19 September 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in the first person by Kogito Choko, a septuagenarian writer with published works including The Silent Cry and The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. If those titles sound familiar to you, it’s because those actually are real-life titles by Oe, The Day He Himself in particular being a part of the collection Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.

As a matter of fact, Death by Water is in many ways a direct response to The Day He Himself, and few pages go by without it being mentioned. The reason? Death by Water is essentially the story of Choko (our Oe stand-in) trying to re-write the same dramatic event of his childhood as fictionalized in The Day He Himself, i.e. the sudden drowning of his father. However, while The Day He Himself is a deliberately grotesque and stylized dramatization of the event, Death by Water is a sort of metafiction, a writer writing about the act of writing.

The plot, such as it is, finds Oe’s stand-in Choko aware of the coming end of his writing career. Besides a monthly opinion piece for the newspaper, he hardly writes anymore. Ten years after his mother’s death, he suddenly gets the chance to retrieve his late father’s old, red leather trunk, containing his notes, diary entries, and evidence of his failed coup attempt after World War II and his escape from perceived authorities leading to his death by drowning. Choko feels he can finally write a definitive version of this turn of events, as in his old age he finds his previous effort, the aforementioned The Day He Himself, to be “an embarrassingly immature piece of work.” At the same time, he becomes involved with an avant-garde theater company The Caveman Group, who in the past has dramatized Kogito’s work for the stage, and is hoping to create a new work in tandem with the “drowning novel” Kogito now wants to write. The thing is, about a third of the way through the novel, Kogito discovers his mother has already destroyed most of the trunk’s contents, and Kogito finds himself unable to continue his work.

And yet, Death by Water continues to amble on for another three hundred or so pages, the ponderous middle section a more generous reviewer might call “reflective,” as Oe reconnects with his past, and reflects on the act of writing itself. The novel is absurdly self-aware, as Kogito/Oe reflects on his own quirks and failures as a writer. He even poses the question directly in a conversation with a friend, who complains:

“At some point, doesn’t it become overkill? I mean, can these serial slices of thinly veiled memoir really be considered genuine novels? . . . Why do you choose to write about such a solipsistic and narrowly circumscribed world?”

“Everything you say is true,” I said. “I admit that freely . . . but I always seem to come back to the sobering realization that if I hadn’t used the quasi-autobiographical approach I wouldn’t have been able to write anything at all. In other words, I’ve had to maintain this narrow focus out of sheer necessity.”


And while it’s true that there seems to always be a pretty strong basis of fact in even Oe’s early work, anyone who has read said work would know that Oe is capable of some fantastic, bizarre, and unreal stories. The contrast between Kogito/Oe’s early and late works becomes a major question of Death by Water, one that even Oe doesn’t seem to know how to answer. So what is better: youthful expressionism and raw creativity or the maturity, wisdom, and hindsight of experience?

It’s hard to say what Oe the writer or Kogito the character thinks on the matter. Are the late works, as Adorno says, catastrophes? Or, in the more hopeful interpretation of Edward Said, are the late works: “thrillingly catastrophic work that manages to overturn and surpass all the creations that went before?”

Oe seems to be hopeful of the latter, but I wouldn’t say that Death by Water is a successful example. The novel is overly long, disjointed, and aimless, particularly once the narrative thread suddenly revs up in the last hundred pages, and a more compelling story emerges when Unaiko, Kogito’s main liaison and friend in The Caveman Group, attempts to dramatize her own painful past via an abandoned script of Kogito’s to a conservative audience unwilling to deal with the issues it presents.

Oh, Unaiko, the true star of this show! One of the few characters in the novel who feels like a character and not simply a soapbox for Kogito to argue with, Unaiko has a story that needs telling, and a version of Death by Water two hundred pages shorter and more evenly split between Kogito and Unaiko’s creative relationship to their respective past histories seems like it would’ve made these questions of life influencing art and art influencing life much more entertaining and thought-provoking. Perhaps a younger writer would’ve dramatized her story directly. But even that raises the question: who gets to tell it; who is allowed to tell Unaiko’s story? Is Oe being respectful by not appropriating a woman’s more powerful and engaging story, one that could very well be more or less “true” for his own dramatic ends? Or is Oe, with his limitations as a writer, simply incapable of writing the story any other way?

Death by Water raises these interesting questions about mortality, political correctness, art cannibalizing life, and frankly, art cannibalizing itself, but comes up with few satisfactory answers. It is appropriately ambitious for a late work, but by being overly long, digressive, and didactic, Death by Water is more the bad catastrophic than the good. This doesn’t make Oe suddenly a bad writer—but a novel addressing your flaws as a novelist does not absolve you of said sins. Maybe just write a different novel.

9 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The “latest addition” to our Reviews Section is a piece on Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe’s The Changeling, which was translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm and comes out from Grove Press in March.

Will Eells—who is a former Open Letter intern and did a fantastic job reviewing The Housekeeper and the Professor for us some time back—wrote this review, giving the book a very measured and thoughtful response.

Which is all great, but holy crap! Grove got a new website! One that works. One that has individual book pages, is easy to search, and, although maybe a bit cluttered, presents some damn good information about their titles. Well done! (Hey—is anyone at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reading this? See—it’s possible for a website to make sense!)

Anyway, all that aside, here’s the opening of Will’s review:

Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, has always been a novelist concerned with big, important ideas and big, important problems, and yet his works are always written on a much smaller scale, focusing on that one individual character and how he is affected by the world around him. One may never read a narrative so intimate and personal as Oe’s, which leads to some pretty dark places. It’s like reading someone’s private diary—inherently compelling, but afterwards you’re left with a sick, guilty feeling with the realization that you learned some things that probably should have been well left alone.

Oe has a profoundly honest view of what it is to be human, especially the parts we don’t always like to acknowledge: the selfish, self-destructing, contradictory parts. And Oe seems to achieve this power because his works really are very personal—events from his own life are often the main events of his novels, often with little dress up. Obviously writers draw from personal experience, but Oe’s seem to be the most transparent and forthcoming about the events in his life, for instance the well of novels, including A Personal Matter, that have sprung up because of his handicapped son Hikari.

The Changeling, Oe’s most recently translated novel published by Grove Press, is a work that directly addresses the relationship between fact and fiction in literature. The protagonist of the story is an established sixty-odd year old Japanese author who is sent a case of cassette tapes from his brother-in-law, a friend since their teenage years and now a famous movie director. The tapes are a series of monologues by the brother-in-law, in which he reminisces about their relationship over the years along with ruminations about their mutual artistic endeavors. On the last tape, the brother-in-law cryptically announces that he is now “going to the Other Side”, and then, nothing but a loud thump. And as soon as the protagonist hears this, his wife comes in to tell him that his brother-in-law was found dead—he had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his office building.

Click here for the full review.

9 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, has always been a novelist concerned with big, important ideas and big, important problems, and yet his works are always written on a much smaller scale, focusing on that one individual character and how he is affected by the world around him. One may never read a narrative so intimate and personal as Oe’s, which leads to some pretty dark places. It’s like reading someone’s private diary—inherently compelling, but afterwards you’re left with a sick, guilty feeling with the realization that you learned some things that probably should have been well left alone.

Oe has a profoundly honest view of what it is to be human, especially the parts we don’t always like to acknowledge: the selfish, self-destructing, contradictory parts. And Oe seems to achieve this power because his works really are very personal—events from his own life are often the main events of his novels, often with little dress up. Obviously writers draw from personal experience, but Oe’s seem to be the most transparent and forthcoming about the events in his life, for instance the well of novels, including A Personal Matter, that have sprung up because of his handicapped son Hikari.

The Changeling, Oe’s most recently translated novel published by Grove Press, is a work that directly addresses the relationship between fact and fiction in literature. The protagonist of the story is an established sixty-odd year old Japanese author who is sent a case of cassette tapes from his brother-in-law, a friend since their teenage years and now a famous movie director. The tapes are a series of monologues by the brother-in-law, in which he reminisces about their relationship over the years along with ruminations about their mutual artistic endeavors. On the last tape, the brother-in-law cryptically announces that he is now “going to the Other Side”, and then, nothing but a loud thump. And as soon as the protagonist hears this, his wife comes in to tell him that his brother-in-law was found dead—he had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his office building.

The rest of the novel follows the protagonist as he tries to piece together why his brother-in-law committed suicide. He obsesses over the contents of the tapes by starting a nightly ritual of “talking” to his dead friend, an addiction so compelling he takes a year-long guest professorship at a university in Berlin to leave the tapes behind and free himself. However, the majority of the novel is set in periodic flashbacks, highlighting important events in their lives that led them down the paths they take today.

The Changeling is thus a long meditation on the power of real life events and how they shape a person and their fiction. It’s both a love letter to the creative process, as well as a philosophical treatise on the power of art and the way it reflects an inescapable past. In a way, The Changeling feels like it might be a work more personal to Oe than even a novel like A Personal Matter. It’s a direct view into the soul of Oe the writer, as opposed to Oe the father or Japanese citizen, and in a way, that’s more powerful:

Perhaps the feeling of loss—even downfall—that accompanied his sense of relief was due to the constant awareness that he was growing old and irrelevant, and that he would live out the remainder of his days without ever being able to liberate the heart inside his skull from this vast collection of beloved, familiar books, which were an anchor but also, at times, an albatross.

The Changeling reads very well; the sentences, though often long, flow with ease and with a powerful narrative sweep. However, because the novel is in its essence more interested in certain philosophical ideas than the physical happenings of the plot, the characters, who are otherwise characterized and behave like human beings, often end up as mouthpieces for Oe, and talk almost exclusively in monologues instead of really talking to each other. The translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm is solid, although there are places where cultural explanations are awkwardly shoehorned into parentheses as opposed to being more integrated into the text. Finally, there is a seventy page long epilogue that suddenly switches perspectives to the protagonist’s wife, which seems almost jarring after what seemed like a perfect conclusion by the protagonist; however, in the end it does tie the work together nicely and is the section from which the work gets its title.

The line between fact and fiction is blurred in The Changeling, and how the reader sees the novel can change depending on how much the reader knows about Kenzaburo Oe’s personal life. It’s amazing that the novel can work on these two completely different levels: as a total fabrication and as a work of fiction that can be traced along the lines of real life events. In any other novel, it would be irrelevant as to what personal experiences go into what, in the end, is supposed to be a piece of fiction. But in The Changeling, it’s the novel’s raison d’etre. The question of what is real and what is fiction, while interesting to ponder, are overshadowed by the real question: which one, in the end, is more important to not just the reader, but to the author.

....
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