Date Started: September 16, 2013 | Date Finished: September 18, 2013
Opening lines: Bird, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a short sigh.
WINNER of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature | Awarded the Shinchosha Literary Prize
This is a post for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and January in Japan. Please click on the links to read more about the Japanese Literature Challenge (hosted by Dolce Belleza) and January In Japan (hosted by Tony of Tony’s Reading List).
Our protagonist, Bird, is a fellow who is hard to like or even empathize with. None of his actions elicited any sympathy from me. I wanted to ‘seep’ into the book and shake some sense into him. Then again, who am I to judge him? Have I actually experienced what he is going through?
A Personal Matter is Kenzaburō Ōe’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece, hailed as the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. It is a story of a disintegrating marriage, made worse (at least for Bird) when his wife gave birth to a brain-damaged child. His child was said to have a brain hernia. Bird refuses to face this problem, choosing instead to ‘escape’ to an old girlfriend and plunges into drinking binges. We also see Bird’s attempt to ‘kill’ his child with a help of a doctor. All these events came crushing into Bird’s life, eliminating his chance to go to Africa, getting himself fired in the cram school where he teaches and living a life of denial and escape.
The character Bird struggles to come to terms with reality, making him deal with issues that are far bigger than him. Even with his deep sense of denial, Bird tries to confront his actions and emotions constantly throughout the book– his shock upon knowing his child’s condition, his shame and desperation, his manner of dealing with the problem. Despite not completely understanding Bird’s actions, the story gripped me and enticed me to read until the end because I wanted to know how it will turn out for everyone, especially Bird’s child. Although I struggled with the point of wanting to see Bird’s world without judgment, I found this somewhat essential. Sometimes it’s always easy to judge another person’s actions without completely understanding their situations, but I found out later that being human also make you realize that people have different stories and circumstances. In the end, I asked myself how I would feel if I were in Bird’s situation. Will I be so lost so as to plunge myself into my own world of denial? Will I try to escape like Bird did?
This is the first book I read written by Kenzaburō Ōe. It was grim, grotesque and dark. Kenzaburō Ōe did not mince his words when he wrote this and maximized the ability of words to present a strong message to the readers. Intense and brutally honest from the beginning, Mr. Ōe surely had the capacities to evoke some negative emotions within me. The story in itself is a struggle in choosing between right and wrong. It makes us face the realities of life, and we all know reality is never always good. I find A Personal Matter an honest representation of society today even if it was written years ago. It portrays alienation, difficulties in decision making, the struggles of parenting and the different ways people deal with problems. I tried to find some sense of goodness or hope within Bird to help me want to finish the book. I have to admit that it was difficult to swallow most of his thoughts, but as I said, it was essential for me to see Bird in a different light. The end of the story does deliver this short, redemptive phase for Bird, which I found rather ‘rushed’. After all, I’ve been privy to his ‘disturbing’ thoughts throughout the book wouldn’t it be fair if I had a glimpse of what led him to his decision at the end?
Kenzaburō Ōe, no doubt, pushes the limits of literature. His words, coupled with a variety of metaphors, were never trivial or superficial, albeit somewhat confusing at times with a mind like mine. I found out that there is something much deeper and profound in his writings. With that in mind, I have mixed feelings about recommending this to anyone. Not everyone will appreciate Mr. Ōe’s writing, I guess. Some may also detest the difficult issues and explicit sexual acts presented in the book. Some readers may feel resentment and loathing for the main character, making it difficult to finish the book.
Despite the difficult issues tackled and a protagonist that doesn’t necessarily appeal to many, A Personal Matter is an eye-opening read that acknowledges humanity in its most courageous and honest form.
- In Japanese, this book was given the title Kojinteki na taiken (個人的な体験) . This book was translated from the Japanese by John Nathan.
- The cover photograph is copyrighted to Asahi Shimbun, one of the national newspapers in Japan. You can see the image here.
- Hikari, Kenzaburō Ōe’s son, is the most famous savant composer in Japan. Hikari was born with a brain hernia, just like Bird’s son in the novel. His first CD, Music of Hikari Oe, broke sales records in the classical category.[Source]
- “Oe was born in 1935 in a small village on the island of Shikoku and raised to believe that the emperor was a god. He says he often imagined him as a white bird and was shocked to discover that he was just a regular man with a real voice when he heard him announce Japan’s surrender on the radio in 1945. In 1994 Oe accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature but then declined Japan’s highest artistic honor, the Order of Culture, because of its ties to his country’s emperor-worshipping past. The decision made him a figure of great national controversy, a position he has frequently occupied in the course of his writing life.” [Source]
- Kenzaburō Ōe was born on January 31, 1935 in Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture, Japan. “Uchiko was once a prosperous center of wax and paper production.” [Source]
January 11, 2014 at 8:36 am
I enjoyed this one as it was bluntly honest in its portrayal of a man who really doesn’t want to face up to a difficult decision. I think the title is key – it’s very much a personal matter, and Oe does a great job of making his character, if not likeable, then at least human…
January 13, 2014 at 6:59 am
Honest, indeed! While I didn’t understand Bird and his decisions, maybe even belonging to the multitude of people who didn’t like him that much, I would say that Oe did a great job. It was very courageous of him to let out all those thoughts in the person of Bird. Yes, I agree. Bird portrays the more honest, and dare I say, darker side of humanity.
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January 18, 2014 at 3:32 pm
Excellent review… This sounds like something I’d find hard to finish since in the matter of his child I would probably find it hard to put aside my judgement, but I can appreciate the importance of the work for its courage in its honesty, and highlighting these issues.
January 18, 2014 at 5:00 pm
Thank you so much, Jo.
Indeed. It’s admirable that the author chose not to limit himself when it came to expressing his thoughts about his child.