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Book Review: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oë

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In my recent reading of Japanese fiction, one of the things I am delighted to discover is that the Japanese write fiction for grownups. What does that mean? Much like the great filmmakers Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Teshigahara, (just to name a few) they work with ideas; they do not water their tales down with sentiment and PC; and they’re not afraid to take narrative chances. They also write according to their own vision, rather than subscribing to the subjectivity of their version of MFA programs back in their day.

I bring all this up after having finished Nobel winner Kenzaburo Oë’s novel A Personal Matter, which is a flat out great novel, with exception for the last few pages. Oë is one of those writers who can make those leaps of illogic, and while there are times his similes are strange, they pay off nonetheless. John Nathan, who translated the work, noted in the introduction Oë’s “controversy” in that, Oë broke language convention in his work, which was not considered “favorable” for some. With regards to Oë’s controversial style, Nathan notes: “It treads a thin line between artful rebellion and mere unruliness. That is its excitement and the reason why it is so difficult to translate. Oë consciously interferes with the tendency to vagueness which is considered inherent in the Japanese language. He violates its natural rhythms; he pushes the meanings of words to their furthest acceptable limits.”

Having said that, there are times where a few misspellings occur, but these quibbles are minutiae. Oë’s strengths lie within his wording and illogical leaps, and these very reasons give his work its distinction. The tale involves a man named Bird, who is gangly much in the same way as a bird, but also he is childish and emotionally immature — he’s always fled from his responsibilities in life, and his current problem involves the child his wife has given birth to. The baby is horribly deformed. The doctors believe it has a brain hernia and the small beast does not even appear human. Bird reacts towards the child with indifference at first, (he does not even want to give the child a name), but then he eventually is hopeful it will die, for he does not want to waste the money on a necessary operation that might help the child, and even if the operation did pay off, the doctor has informed him that the chance of the child living a normal life is likely impossible.

A Personal Matter is not about the deformed child, but about Bird and his own selfishness. Shortly after the birth, Bird engages in a sexual affair with another woman, and all this is happening while his wife is still in the hospital. He is a heavy drinker and as his wife notes: “…I think sometimes that, when a really crucial moment comes, you’ll either be drunk or in the grip of some crazy dream and just float up into the sky like a real bird.” Bird is by no means a likable character, and readers are not going to sympathize with his struggle. This goes against contemporary published writing, where publishers and agents feel the need to “love” the characters they read about, and were this subject matter being written about today, the approach would be far more PC and sentimental, rather than how Oë presents it. The truth is, most don’t want to admit that Bird’s disgust towards the child is one that many have likely felt. And Oë presents his ideas without apology: “The bud of an existence appeared on a plain of nothingness that stretched for zillions of years and there it grew for nine months. Of course, there was no consciousness in a fetus, it simply curled in a ball and existed, filling utterly a warm, dark mucous world.”

Bird fantasizes about divorcing his wife once the baby dies and escaping to Africa with his lover Himiko. Sex scenes and the lust he feels for her body are described in contrast to the dislike he feels for his wife, and all this is taking place amid moments of philosophical rumination regarding time and space and alternate universes (the one where Bird is free to do as he pleases, versus the one where he must act responsibly). He refers to Himiko’s vagina as “simplicity itself,” and after sex with her, feels “profoundly at peace.” Then, as he recalls sex with his wife, he notes “their timidity and the unflagging sense of peril. Even now, after years of marriage, they foundered on the same gloomy psychological shoals every time they made love.”

Oë is a great writer who does not force feeling upon his readers. He trusts his audience enough to be mature, and this is why A Personal Matter is a book for mature readers. Although there are moments of strange comparisons: “Bird drained his cup like a basketball player taking a drink of water after he has been ordered off the court for too many errors: peevishly, with self-disdain and evident taste.” Although an odd comparison, Oë makes it work within the context and is not in any way a deficiency as far as his narrative goes. If anything, phrases like these will keep one surprised, which in turn, will keep one reading.

The only weakness in the book involves the few pages leading up to the ending. Bird seems to suddenly rectify everything within himself, and the child, who was believed to have a brain hernia, seems to not only recover, but to abandon his monstrous appearance and take on a more human quality. Bird matures in other words, yet his “maturity” seems a bit forced and more like wishful thinking on the narrator’s behalf. More interesting it would have been for Bird to reject the child and continue living at his own accord, for too often in life people refuse to grow up and accept their responsibilities. For me, the ending is akin to Judah Rosenthal confessing his crime at the end of Woody Allen’s masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors rather than getting away with it in the way that he does. People simply do not change that quickly, and those who do change, more often than not, are only granting the impression of change.

Perhaps I found Bird’s sudden growth to be out of character or a bit premature, or just self-delusion, though despite the few pages leading up to it, the last line of the book is a powerful one: ending with Bird planning to look up the word forbearance. Thus I’ll end this review noting the same thing as when I opened it: A Personal Matter is a book for grownups, and Oë is a writer that respects his readers enough not to drench them in forced feelings. He makes you examine things you might not want, and not every story is a happy ending, and nor does it deserve to be.

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About Jessica Schneider