A Personal Matter – Kenzaburō Ōe (tr. John Nathan)

“You’re right about this being limited to me, it’s entirely a personal matter. But with some personal experiences that lead you way into a cave all by yourself, you must eventually come to a side tunnel or something that opens on a truth that concerns not just yourself but everyone.”

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, Kenzaburō Ōe is known for his deeply personal works, and he credits his son Hikari, brain damaged from birth, for influencing his literary career.  Ōe claims that he has tried to give his son a “voice” through his writing. Several of Ōe’s books feature a character based on his son and ‘A Personal Matter’ (1964) deals with the birth of a son who has a brain hernia, Hikari was born in 1963.

The novel opens with a sense of foreboding, our protagonist, Bird, looking at the map of Africa in the atlas, a place he wants to escape to:

Shuddering, Bird peered at the details of the map. The ocean surrounding Africa was inked in the teary blue of a winter sky at dawn. Longitudes and latitudes were not the mechanical lines of a compass: the bold strokes evoked the artist’s unsteadiness and caprice. The continent itself resembled the skull of a man who had hung his head. With doleful, downcast eyes, a man with a huge head was gazing at Australia, land of the koala, the platypus, and the kangaroo. The miniature Africa indicating population distribution in a lower corner of the map was like a dead head beginning to decompose; another, veined with transportation routes, was a skinned head with the capillaries painfully exposed. Both these little Africas suggested unnatural death, raw and violent.

At this stage of the book Bird’s wife is still in labour, he is yet to learn of his first-born son being born brain damaged. Wandering the streets and telephoning the hospital each hour Bird wanders into a game arcade where he tests his strength, he is no longer the man he thought he was, reduced from a fighter to a scrawny meek being whose strength is less than the kick from a gang member who are watching him. Once Bird leaves the arcade he is literally, and metaphorically, attacked by the gang, we know that our journey with Bird is going to be deeply personal.

“Brain hernia, we call it. The brain is protruding from a fault in the skull.”

From this point onwards the novel explores a range of emotional responses, Bird a former alcoholic, goes through phases of anger, grief, hopelessness, despair, rejection, guilt, fear:

I’m afraid of the dark recesses where that grotesque baby was created

Shame, after an act of sexual perversion with a former girlfriend Bird is in the “grip of diffidence”.

Bird tried comparing his child who seemed to have two heads with pictures he had seen of mutations caused by radioactivity. But he had only to think to himself about the baby’s abnormality and a sense of extremely personal shame hotly rose into his throat. How could he discuss the misfortune with other people, it was inherent in himself! He had the feeling this would never be a problem he could share with the rest of mankind.

The guilt:

If life was eternal and if there was a god who judges, Bird thought, then he would be found guilty. But his guilt now, like the grief that had assailed him in the ambulance when he had compared the baby to Apollinaire with his head in bandages, tasted primarily of honey.

This is a deeply personal exploration of a man who has a choice, does he keep and rear a handicapped child, does he allow the hospital to operate most likely causing death, does he allow them to slowly starve the child? Interestingly Bird’s wife, his mother and father-in-law are minor players here, the focus is on Bird’s inner turmoil and that of his former girlfriend whose husband had committed suicide.

Set against the backdrop of the Russians resuming nuclear tests there is a hint of the human crisis being faced, Kenzaburō Ōe has written extensively on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as pressuring the Government after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and organising antinuclear protests.

Before this novel Kenzaburō Ōe published a series of works incorporating sexual metaphors for the occupation of Japan, and this work does have a chapter with a similar theme, Himoko, Bird’s former girlfriend, is the “Japan” placed in a humiliating position by the oppressor, Bird.

The main character here is called “Bird” and the novel is littered with animal similes:

like a bed of straw for sick livestock
like an angry rat
like a titmouse pecking at millet seeds
like a laughable cartoon bear
like an orangutan sampling a flavour
like a fish with a ripped belly

These examples coming from only five pages of text! A world where nature should be dominant, but the simmering threat of nuclear war poses the question, should I bring a young life into this world?  

An interesting novel that touches on many of Kenzaburō Ōe’s themes, one that is deeply personal, (well it  is ‘A Personal Matter’), however it could also be seen as deeply egotistical and misogynistic. Ōe has gone into the dark cave all by himself, but he discovers a truth that concerns not only himself but everyone. For readers who haven’t come across his works before this is less daunting that more recent works and it would be a nice entry point to his oeuvre.

2 thoughts on “A Personal Matter – Kenzaburō Ōe (tr. John Nathan)

  1. Thank you for this review. I have tried reading his work before (The Changeling) and found it too heavy. Perhaps the subject matter (suicide), tainted it too dark. I’ll try this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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