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Monday, 28 March 2016

Book review: Death by Water, Kenazburo Oe (2015)

In a really simple sense this is a novel about the writing of the novel. It's another one of Oe's autobiographical novels, so we again meet Kogito Choko, his alter ego. This time, Kogito becomes enmeshed in the lives of a group of avantgarde actors in Shikoku, after he revisits the place of his birth (he grew up in Shikoku) when planning to write a novel based on the story of his father. His father had died by drowning during a fierce storm when he set out on the wild river in a small wooden boat.

When he first gets to Shikoku he finds that the papers his mother had decided to leave him after her death as raw material for such a novel are greatly lacking as his mother - who had died ten years before the novel starts - had burned most of them. His father's relations with noted far-right personages, and his father's plot to stage a protest suicide strike against the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, had gone up in smoke. All that was left, in the end, were three volumes of a multi-volume English translation of The Golden Bough, an early 20th century work of popular non-fiction that deals with myths and deities.

During that fist visit to Shikoku Kogito also meets with the members of an acting troupe who had planned to stage a performance based on their favourite writer's works. When the plan falls through they are chagrined but what happens to Kogito himself - upon his return to his home in Tokyo - is much worse. The poor man verbally lashes out at his disabled son on two occasions and also suffers a kind of severe vertigo that makes sleeping impossible when it strikes. The disappointment of failing to write his "last novel" cuts deeply into the writer's psyche.

One of the members of the acting troupe is a young woman named Unaiko. Unaiko manages to befriend Kogito's sister, Asa, a person who had also been against the drowning novel, but who now enters the story in a more serious role. What happens is that Kogito's wife, Chikashi, develops uterine cancer that requires surgery. Asa makes the suggestion that she - Asa - shoud go to Tokyo to look after her sister-in-law and that Kogito and his son Akari should go to Shikoku to try to repair their broken relations. Following Kogito's lashing out at the poor man - Akari is now a middle-aged man although he still lives at home - he becomes morose and withdrawn, and goes out of his way to avoid his father.

Once he is back in Shikoku Kogito gets to meet more often with Unaiko and other members of the acting troupe - named the Caveman Group - and eventually she draws him into working together on a new project. This new project is to do with a famed account in the region of a woman who lived during the Meiji period (late 19th century) who led a successful insurrection against the authorities. But Unaiko has other plans as well, and she eventually ignites some relatively violent passions within the right-wing community in Shikoku. Happy that his son is starting to come back to reestablishing relations with him, Kogito goes along with Unaiko and her ambitious theatrical plans, and is deeply involved in work on the script when things take on a truly disturbing tone. We are suddenly back in the heart of rural Japan and the shade of Kogito's father reemerges in dramatic form.

The novel is quite long and takes an accustomed form for those who enjoy Oe's later works. I very much enjoyed reading this novel, although some might find it prosaic and long-drawn-out. For me, it is always a great pleasure to accompany Oe in his careful and meandering voyages into the lives of his familiars, so I can recommend this novel highly.

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