Some books you read because of its title, because its reputation has exceeded the reaches of its back cover and has enticed you, the avid reader. Others attract your attention through flattering blurbs or eye-catching covers. Then there are those books you pick up because you’ve heard the author namedropped so many times that you want to check him out for yourself. My reading of this novel—my first Kenzaburo Oe—falls under the last category. Partly based on the author’s own experience, A Personal Matter deals with a parent’s dilemma: the birth of an abnormal baby. Bird, a first-time father, struggles with moral issues and the repercussions of raising a brain hernia baby, and through this crisis attains a better grasp of his own identity.
Bird discovers his baby’s deformity in the second chapter, but it takes him all of the next 140 pages to make a final decision. Chained by his passivity, Bird suffers from chronic dissatisfaction: “And then, all over again, the same dissatisfaction, the same desires unrealized, Africa the same vast distance away…” In this novel Africa represents the ultimate escape from reality, along with the more temporary pleasures of alcohol and sex. This escapist tendency results from the protagonist’s deep-rooted self-loathing. Because of this, he finds orgasmic pleasure in defilement: “I’m capable of all that’s meanest and most vile, I’m shame itself…”
Torn between the shame of infanticide and his own sense of preservation, Bird resorts to the easy alternative of self-deception, until a chance meeting with an old friend provokes a piercing realization: “I’ve been running the whole time, running and running…” After that, decisions come quickly to him—within the last four pages, in fact. Although I have no problems with the ending (it’s a refreshing change from the novel’s constant gloom and it challenges the idea that all good stories should end unhappily), I wish it was eased into the story better. As it is, the narrative does not prepare for it at all.
A Personal Matter is not the kind of book that you will not be able to put down, but the thing is, it doesn’t try to be. It’s a different kind of novel, with its own aesthetics. And barring a few jarring transitions (plus my aforementioned qualms about the ending), it is a good one, brimming with memorable characters and casual insights that make it a worthy read.
But Bird was still dazed: his feelings of anger and grief, the minute they had crystallized, shattered.
Trembling, Bird fled the apartment with his eyes on the floor, fled down the stairs, fled through the hall, straddled his bicycle and fled everything behind him. He would have liked to flee his own body.
‘In this age of ours it’s hard to say with certainty that having lived was better than not having been born in the first place.’
‘…the worlds that contain us are constantly multiplying.’
‘We understand each other always in silence.’
Bird stared at the girl and was stricken by something like a sense of destiny: never again would he cross paths with a person suited so perfectly to himself.
‘Even if you do leave eventually, stay for a while, will you, Bird?’
Provide the monster with a name and from that instant it would seem more human, probably it would begin asserting itself in a human way.
‘You always feel that a baby’s cry is full of meaning. … For all we know it may contain all the meaning of all of man’s words.’ … ‘It’s a lucky thing we don’t have the ability to understand.’