"A Personal Matter" by Kenzaburo Oe

Japanese author Kenzaburo Oë is one of the most respected modern/contemporary novelists in his native land and this novel in particular won him the Shinchosha Literary Prize in 1964. This is a thoroughly contemporary Japanese novel (by 1964 standards) and the subject matter involved explores all the post-war existential angst and the dramatic changes that had taken place after World War II. It is a dark, almost darkly comical novel about moral choices and existential dread.


“Bird” is a 27 year old Japanese teacher at a “cram school” who hates his job, can’t stand where he currently stands in life, drinks way too much, is full of self-loathing and is obsessed with wanting to travel to Africa. To top it off, he has just become the father to a grotesque baby boy. According to the doctors, the newborn has a “brain hernia” and though surgery is possible, there is a good chance that the boy will never grow up normal. This only adds to his shame. Bird is not a likable character. While his wife is in the hospital shut away in her room, Bird conspires to allow the baby to simply die rather than live with the shame of having to raise a deformed, abnormal child. While his wife is in the hospital - and his newborn son is in intensive care - Bird spends his time with his mistress, a free spirited young woman he had known since his student days (and had a disastrous sexual encounter with). The entirety of the novel is spent watching Bird come apart while struggling with a moral choice - should he allow his newborn son to die so he could be free to run off with his lover to Africa or allow the surgeons to operate and save the baby’s life and become the accepting and loving father he ought to be? We follow Bird as he wrestles with this moral choice and the more we do, the more we despise him for his brutal honesty and his seeming willingness to allow his son to just die. We also cringe at his absolute selfishness, his disregard to his bed ridden wife, his own preoccupation with his sexual prowess (or lack thereof), his obsession with traveling to Africa, and how he ruins his position as a professor when he turns up in class with a severe hangover. We also despise his lover Himiko, who is just as self-absorbed and callous as Bird is, caring only about her own affairs and more than willing to run off with Bird so long as the child dies - and even concocts a plan with a shady abortion doctor to do the deed. Will Bird succumb to his most base desires or will he make the right choice and finally grow up?


To me, these questions regarding Bird seem to be the questions being asked about Japanese society at the time - trying to find itself after a devastating war and reeling with the after effects of the two atomic bombs which ended that war. The deformed child, the anti-nuclear protests against Khrushchev - all these references seem to point to a nation trying to find itself after a period of intense self-loathing and defeat, trying to find its footing in the modern world and democracy and freedom. What have all these things brought to them as a culture and a people? While it may not be the case, I see the plot of this story being something of a metaphor for these very questions.


The prose style is direct, honest, and it pulls absolutely no punches. There are some odd metaphors peppered throughout as well which are entertaining, funny and sometimes head scratching. The style of the novel seems to also indicate a new direction, moving Japanese literature into a more contemporary feel and style. While this is the first and only Oë novel I have read, I have to say I’m quite impressed with his inventiveness and his unique style (yes, I definitely plan on reading more of him in the future). If you like heavily existential novels that pose serious questions but at the same time doesn’t weigh one down like an anchor, I’d give this one a read for sure. If not anything else, you’ll remember it and be thinking about it for days after finishing it.

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