Death By water
By Kenzaburo Oe
Oe is arguably Japan's greatest living author. Born in 1935 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1994. Death by Water is said to be his last novel but given the longevity of pre-war Japanese one would be wise not to bet on it.
In Death by Water Oe has gives us another iteration of his alter ego Kogito Choko. Like Oe himself, Kogito Choko is from rural Shikoku, had a father who died in a flood at the end of the war, attended the elite Tokyo University, and has spent his entire career as a novelist. Those who have read The Changeling which was published in 2014 will be familiar with the context. Apparently there are at least another six novels which deal with this same character, most of which are not available in English.
The novel is about Kogito Choko's attempt to write a novel about his father who drowned in a flooded river towards the end of the Second World War. The novel is to be a kind of summation of his life's work. To this end he revisits his old home in Shikoku where his mother has kept a suitcase full of documents about his father. While there, his sister organises a series of is interviews by a theatre director who wishes to write a play about Kogito Choko's final novel. The director is accompanied by his theatre collective including his spunky assistant Unaiko and they workshop the play as Choko is interviewed. The interviews and play become a device to interrogate Choko's and by extension, Oe's obsessions and recurrent themes. It's a bit like Oe, or is it Choko, is getting in first with the ultimate primer to understanding Oe or is it Choko's oeuvre.
At this point the solipsism of the whole exercise could become a bit hard to take.
But Oe is playing a long game and the novel gently drifts away from the writing project to focus on Choko's relationships with his disabled adult son Akari, his wife Chikashi, her dead brother Goro (in real life - perhaps that should be in inverted commas - this was Juzo Itami, the director of Tampopo) and Unaiko, who has some dark secrets of her own. The narrative drive is provided by a new theatre project Unaiko persuades Choko to assist with; one that opens up old wounds.
The point is that the whole series of these Choko novels repeat and recombine and tinker with more or less the same constellation of elements. The Changeling was also partly about Choko/Oe's youth in Shikoku and his father's untimely death but in that novel his father dies in a farcical right wing uprising against the occupation.
And remember, the protagonist of this novel is a novelist ie a professional liar so be careful whom you believe. In the end the novel is searingly honest about the way in which one man seeks to construct and reconstruct his identity, even as he faces his own mortality.