just because one of those involved is a high-ranking political figure; indeed, even as both Unaiko's play and Kogito's planned novel about his father's drowning death appear to be very personal, both have a significant and very public political edge to them. In the case of Kogito's father, he had apparently planned a grandiose gesture/attack on the heart of Japanese identity; because it was never carried out -- and perhaps never was very realistic -- it can be treated almost as a joke -- but only almost.
       While Kogito is known as an activist with strong opinions about some political matters he remains largely a bystander and observer in the confrontation that occurs around Unaiko's play: he documents, recounting what happens -- in part, because it is not his fight, even as it obviously touches him (and not just because he is forced to witness it).
       Death by Water is also about an aging author worried about his declining abilities -- whether he can finish a sustained, long work, for example (and even as Kogito's original drowning novel project doesn't work out, the heft of Death by Water suggests at least Ōe has a lot left in him ...). If not exactly impotent in the confrontation about Unaiko's play, Kogito is only a peripheral actor. Tellingly, he had been laid low earlier, too, overcome by the 'Big Vertigo' which sapped all his creative strength and reinforces his role as observer and witness rather than actor (or transformative creator).
       Mortality hovers over much of the novel, too (even as young Unaiko is a counterweight to that). Darkly in the background is Kogito's wife's, Chikashi's, battle with cancer, which Kogito is largely kept at a distance from -- one way of (not) dealing with it. And, indeed, their daughter, Maki, complains:
(I)t doesn't seem as though Papa has made any progress towards considering the problems at hand. Ever since she was diagnosed with cancer, Mama seems to have been giving a lot of thought to her own mortality, but Papa isn't really thinking seriously about the end of his own life.
       This isn't strictly true -- though admittedly Kogito's thoughts on the subject-matter are more oblique -- but it is noteworthy that in this otherwise so personal exploration Kogito very much keeps his distance from what his wife is going through: perhaps touching too closely, he reports the facts neutrally but keeps the figure of Chikashi one very much in the background; he appears almost detached. There is, in fact, a great deal of emotional distance in this family: Asa reports to her brother about Chikashi that: "Obviously she would never hug her daughter in front of me, even though I'm family", and Kogito similarly finds it difficult to make any public displays. So, for example, central to the novel too is a sudden rift between father and the developmentally disabled son, Akari, as Kogito unforgivably calls his son an 'idiot' -- something he has never done before -- and yet is unable to apologize to him and can only try to mend bridges in the most slow and awkward and roundabout way.
       Death by Water is almost Knausgaardian in its detailed accounting of the intimate and personal, right down to the soiled underwear. Yet like Knausgaard, Ōe's reflections on life and the creative process are often fascinating and compelling. Like Knausgaard, too, Ōe's willingness to be openly -- and even harshly -- self-critical helps keep all this from becoming simple, boring navel-gazing.
       With its multiple narrative layers Death by Water is also a fascinating consideration of the creative-transformative act. It is about the political -- at its most personal (rape and abortion) and most public-symbolic (the figure of the Japanese emperor) -- but also about the individually personal. Significantly, Ōe focuses not just on writing but also on theatrical performance and on music, both of which are convincingly integrated into the story. While the secondary storyline around Unaiko -- who is introduced very early on and plays a significant role throughout, but really comes fully to the fore near the end of the novel -- arguably pulls the focus too much away from Kogito's own fascinating personal struggles (dealing especially with his father and his son) it is ultimately well-handled too.
       Deborah Boliver Boehm's translation works well on the whole, but does try a bit too hard to explain too much to English-speaking readers; well-meaning though the efforts are, they stick out rather uncomfortably, e.g.:
     "The play we were doing was inspired by the Heike Monogatari," Unaiko enthused, naming one of the most famous narratives in classical Japanese literature.
       One might critique Death by Water -- and Ōe in general -- as one character does his alter ego:
For Mr. Choko, this probably is a 'serious novel,' both in terms of structure and literary style. However, the thing is, over the past ten or fifteen years all of Mr. Choko's long works of fiction have more or less been cut from the same cloth, most notably in terms of the protagonist (who is often the first-person narrator as well). 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 genuine novels ? [...] 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 ?
       The resulting work suggest the usefulness of the approach: Death by Water may not be somehow 'purely' novelistic, yet demonstrates effectively and impressive what a broader conception of fiction can do. Even as it so often presents itself as a documentary work, Death by Water is a novel in which Ōe again demonstrates -- at a very high level -- the transformative abilities of the creative writer. Yes, it's a solipsistic exercise -- but a fascinating and accomplished one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 November 2015

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Death by Water: Reviews: Ōe Kenzaburō: Other books by Ōe Kenzaburō under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Ōe Kenzaburō (大江 健三郎) was born in 1935. He was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize.

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