Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe

Death by Water BY Kenzaburo Oe. Grove Press. Hardcover, 432 pages. $28.
The cover of Death by Water

“At times I’ve thought to myself maybe I have been mad since I was three just as my mother says, and someday if I recover my sanity the phantom tormenting me I call a certain party will disappear.” So says the hospital-bed-ridden narrator of Kenzaburo Oe’s 1972 novella The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. The amorphous label “a certain party,” ginned up by the narrator’s mother to describe his father—a troubling, enigmatic man, presumably dead—is intended to neutralize and debase him by not naming him. It turns him, in the eyes of the narrator, into “an imaginary figure in a myth or in history.”

The narrator’s tangled desires, to simultaneously know his father and cease obsessing over him, wind through the text repetitively and with an urgency driven by a possible illness and a fast-warping memory. This same framework—a phantom father and an epiphany-seeking son—is at the heart of Death by Water, Oe’s latest novel to be published in English.

In it, the narrator isn’t a raving, sick man, but rather Oe’s recurring protagonist and literary alter ego, Kogito Choko. A renowned Japanese novelist past his prime, Choko desires to write one last book, a fictionalized account of his father’s suspicious death by drowning during World War II. Near the end of his life and seeking the clarity that eluded him as a young man, he tells the story again and again—often recounting it as a dream, and with varying amounts of detail—to those around him, as though through repetition the truth will emerge.

He thinks the recurrent dream he has about that night, in which he witnesses his father mysteriously leaving in a boat in the middle of a storm, reflects a kid’s belief “that his father was on his way to commit a doomed act of heroism when he drowned.” The plot of Death by Water revolves almost entirely around this fixation: the wish to discover the true circumstances of that trip, and, in turn, determine whether his father was a hero, a traitor, or simply a fool. It’s a slow-moving, ritualistic book that continues the excavation of Oe’s prime thematic tensions: between memoir and fiction, remembering and forgetting, dignity and shame, and the desires of the son and those of the father.

Formally, the narrative repetition creates an iterative framework—or, at least, the illusion of increased clarity with each retelling. Choko’s search begins when his sister Asa reminds him of the existence of the red leather trunk that was found with his father’s body, which he counts on to answer his questions. As part of his reinvigorated investigation, he starts a series of conversations with his family and friends, and revisits his earlier literary works, which bear traces of his father-son obsession. (Oe engineers this textual analysis by way of an occasionally loopy parallel plot-line in which a local theater troupe consults with Choko on its experimental stage productions of his earlier books, the titles of which match those of Oe’s.)

But things don’t turn out as planned. For one, the trunk turns out to be something of a red herring, containing little information of value. There were also other witnesses to his father’s drowning—including his mother, and his father’s acolyte, Daio—and their accounts jeopardize the authority of Choko’s mythologized version of events. In almost-comic contrast to Choko’s constant questioning, Asa asks him, “Seriously, is there any doubt about what happened that night?”

And indeed, when Choko tells the story, he sometimes remembers to include the contextual details of that night: After the war, his father had fallen in with a group of Japanese soldiers who, disgruntled over their country’s surrender, hatched an insurrection plan. Perhaps his father was fleeing that night because he believed the preposterous plan—concocted in a drink-fueled haze, and in one iteration involving stealing a plane and bombing the imperial palace—would actually be carried out.

These are truths and speculations that Choko has difficulty incorporating into his myth-making, and his strangled, intermittent acknowledgement of them is Death by Water’s most powerful narrative strand. Oe has said he writes on two topics, “Hikari and Hiroshima,” Hikari being his mentally disabled son; more broadly, the statement refers to an inclination toward the intensely personal (his family, codified in his autobiographical fiction) and the utterly universal (anxiety about nuclear warfare, parsed in his nonfiction, including Hiroshima Notes, his book about survivors of the atomic bomb). In describing the seduction of Choko’s father by a cadre of war-valorizing soldiers, Oe unites his two longstanding preoccupations in one character.

Oe, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994 for creating “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today,” has called his literary method “repetition with difference.” In an interview with the Paris Review, he said with each novel he tries “to fight the same opponent one more time.” These opponents are invariably found within the heads of his characters, who tend to be versions of himself: In A Personal Matter, published in English the year Oe won the Nobel, the middle-aged protagonist battles the guilt that stems from his unfatherly thoughts about his handicapped son; in Death by Water, Oe flips the script, with Choko, a liberal lion of letters, struggling with (and to a certain extent managing to suppress) his knowledge of his father’s boozy dalliance with ultranationalist ideology.

In exploring a son’s desire to frame his father as a hero, Oe tackles questions he raised in Hiroshima Notes. In it, he expresses the conflict he felt as a child: “When will I change from one who might be killed after being humiliated or shamed, to one who might kill himself with dignity?” The question—from the perspective of a child witnessing an unfolding war and morbidly certain he will be asked to make that very choice—resonates with Choko’s father conundrum: Did his father flee out of fear, and die anyway? Or did he purposefully, and therefore with dignity, send himself to his death?

Such questions are designed to prevent any true resolution. As Asa surmises, Choko’s only refuge is “pretending to be unable to distinguish between dream and reality.” This refuge is both an escape for Choko the son and a creative necessity for Choko the novelist. And with its iterative structure the book could alternately be read as a series of therapy sessions or multiple drafts of a story—both toiling toward a revelation that won’t materialize.

But perhaps that’s a misguided goal. Oe has willfully spent much time in a hybrid world of his own design, stating that, to him, “The real and imagined are all mixed up.” In Death by Water, he makes the seam between fiction and reality—its nature, viscosity, texture—the intentional focus of his formidable attention. In the process he suggests that the grim responsibility to remember the truth is usually not nearly as potent as our desire to see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves.

Jane Yong Kim is an editor and book critic who lives in Queens and tweets at @janewhykim.