Death By Water… Or Death By Stuffy Prose?

Apologies to Allen and Unwin who sent me this book like a century ago and I haven’t been able to read and review it until now, simply because of 1) The size of the book 2) The nature of the book.

This book is probably one of the most hyped Japanese books in a while, mostly because of the author’s status as an AMAZING writer (He’s won the Nobel Prize for literature, etc), and also because it’s been “reported” that this is the last book he will ever write (gasp!)

And so I was super excited to pick up this book and the cover (scroll down and look at it. What are you still doing here. SCROLL) was so nice, I picked it up and started reading very eagerly.

It wasn’t long before I put the book down, stared for a while at the wall and SCREAMED.

Because this book is a huge, HUGE shame. The plot, on one hand, is engaging, interesting and well-paced. The characters are realistic, relatable and 3D and the supporting characters are just as well constructed. The writing has remnants of Kenzaburo’s own life, and the whole motif of drowning, drowning in memories, drowning in water is done superbly.

However, it is often a trap to translate Japanese directly into English. It’s impossible to keep 100% of the writing technique when translating books, and in this case, the majority of the Japanese masterpiece has been lost in the dodgy translation. One thing I’ve discovered – as an intermediate student of the Japanese language – is that sometimes, it can be all too easy to attempt to translate words directly over into English, and that can be quite stifling. Especially when the only word that will fit is an obscure, super long word that only 1% of the population knows.

And even when the words aren’t confusing, the whole thing is just strange to read: “I was aware that you’ve taken a strong public stand against the resurgence of ultranationalism, especially through your essays and writings”. It’s almost like walking through thick mud. It feels as if it should be easier, but it isn’t, and it is hard work, slogging away at the novel.

Another thing that I didn’t particularly like, and this was not necessarily the fault of the translator – but there was so much dialogue. Dialogue that went for pages and pages and pages. Dialogue within dialogue. DIALOGUE WITHIN DIALOGUE WITHIN DIALOGUE AAAAARGHHHH. I am not even kidding when I say this. This is not an exaggeration. There are literally hundreds of words of dialogue at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I love dialogue. I just don’t like an overload of dialogue.

So in conclusion, summed up into a sentence, this was a good book, executed in a strange and stifled way, which made it very, very difficult to read.

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 fabled to hold documents revealing the details of his father’s death during WWII: 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, Kogito 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.


Goodreads   /   The Book Depository

Rating: 2/5


13 thoughts on “Death By Water… Or Death By Stuffy Prose?

  1. that’s too bad, but very true about works particularly translated from eastern languages. my second language is arabic and we have a lot of poetry and thats especially hard to translate because much of the metaphor and cultural significance and meaning is totally lost in translation. also, arabic grammar is so wacky that it makes translation ridiculously hard because you’re trying to fit a western system of grammar onto an eastern language…

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  2. Pingback: Books And Life And The World In General (AKA I’ve-Given-Up-Coz-It’s-So-Not-Weekly Recap) – The Galaxial Word

  3. Shame about the translation. The blurb sounds very promising! :/ I’m studying Slavic Languages, and, sadly, it’s the same thing here – translators are often not very careful and a lot from the original gets lost! :/

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Slavic Languages is the GREATEST! 😀 haha! well, if you’re into Russian Literature and Balkan culture…! pretty much everyone at the institute gets very enthusiastic about everything Eastern European. :p are you at university?


  4. oh dear!! How can you even have dialogue within dialogue within dialogue??? That does not sound good! Reading this sounds a bit traumatic to be honest. But since terrible translations can kill even the best books- I’ll try not to judge this too harshly for now..

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  5. This book was on the Man Booker International long list. (Which I’ve been reading my way through, if you didn’t know.) I’ve heard that this book doesn’t make sense if you haven’t read his other works, because it’s a meta-analysis of his life as an author. (Thus why it might be his last book.) Most of the people I’ve connected with via social media haven’t finished the book. It’s on my bookshelf (almost due back to the library); but I’m worried I should just wait to read it until I read some of his other works. Maybe that’s the issue with it? I do get what you’re saying about the Japanese translation aspect, as I at one point was also a student of Japanese, sometimes translations get weird.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I guess I’ve heard of this book? I’m not sure.
    OMG, even I hate it when there’s too much of dialogue! I kind of relate to it in the anime perspective; whenever I’m watching an anime with too much talking, I get sooooo bored! 😑

    Liked by 1 person


      This is mostly why I like to read manga as opposed to watching the anime, because I can just kind of skim the huge dialogue places or info dumps. This always comes back to bite me in the bum though because later on, it gets confusing as I haven’t fully gotten the plot yet XD I usually pick it up as I go though

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