Book review: Death by Water

WATER is the metaphor and the phrase “taken by the current” is the recurring motif for going away and never returning, as happened to his fictitious father who drowned during a stormy night, in this autobiographical novel by Nobel prize winning Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe.

Kenzaburo Oe

Atlantic Books, €23.50

Kogito, a play on cogito ergo sum, is Oe’s doppelganger who feels guilty as he was supposed to accompany his father on that fateful night. Kogito idolised his father, considering him a hero in a fraught, war-torn Japan.

His mother, however, had other ideas about the supposed gallant qualities of her husband and is unrevealing to her son about him, which results in the son falling out with her for many years.

Kogito is determined to find out more about his father by exploring a red leather trunk which he had left behind containing many of his papers. 

It appears that the father was involved in a revolutionary plot to overthrow the emperor and may have lost courage before the event and fled by boat on a flooded river.

Oe uses the death of his father, who in reality did not drown, but died as a soldier in World War 11, as a trope to see through the prism of TS Eliot’s ‘Death by Water’ section from The Waste Land:

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

He coldly analyses the circumstances of his father’s death rather than engendering any emotional impact and elicits perhaps an unmoved or uncaring response from the reader.

Kogito intends to turn the information he gleans from the leather trunk into a final valedictory work called The Drowning Novel. 

However, when he eventually gets to see the insides of the trunk, most of the material surrounding his father’s death has been removed, and he abandons the effort.

Other literary references, showing how literature weaves its way into our lives, include Frazer’s The Golden Bough, significant in seeking “a renascence of fertility in the world in calling for the killing of the living god”. 

Kogito’s father interprets these words as a mandate to assassinate the emperor Hirohito.

The forest, home of Kogito’s childhood, is presented as a sort of prelapsarian state where “we were all together, happily unborn yet alive”, and there are wonderful poetic links between it and the sea, as the leaves of the trees in their undulations resemble the waves.

Despite the advancing years — both fictional and real narrators are 74 — and the possibility of writer’s block, Oe/Kogito never at any stage doubts his own worth as an artist. He gives instructions on how to interpret his work to the players of the adulatory Caveman Group who want to stage his novels.

The players for their part accept unquestioningly the value of the work “of such an eminent author”, which is something Oe reminds us of frequently.

And it is interesting that theatrical criticism is exemplified in some quarters of Japan by hurling stuffed animals— dead dogs— not at the artist but at the actors.

Such artistic awe may not be a totally bad thing as perhaps we are more critical of the artist’s role in society and less reverential in western culture.

However, on the downside, in western eyes this work could be viewed finally as a post-modern, self-regarding exercise in navel-gazing, all the time conscious of its own making.


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