Mark Molloy reviews Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe

Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm (Grove Press, 2015)

Halfway through Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water, translated from Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm, Kogito Choko—the novel’s first-person narrator and Ōe’s fictional alter ego—recalls an incident from his childhood. His father is reading a passage from Shinobu Origuchi's 1939 novel The Book of the Dead, which describes how "in the olden days . . . some of the most fervent [Buddhist Pilgrims] would . . . seek to take a shortcut to the [heavenly paradise] by drowning themselves." Confusing two sets of similar Chinese characters—"淼淼," a compound that means "endless body of water," and "森森," a compound that means "dense forest"—Choko’s father mistakenly reads aloud that the believers drowned themselves in a forest. The memory is originally recounted as if in passing, and it is only in Death by Water’s closing passage that it assumes a larger significance. Here Choko ends his narrative with a dream in which he is “standing alone on a high promontory amid the trees in the pouring rain,” watching Daio, a former disciple of his father, climb “ever deeper into the woods.” At this moment, Choko notes, “the image of Daio in the forest reminded me of the two kanji—淼淼 and 森森—that suggest infinite expanses of water and forest.” Choko’s dream, and Ōe’s novel, conclude with Daio plunging “his face into a thick cluster of leaves . . . heavily laden with rain,” and drowning.

Ōe's fiction has always been strongly autobiographical. The same characters, themes, and settings occur again and again, in the same or different guises, novel after novel. As a result, his novels and larger oeuvre take on a stratified, fractal feel, self-similar across time and scale. Death by Water is no exception. It begins with the aged narrator Choko departing Tokyo for his childhood home on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Like Choko, Ōe was born on January 31, 1935, in Ose, a forest village on Shikoku. His upbringing was steeped in conservatism and rural tradition; one of Ōe’s earliest memories is of being asked every morning in elementary school "What would you do if the emperor commanded you to die?" to which he replied "I would die, sir. I would cut open my belly and die." For college, Ōe departed Shikoku—the first in his family to do so—to study French literature at Tokyo University. While still a student, Ōe published his first stories and set off on the career that would bring him great renown and acclaim. Even down to the specific books he has written, the character of Choko corresponds directly with Ōe himself.

Choko and Ōe are likewise characterized by their shared preoccupation with ethics and existentialism. In interviews, Ōe has identified two events that exerted an outsized influence on his thought and work. The first was the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Though just a child at the time, Ōe has said: "I experienced it by myself, hearing about it as a child on Shikoku in 1945, and then again through interviews with A-bomb survivors." This event above all others would drive his lifelong involvement with progressive politics. The second formative event for Ōe’s writings occurred some twenty years later, on June 13, 1963, when Ōe’s first child, Hikari, was born with severe brain herniation. Ōe and his wife were advised by their doctors to allow their son to die naturally; they refused. Hikari survived and grew to become a celebrated composer, but the experience was a traumatic one for Ōe, and is the primary source for the existential dimension of his writings. (Hiraki is represented in Death by Water by Choko’s son Akari, and much of Choko’s narrative is haunted by guilt over his shortcomings as a father.) The sustained intensity of Ōe’s lifelong engagement with concerns both political and existential—from war crimes and ultranationalism to suicide and despair—has been driven largely by the concerted effect of these two influences.

And yet, though rooted in autobiography, Ōe’s novels have always also had a fictional component. Ōe has described his life’s project as that of creating "a model of man and the world," and though he always begins with “personal matters,” Ōe fictionalizes as needed to achieve this end. Departures from strict autobiography, then—tactics, in a sense, in his critical engagement with history, politics, and human suffering—signal areas of heightened symbolic importance in his work. Two fictional departures are of particular significance in Death by Water. One is found in Ōe’s invention of the Caveman Group, a Shikoku theatrical troupe that has spent the preceding years staging a number of Choko’s works. In Death by Water’s opening pages the Caveman Group approaches Choko, volunteering to assist him with his current project—a novel that he intends to write on his father’s death. But Choko quickly abandons this plan, and thereafter ends up volunteering his efforts in support of the troupe’s new director, Unaiko, and her staging of the play Meisuke’s Mother Marches Off to War, a dramatization of Japan's legacy of institutionalized rape and wartime sex slavery. Indeed, it is Unaiko’s project, not Choko’s, that drives the plot for the majority of Death by Water.

The second crucial fictional departure in Death by Water concerns Choko’s father and the mysterious circumstances of his watery death, some sixty-five years earlier, in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s surrender at the close of WWII. Though the precise details of Ōe’s father’s death during WWII are not widely known, Ōe has recalled his father in the following terms:
I remember only a little about him. He would think alone—in isolation. He was mysterious. He never talked to us children. He worked on textiles and read. He didn’t associate with other villagers. The description could apply to Choko’s father as well, though Ōe goes on to elaborate his character into someone far more extreme. As noted, Death by Water begins with Choko departing Tokyo for his childhood home on Shikoku. His late father's papers have just been made available to him, and he returns home to determine what exactly happened to his father all those years ago, so that he can finally write the memorial novel that will recount the tragedy. Choko is shocked to learn, however, that during the war years his father had come under the influence of the ultranationalistic Kochi Sensei who, increasingly radicalized as the war turned against Japan, eventually advocated the assassination of the Japanese Emperor. Choko’s father, it seems, took up the cause and actively plotted the assassination; his drowning, Daio suggests, may have been a suicide in the wake of the failed conspiracy. In fictionalizing the characters of Unaiko, Daio, and his father, Ōe remakes his own life story to more explicitly dovetail with Japan’s history of institutionalized violence.

Over his career as a writer Ōe has evolved two main narrative strategies with which to address his moral and ethical concerns. These strategies are, arguably, Death by Water’s two most salient characteristics. Structurally, Ōe reduces the action of his novel to an extreme minimum and devotes the vast majority of the book to dialogue and narrative exposition. Every character in Death by Water is continuously inquiring: into personal histories and political ideologies, into artistic meanings and creative processes, into national traditions and rural folklore. Of particular note are the extraordinarily long speeches that Ōe uses to highlight the urgency of his characters’ desires to understand and communicate; even the “simple” mid-conversation responses of myriad characters here regularly take the form of multi-page monologues that read like polished essays. Ōe’s second narrative strategy is stylistic: Death by Water is remarkably devoid of rhetorical lyricism. Sentence after sentence, page after page, it unfolds along the path of least resistance toward maximum clarity. Ōe hasn’t always been such a Spartan stylist; contrast the measured opening sentences of Death by Water as Boehm renders them:
The year I went off to university in Tokyo, something fateful happened when I returned home to Shikoku for one of the last in a series of traditional Buddhist services for my father. (He had died prematurely, nearly a decade earlier.) with the rapturous rhetoric of the opening lines of Ōe’s 1967 novel The Silent Cry:
Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness [. . .] Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being [. . .] I find an endless nothing. (trans. John Bester)Ōe’s early works were markedly lyrical affairs, and indeed, we witness in classics such as The Silent Cry and A Personal Matter (1964) how functional lyricism can be, even toward thematic ends. But Ōe has evolved significantly as a writer over the decades, and his approach today is so resolutely ethical and moral, so thoroughly rooted in critical thought and careful scrutiny, that pronounced lyricism—whether deemed inessential or inappropriate—has been expunged entirely.

Ōe’s novel’s Japanese title is Suishi, which translates as either Boehm’s “death by water” or the more direct “drowning.” Boehm’s translation is, of course, quite intentional, and in fact references T. S. Eliot’s “Death by Water,” the fourth section of The Waste Land, which recounts the drowning of Phlebas the Phoenician. The section’s most famous lines run like an incantation throughout Death by Water:
     A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Eliot’s poem is invoked repeatedly in Ōe’s novel; we learn, for example, that it was only after first reading Eliot’s lines that the twenty-year-old Choko first conceived of writing a novel about his father’s death. Many years later, in the present from which Choko narrates, Eliot’s poem remains a prism through which he views reality. The drownings of Choko’s father, of Daio in the forest, and of the Buddhist Pilgrims who sought heavenly paradise, are all drawn by Ōe as historico-political tragedies stemming from nationalistic and religious conservative traditionalism. With Eliot’s “Death by Water,” however, an alternative, more metaphorical notion of drowning is introduced into Ōe’s novel. Drowning now comes to stand as synecdoche for death itself, for our narrator’s (and author’s) acute sense of their own mortality. Eliot’s poem famously evokes an indifferent, materialist cosmos, and Ōe’s novel is set within the same cosmology: death is brute fact here (“my list of friends and acquaintances includes more and more dead people these days,” Choko notes at one point), and Choko confronts it without recourse to any redemption in the afterlife. Concern for personal matters is nothing new in Ōe’s work. I have already mentioned his decades-long treatment of his mentally disabled son; he has also addressed the suicide of his brother-in-law at length, particularly in his 2000 novel The Changeling, and his oeuvre is rich in psychological and interpersonal analyses. What is new here is the sense of Ōe stepping back from the world—stepping back, not retreating—pondering its course after he is gone.

Though Death by Water is a thoroughly critical work, its deepest significance may reside less in the specifics of its various investigations and interrogations, and more in the direct, engaged, inquisitive spirit of the work as a whole. Above its specifics of plot and characterization, above its events and expositions, Death by Water stands as the record of an intensely ethical, curious, and honest mind, unyielding in its pursuit of truths and justices both personal and political. We witness in it Ōe’s own attempt to situate violence and radical conservatism within the larger contexts of mortality, time, and the material world, to reconcile the ways in which we all must, eventually, merge into the 淼淼 and 森森.