Death by Waterby Kenzaburo Oe
Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe’s new novel is a finely woven masterpiece about a writer who searches for the truth behind his father’s death and discovers a new family legacy to impart to his own son.
Kenzaburo Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for creating “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” In Death by Water, his recurring protagonist and literary alter-ego returns to his hometown village in search of a red suitcase rumored to hold documents revealing the details of his father’s death during World War II, details that will serve as the foundation for his new, and final, novel.
Since his youth, renowned novelist Kogito Choko planned to fictionalize his father’s fatal drowning in order to fully process the loss. Stricken with guilt and regret over his failure to rescue his father, Choko has long been driven to discover why his father was boating on the river in a torrential storm. Though he remembers overhearing his father and a group of soldiers discussing an insurgent scheme to stage a suicide attack on Emperor Mikado, Choko cannot separate his memories from imagination and his family is hesitant to reveal the entire story. When the contents of the trunk turn out to offer little clarity, Choko abandons the novel in creative despair. Floundering as an artist, he’s haunted by fear that he may never write his tour de force. But when he collaborates with an avant-garde theater troupe dramatizing his early novels, Choko is revitalized by revisiting his formative work and he finds the will to continue investigating his father’s demise.
Diving into the turbulent depths of legacy and mortality, Death by Water is an exquisite examination of resurfacing national and personal trauma, and the ways that storytelling can mend political, social, and familial rifts.
“[A] pensive novel, at once autobiographical and philosophical. . . . It’s vintage Oe: provocative, doubtful without being cynical, elegant without being precious.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Layered and reflexive . . . Told in echoing and overlapping accounts of conversations, telephone calls, and stage performances, Oe’s deceptively tranquil idiom scans the violent history of postwar Japan and its present-day manifestations, in the end finding redemption.” —Publishers Weekly
“It’s taken six years for this big novel by Japanese Nobel laureate Oe to reach Anglophone readers, but that wait has been for something immensely worthwhile . . . it is enchanting.” —Booklist (starred review)
“[Oe’s] an eloquent spokesman for a generation that can remember, vividly and viscerally, all sides of Japan’s ambiguities—a generation that’s beginning to exit the stage. . . . The combination of this seriousness with a fearsome, graphic candor—trained on himself most of all—makes him formidable, whether he’s describing the challenges of being a parent or the sins of history. . . . A thoughtful reprise of a lifetime of literary endeavor. . . . You have to admire his serene and total conviction.” —Janice P. Nimura, New York Times Book Review
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.) For the first time in ages our rambling country house was overflowing with assorted friends and relations, and among the guests was an uncle of mine who had recently married off his eldest daughter to a government official, a graduate of Tokyo University’s prestigious law school.
“So,” this uncle said to me, “it’s great news that you managed to get into that university, but what’s your major?” When I replied that I was studying literature, he made no attempt to hide his disappointment.
“In that case,” he said glumly, “you probably can’t expect to find a decent job after you leave school, can you?”
But then my mother, who was usually rather reserved in social situations, came out with a totally unexpected suggestion. Her words threw me into a state of confusion, for until then I had aspired to nothing more ambitious than becoming a French-literature scholar.
“Well,” she declared, “if he can’t find a regular job, then he’ll most likely become a novelist!” This pronouncement was greeted with stunned silence, but my mother’s next remark triggered an eruption of communal laughter that dispelled the tension. “Indeed,” she went on, “there’s more than enough raw material for a novel in the red leather trunk alone!”