A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe (1964, translated by John Nathan , 157 pages)
Six months ago I am sad to say I had never heard of Kenzaburo Oe. Now, after having read and posted on four of his novellas, two novels, a work of non-Fiction on Hiroshima survivors, and a collection of short works by atom bomb survivors selected and edited by Oe I consider him one of the great literary artists of the 20 the century. I see him as creating wisdom much as I see Samuel Johnson as doing. The wisdom of Oe is that of a world turned inside out on itself, that of Johnson is of a world sure of itself. The best of Oe feels not so much written as discovered.
A Personal Matter is the most popular of the novels of Oe. The central character Bird is very hard to like, in part because it is hard not to see yourself in him. His estranged wife has given birth to a son who seems to have a severe birth defect resulting in terrible brain damage. Bird secretly wants his son to die but he must go along with the doctors who say they can possibly operate on him once he gets stronger and save him. Bird is not gratified by this as the odds are very high that the child will be severely handicapped mentally. Much of the few days in the life of Bird we see him trying to escape from thoughts pressing in on him that he knows are a violation of acceptable morality. He wants very much to go on a trip to Africa and he spends a lot of time thinking about this. He indulges in a great deal of sexual activity with an ex-girl friend that he care little about, he drinks too much, he gets fired from a job he does not like, and shows little real interest in anything. He does love the poetry of William Blake.
A Personal Matter is saturated with animal references and metaphors. I did an informal count as I was reading the novel and there are about 150 such references.
There are numerous references to sea urchins, grasshoppers and shrimp. Some of the animal references are amazing in their cleverness and all of them made me see more deeply into the world projected by Oe. (Oe has a brain damaged son.)The meagerness of her fingers recalled chameleon legs..the toad like rubber man rolling the tire down the road....Bird stared for an instant in the numerous ant holes in the ebonite receiver...the glass chatter at the bottle like an angry rat...like a titmouse pecking at millet seeds..like an orangutan sampling a flavor..Bird and Himiko exchanged magnanimous smiles and drank their whiskey purposefully, like beetles sucking sap..whiskey-heated eyes dart a weasel glance...
A Personal Matter is a very intense work. Once you realize the central character Bird wants his son to die it is hard to like him and also hard to admit we do not understand why he feels that way. The novel is very explicit sexually. Attitudes toward suicide are considered briefly. A Personal Matter kept me in suspense throughout. I wanted to learn what would happen to the child and how things would turn out among Bird, his wife, and his girlfriend. Oe is not afraid to look a monster in the face. His work can help us do the same and if it turns out one of those monsters is buried within ourselves and our mythic past then at least we know it.
The next work of Oe that I will read will probably be Somersault (1999). This is Oe's longest work and departs from his autobiographical mode. It centers on a religious cult. Oe has just had his latest novel, The Changeling published in English by Grove press. Oe has said he will write no more novels and with the publication of this work he sees himself as ready for death.
Here is a link to all of my Japanese literature posts.