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

death-by-water-kenzaburo-oe-kindle-iconThis review by Matthew is included here because this book will be dealt with in the next Book Chat on this site.

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

Book review: Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver (2012)

flight-behaviour-barbara-kingsolver-kindle-icon.jpgThis review by Matthew is placed here because this book will be treated in the next Book Chat.

While this stunning novel is a down-to-earth realist novel of the type that has been published since the middle of the 19th century, when Romanticism held sway, its language is rich in metaphors and allusiveness. The action hinges on the fortunes of a young mother named rather romantically Dellarobia whose world is literally turned upside down one day when she discovers that the hills at the back of her house, which is situated near a small town in Tennessee, are uncharacteristically and strangely filled with migrating butterflies.

On one level the book is a kind of romance. Because a lot of the drama turns on the difference between the haves and the have-nots in the United States – where the former are the metropolitan elites and the latter are the religious rural folk in the red states – the prize in the end turns out to be something different from marriage. Marriage for Dellarobia having always signified failure and compromise. One of the agents of change that comes into Dellarobia’s life is a scientist, Ovid Byron, who has arrived at her doorstep to research the butterflies. His presence turns out to have other implications as well.

Another strange agent of change for Dellarobia – who has a dutiful and sensitive young son, Preston, and a rowdy infant daughter, Cordelia – is Hester, her mother-in-law. At the beginning of the book Hester is the face of censure and disapproval in Dellarobia’s life, a source of danger, and someone who she has to navigate around, like a reef for a frequent sailor. It is later in the book, when Dellarobia has had chances to deeply interrogate Hester’s life – she finds out the older woman had had a child given up for adoption before Cub, Dellarobia’s husband, was born – that things start to get out of control.

But out of control can be a good thing when your life is stuck in a rut and you don’t love your husband, although you may respect him regardless. Dellarobia is an intelligent woman who never had many opportunities given to her, and she is in the habit of asking “why” at times when other people might take home truths for gospel truths.

The book is filled with small events and is peopled by strange characters the author handles with complete aplomb. Kingsolver is clearly a writer who is used to being in control of her material.

Book review: Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver (2012)

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

This book review by Grant is included here because this book will be reviewed later on Book Chat.

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.

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