‘Death by Water’ Is a Postmodern Tale That Flows With the Tides of Life

Commingling the anticlimactic and the violently unexpected, Oe's novel rings true to life.

In Being and Nothingness Jean-Paul Sartre criticizes Freudian psychoanalysis for being fixated on the past, in childhood’s complexes and traumas, when instead “I am in the mode of not being what I am and of being what I am not.” That is to say, I am no longer the past that has molded me; I am also my future projects. Projects that I may never be able to complete. “Hence,” he says, “anguish… which springs from the fact that I am not sufficiently that Future which I have to be and which gives its meaning to my present.”

For Kojii Choko, the elderly narrator of Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water, this anguish stems from two tasks he struggles to complete: writing a novel about his father’s drowning; and preparing his middle-aged son, Akari, who suffers from a birth defect in his skull, for what will likely be a premature death.

Death by Water is a meandering and contemplative novel, but not without moments of suspense and pathos. Though he’s in no immediate danger, Kojii suffers from what he calls “the big vertigo”, infrequent but crippling dizzy spells that serve as a momento mori, and make his need to complete these tasks more urgent. He doesn’t dwell upon death, but it looms in the background, a reminder that some deadlines are final and that one can only procrastinate so long before being guilty of what Sartre would call “bad faith”.

Early on in the novel, Kojii’s sister, Asa, calls him out on this, telling him: “I couldn’t help thinking, Yep, my big brother is definitely getting old. One thing I’ve noticed about aging is that it gives rise to a desire to get things settled. And at this stage, it’s only natural to start having thoughts about death.”

“Needless to say,” she continues, “I’m aging right along with you, and that’s why I think about these things. But really, isn’t the relevant question what happens between now and then? I mean, even if you’ve resigned to the inevitability of death, you still have to deal with the intervening time until the day arrives. Death is going to find us all, no matter what, but we still have to take active responsibility for what remains of our lives.”

Yet, writing the “drowning novel”, as Kojii calls it, isn’t so easy. The red leather trunk that he believed would hold the secrets to his father’s death and involvement in right-wing radicalism turns out to be devoid of anything remotely useful or inspiring. The “drowning novel” comes to a standstill, and this frustration probably contributes to an untimely breakdown in his relationship with his son, who distractedly marks up a sheet of music that had great sentimental value because on the back of it was a personal letter written to Kojii by his friend, the late Edward W. Said.

When he sees what Akari has done, Kojii tells us: “It took an epic effort of will to control the borderline-violent feelings welling up inside me.” Wielding words like daggers, Kojii shouts at his son in public, “You’re an idiot!” — a devastating comment, given his cognitive disability.

Death by Water might be said to revolve thematically around “unreflective cruelty”, and narratively around a short poetic exchange between Kojii and his late mother. In reply to his mother’s poem, which suggests he’s behaving irresponsibly by failing to prepare his son for death, he writes, ambiguously: “I’m remembering everything backward / From old age to earliest childhood.”

During the course of the novel, the borders between the past, the present and the future collapse, as the narrative itself seems to move one step forward and two steps back. Personal and national histories are revealed to be inextricably bound, and the aesthetic comes to merge with the political. This is especially true when Kojii gives up trying to write his “drowning novel” and begins collaborating more intensely with a younger female performance artist, Unaiko.

Unaiko’s rape by an uncle is woven into their production of a historical and mythical tale about the gang rape of a matriarchal figure by rogue samurai. Her additions to Kojii’s initial script accentuate the broader, political dimension of rape: “Men commit rape — that’s nothing new / But countries can be rapists, too.”

To an extent, Oe’s novel is distinctly Japanese, drawing from Japan’s literature, history, and national debates, as when it discusses the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Yet, it’s also a very cosmopolitan novel, one where allusions to William Shakespeare and Rabelais abound, and where T.S. Eliot’s poetry and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough play prominent roles.

Above all, Death by Water is a postmodernist novel: blurring the borders between East and West, between fact and fiction, it’s overtly self-conscious (or metafictional). Take, for example, the passage in which a literary critic discusses the literary works of Kojii, who is clearly a stand-in for Oe himself.

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 the books. At some point, doesn’t it become overkill? I mean, can these serial slices of thinly veiled memoir really be considered genuine novels? Generally speaking, books like this will never win over the people who want to read a novel that’s actually novelistic: that is, an imaginative work of fiction.

In an otherwise a serious work, it’s hard to imagine Oe writing this without a smile.

In point of fact, Death by Water will not appeal to everyone. The autobiographical elements may strike some readers as self-indulgent. While at the level of plot the anticlimactic and the violently unexpected seem to go hand-in-hand, by the novel’s end, not all of the major conflicts are resolved. For these reasons, among others, the novel is decidedly not novelistic, but it does come across as honest, and thoroughly true to life.

RATING 7 / 10