A Personal Matter (OE, Kenzaburo) (英語) ペーパーバック – 1982/6
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"A Personal Matter" is the story of Bird, a frustrated intellectual in a failing marriage whose utopian dream is shattered when his wife gives birth to a brain-damaged child.
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This stark, haunting novel leaves the reader with a deep sense of both loss and hope, although the latter is more, in Bird's mind, "forbearance." Oe's honest treatment of this difficult subject matter is sensitive and skilled, understated in a way that emphasizes the magnitude of what Bird faces. John Nathan's translation provides smooth, beautifully-rendered prose.
The subject matter may be too depressing for some readers but should appeal to those interested in quality literature. The issues Oe tackles are significant, and his characters, deeply human. A PERSONAL MATTER is an unforgettable novel not to be missed.
Bird, the main character of the novel, is a 27-year old man in a failing marriage. He teaches at a cram school and dreams of escaping to Africa. He is drifting through a life that has no meaning or direction (not that he bothers). The birth of his brain-damaged son forces him to face the question "what is the right thing to do for me?". He dodges the question as long as he can, plunging headlong into a drinking binge, a sexual affair, and eventually a scheme to have his son killed by a quack doctor. But the question does not go away. It is his very own personal matter. No one can help him. The question corners him (not surprisingly, several scenes of the novel prominently feature blind alleys), and finally he finds HIS answer. Or rather, the answer finds him - he did not consciously look for it.
More than anything that is impressive about this novel - the evocation of a stifling atmosphere, the restrained, matter-of-fact tone of the narrator, the stark realism, the depiction of the sense of shame and horror that the birth of a handicapped child evokes in the Japanese - more than all these things I admired how Oe managed to convey a sense of the unconscious humanity of the man Bird (who, after all, does not live up to any moral standards when he begins an affair while, at the same time, his wife is about to give birth in hospital).
The book has a very real background: In 1963, Oe's own son was born with a brain hernia. The doctors predicted that the boy would be severely retarded and gave him little chance of living any significant amount of time. Oe almost decided to abandon the boy. But before he did, he went to a memorial for those killed at Hiroshima, and there he realized that he could not take the easy way out. Today, the boy is as old as I am, and he leads a more or less independent life as an artist in Japan.
Kenzaburo Oe is probably the most highly regarded of Japan's post-war novelists and A Personal Matter is certainly his best known book. It is the harrowing, semi-autobiographical story of a parent's worst nightmare and of a brutal moral dilemma. As the novel opens, the twenty-something protagonist, whose immaturity is reflected in the fact that he retains his boyhood nickname of Bird, anxiously awaits the birth of his first child, but dreams of escaping his mundane domestic life in Japan and traveling instead to Africa. When Bird's son is born with a herniated brain--one doctor nervously giggles that it looks like he has two heads--he faces a choice between starving the child to death or financing exorbitantly expensive surgery with little chance of success. Even a successful operation is likely to cause significant brain damage.
Overwhelmed, Bird seeks to avoid his responsibilities by twittering--like his namesake--between alcohol, an old girlfriend and his African fantasies, avoiding his job, his wife, his child and most of all, the decisions which need to be made. Just hours after finally delivering the child to a back alley abortionist who will kill him and preparing to use the money he has saved up not on the prospective surgical procedures, but to run away to Africa with his girlfriend, Bird has an epiphany in a gay bar and, at last, determines to grow up and accept the mantle of responsibility that he has always sought to avoid. The story ends with the baby having been successfully operated on, though his future mental development remains in doubt, and with Bird's father-in-law telling him that his childish nickname is no longer appropriate because he is a changed man.
It is an open secret that the Nobel Prize has become little more than a politically correct constituency plum in recent years, so the prospect of reading a novel by an eminent left-wing Japanese novelist honestly filled me with dread. I was totally unprepared for this fierce, beautiful passion play and was pleasantly surprised by the stark, noirish prose style of Oe's writing. The brutally direct sentences of this brief novel present an unforgettable portrait of a man wrestling with a stark moral choice, one that lies at the center of much of our own politics, but which is seldom faced honestly. The fact that Oe's own son was born with a herniated brain only serves to add another layer of tension to an already unbearably tense tale. When Bird chooses life and himself becomes a man it is truly one of the most moving and gratifying moments of spiritual triumph in all of literature. Bird emerges as a heroic but very human figure. I can't imagine any reader being unaffected by this book; in fact, I can easily imagine readers being haunted by it. This is a great novel.
"A Personal Matter" is easily Oe's most popular novel, outselling all others by a huge margin both in Japan and outside. That's easy to explain. It's his easiest, most traditional narrative, strictly chronological, told by an 'omniscient' narrator whose omniscience is obviously a mask for the author's projection of his own consciousness into his character named Bird. There is none of Oe's usual deliberate disorder and allusive/elusive obscurity. Plenty of 'shocking' scenes occur, but for Kenzaburo Oe this novel is almost chaste in its depictions of perversity and violence. If the reader is at all acquainted with Oe's other books, or with Oe's true 'personal matter' behind Bird's crisis, it's not hard to intuit that the author wanted and needed a simple structure, distanced from himself, to work out the anguish of his imagination.
Oe's personal matter was the birth of his first child, a son, with severe brain damage. That was in 1963. In 1964, Oe wrote two 'accounts' of his experience, this novel "A Personal Matter" and the short story "Aghwee the Sky Monster". Prior to 1963, most of Oe's writings had focused on the catastrophes of recent Japanese history: the war, the collapse of the Japanese identity along with the de-deification of the Emperor, and the bombing of Hiroshima. Since 1963, Oe's most powerful writing has traced the evolution of his fatherhood, of his intense bonding with his unique son. Oe the man has been a difficult, eruptive, unmanageable person, whose identity-pains inflate to fill any space he enters. From so much pain, so much humanity!
Oe would have been a great writer even if his son had been born in mediocre normalcy. Once in a while, I persuade myself that I can write, if not popularly at least honestly, but Oe's 'honesty' to his own craft as a writer and to his own humanity leaves me gasping in awe. This is the same honesty that I admire in the writings of WG Sebald. Neither Oe nor Sebald is bound to literal veracity, fact for fact, in their obviously autobiographical fictions. Both of them shape their lives imaginatively in their story-telling. But Oe's imagination comes closer to Reality than anyone else's 'swear-on-a-bible' truth. Think of the greatest autobiographers of the past -- Augustine, Rousseau, De Quincey, Lowell -- and get ready for an Oe who spills his guts more courageously than any of them.