A Personal Matter by Kenzaburō Ōe

25191Fiction — print. Translated from the Japanese by John Nathan. Grove Press, 1969. First published 1964. 165 pgs. Library copy.

Ōe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994 and, according to the back of this book, is “known for his powerful accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and his own struggle to come to terms with a mentally handicapped son”. Presumably drawing from his own experiences, Ōe’s novel tells the story of a man named Bird who dreams of traveling to Africa but is grounded first by a marriage and then by the birth of a brain-damaged child.

Doctors tell him the baby is probably going to die, and Bird’s mother-in-law refuses to allow him to tell her daughter the truth about her newborn son. Yet, when the baby is transported to a larger hospital and begins to defy the odds, Bird must decide what to do about this threat to the life he dreams of having.

Fearful, angry, and unsure, the main character is Ōe’s novel is hard to sympathize with. It’s hard to even like him as he abandons his child (and his wife, for that matter) to take up drinking away and start an affair with another woman. This is a difficult, life-altering moment in a person’s life, and I would never expect someone to be all rainbows and sunshine about it. But his motivations for what he does seem to come from a desire to recapture who he was or who he could have been with another woman, with another life. He’s so selfish that him asking if the child can feel pain seems wholly out of character.

The sex he has is also told in such graphic detail that the beauty of any other passages in this novel were dissolved away, for me. I could understand the character’s need for control as the rest of his life spins out of control, but the violence during sex was just disgusting.

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