Kenzaburo Oë’s A Personal Matter, translated from the Japanese by John Nathan, is a deceptively simple read. The fluent prose conceals a complex dissection of what happens when a moment of trauma becomes a choice between courage and flight. Bird is a young Japanese man who teaches in a cram school (a job he has courtesy of his professor father-in-law) and dreams of traveling in Africa. His wife is in labor and Bird is killing time while he waits for his first child to be born. Every hour he calls his mother-in-law for news but the labor drags on.
Bird is a slight man, and slightly insubstantial, who hates his nickname and wishes he were braver and more significant than he is. The preoccupation with Africa masks a fear that the life he has is all the life allotted to him—that he can never measure up to some adventurous ideal and seize life, rather than allow it to happen to him. As he wanders the city, avoiding the bars and drinks that he once disappeared into for many months of oblivion, he is set upon and beat up by a bunch of thugs and is too weak to defend himself.
When the baby is born with a hideous deformity that may either kill it within days or condemn it to a vegetative existence, Bird takes another body blow. The infant is rushed to a hospital with neurosurgeons who wait to see if it will survive and gain enough strength to withstand complicated surgery. Bird, envisioning a lifetime shackled to a grotesque monster, hopes it will die. He turns to a college girlfriend, Himiko, whose husband has committed suicide and who spends her days contemplating the nature of existence and her nights roaming the city in search of satisfying sex.
Bird gets very drunk, loses his job, arranges with a doctor in the intensive care unit to feed the thriving baby sugar water to hasten its death, is sexually soothed by Himiko, conspires with his mother-in-law to hide the true nature of the baby’s deformity from his wife, and examines his own fearful heart. Oë shines a white-hot light on Bird’s dilemma and his anguished vacillation. The damaged son will consume his life—with care if it lives or with guilt if he allows it to die.
In the space of a few hundred pages, Bird avoids choices, makes choices and then reverses them, all the while groping for some truth about himself he can live with. His fantasies of Africa are his yearning for some existence larger than his small inconsequential self. He’s a mess but he doesn’t flinch from digging into the landfill of his own heart to get at who he is. And, under all the garbage, he confronts himself. Bird’s resolution is not predictable but is decisive. That clarity is a hallmark of Oë’s fiction—even in translation, his story is eloquent, particular to the characters he has breathed life into, and evocative of a universal hunger to understand what a single life can mean.
A Personal Matter Kenzaburo Oë | Grove Press 1969