Adventures in Reading

Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter translated by John Nathan
March 6, 2008, 5:03 pm
Filed under: book reviews, fiction
“Bird, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a short sigh.”

Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter was the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, which struck me as fascinating when I picked it up because I had never heard of the novel. Oe’s hero Bird is a man with a rough childhood turned respectable adult and the novel opens as he’s awaiting news of his wife’s delivery of their first child. Bird experiences regret during this period as he realizes that both his marriage and now the birth of his child more firmly and securely distances himself from his ambitions and dreams. From the first sentence of the novel the reader is introduced to Bird’s dream of visiting Africa, and he now realizes how impossible that action is.

Oe has a tense and tight style of introducing information about Bird and it’s not until the final chapter that the reader can really reconsider and appreciate him. Finally, when Bird is called to the hospital, a new dimension of fear is introduced: Oe’s son is born with a brain hernia. The doctor’s tell him his son will die or if he survives it will be as a vegetable and Bird’s mother-in-law pressures Bird not to tell his wife, out of fear for her mental state and that she may refuse to ever have a child again, and that he should “take care” of the situation. Here the novel begins to darken as Bird attempts to kill his child first by having the doctor’s refuse his baby milk, then by refusing the baby surgery, and finally taking his son to a shady abortionist.

Oe’s novel is an interesting story though I soon found myself becoming frustrated with Bird. He’s a character that begins the novel being easily manipulated, escaping his problems, and refusing to make decisions. Additionally, the novel has some very definite misogynistic issues, which forces me to reconsider much of the praise the novel received. While his wife is in the hospital, Bird shacks up with his girlfriend Himiko. Their sexual experience in college was limited to Bird raping her once and now after the birth of his son, to get over his fear of the grotesque nothingness/nihilism behind the vagina and womb, there’s a rather grotesque scene where he anally brutalizes Himiko.

A Personal Matter has been my first Japanese novel where I truly feel that I missed something in the translation. It’s a very dark novel and highly dependent on symbolism. Africa, which we learn symbolizes his “ambitions” in life, ultimately means nothing for Bird as he is given the perfect opportunity to attain it. The description and dialog in the novel is tantalizing and it has a good deal of dark humor embedded in it. I believe my favorite scene in the novel is Bird’s and Himiko’s journey to the abortionist with the baby when the reader begins to realize how unsuitable the two characters really are for this activity.

The New York Times describes Oe’s novel as “Very close to a perfect contemporary novel,” which seems kind of backhanded praise but does create some doubt in me in regards to the contemporary novel.

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