A Personal Matter by Kenzaburō Ōe

A Personal Matter is a semi-autobiographical novel published in the year 1987 by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburō Ōe; the most well-renowned novelist from Japan after Yukio Mishima (another distinguished Nobel Laureate in Literature). Kenzaburō Ōe is one of the most prominent and central literary figures of the post-war era. He writes about characters who seem to be devoid of ethical values and whose lives are filled with personal and professional failure. In this novel, Bird is the protagonist, a man who has recently given birth to a child, a former drunkard who left his education half-way through and became a teacher, in later years, at a cram-school. The novel begins by developing him as a character, devoid of morality, who dreams of visiting Africa in the hope of adventures but is disappointed when he comes to know that his wife is about to give birth to a child, his child. Soon, it is revealed, that the child is suffering from a deformity which, at first, comes to be recognised by the doctors as brain hernia. Things turn topsy-turvy for Bird, whose dreams of going to Africa are shattered and he finds himself, as a father, disappointed at the recent developments. The novel soon spirals down into the abyss as Bird realises that he does not want this child. Kenzaburō Ōe has written extensively about his son, Hikari Ōe, and how their family came to terms with reality. The character of Bird’s son is based upon Hikari Ōe, who later went on to become a musician and learnt to survive in his condition.

The story revolves around the emptiness of morality and the survival of people who are swept away with the currents of their desires and dilemmas. In the translator’s note, John Nathan describes that Kenzaburō Ōe’s ideal world was destroyed after the world left behind by the World War II; people could no longer identify with an ideal way of being and the moral vicissitude that embraces us all, they could no longer, as a society, believe in humanism. Morality became an empty vessel, a hollow pit with nothing but darkness lingering beneath. In Kenzaburō Ōe’s masterpiece, every character finds itself lost in a battle as the political realities take shape in the personal and private atmosphere of the home and family. Kenzaburō Ōe merges both home and the world, the political reality which echoes in the darkest corridors of the human mind, taking shape in the physical form of a child.

The prose resonates with the writings of certain American writers but in my view remains wholly original; the sentences focus on the mundane details of life and transform them into something beautiful. American literature has achieved a lot in the way of transforming the daily mundane realities of life into a metaphor for reflecting on the novel or the story itself. In this novel, things take on a strange and mythical shape in contrast to the sharp needle-like realism of American literature. The world which this short novel inhabits is not wholly real nor wholly unreal; the imagery contains overtures similar to classical Greek literature. The pale or orange sky, sexual innuendos and objects, streets wet with rain, gingko trees rising up in the distance, the mist forming in the sky and cigarette smoke evoking a misty sensation in a room, the bitter smells of bile and vomit, a dead sparrow on the road, sharp turns of destiny, downfall of morality and the black-heartedness of desire are captured vividly in the novel.

Most of the plot revolves around the death of the child and the emotional baggage which the prospect weighs on the psyche of the characters. Bird is left in confusion and disgust at his child while feeling a certain form of obeisance to the creation of nature, his wife suffers in vain and plans to divorce Bird if the child departs the world (death), the mother-in-law loves her daughter more than the child and contemplates, also awaits ominously, the baby’s death, and the baby, often referred to as the monster in the novel, remains the central figure, the axis, around which every individual revolves. Himiko, Bird’s ex-girlfriend, is trapped in her moral dilemmas and is drawn into the crisis due to her infatuation with Bird.

Through this dark surface of wormy characters, ridden with their emptiness and their unfulfilled desires, shines through the voice of the novelist, a dark comedic intonation of words which touches your heart in the face of sheer brutality. Nonetheless, A Personal Matter remains a work written with stone-cold precision, prose and a voice which seems almost virginally pessimistic and strewn with an icy sense of humour beneath its traumatising surface. The reader, even the most objective ones, will find themselves devastated under the gaze of a writer who does not flinch. The sleek energy of this novel, the dazzling vocabulary, sharp imagery used as metaphor, conflicting characters and the art of being stylish without being sugar-coated with a layer of consolation or richness, the art of being stylish whilst being bleak and troubling sets this novel up for one of the major contemporary novels of the twentieth century.

A Personal Matter is a harrowing work of dense beauty and bitter, tear-jerking humour shimmering beneath the cold exterior of the novel. A Japanese novel which can teach a thing or two or perhaps even more to American writers about the power of language and the sheer mythical dimensions one can reach through writing which echoes the great American masters of the literary world — a work of brutal honesty and courage which does not flinch its eyes away from the abyss.

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Ridwan Recent comment authors

What a perfect novel!