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.