Oe Kenzaburo is the 1994 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I find most books of well acclaimed authors a mystery. Perhaps I’m just a philistine, but I go into these books with expectations and trepidations, and I either come out of the experience extremely intimidated and feeling inadequate or just wanting for more. A Personal Matter made me want for more.
The central plot of the novel is both simple and complex. It is the story of a man coming to terms with the birth of his first son, born with a rare medical complication. The protagonist, referred simply as the “Bird” (due to his fragile physical and mental frame), is firstly unprepared to become a dad. He’s in complete denial and is vexed with anxiety. He hates his work, is unhappy in his marriage, dreads the prospect of being a dad, and generally hates everything about himself and his life. Pretty bleak. His self worth is little to none and his anxiety and fear towards facing anything in life is crippling. It is precisely in the midst of this troublesome period that he gets a call from the hospital saying that there is something terribly wrong with his son. His mother-in-law hints at getting rid of the “monster” child and the doctors try to hint at something similar. His wife desperately banks on him to save their child. What is fragile Bird to do when all he wants to really do is flee away from everything and turn back time?
Reading the “synopsis” of the story, you would appreciate why the novel is both simple and complex. There is only one simple, honorable answer to the question plaguing Bird - He needs to try and save his child. But given Bird’s frame of mind, it isn’t so simple. The short and taut novel is about Bird’s journey towards accepting the realities of what is happening around him and trying to face his responsibilities. There is never a boring, dragging moment in the story. Bird is caught in a whirlpool of time and emotions, and events unfold fast. The anxiety that Bird throbs with is so palpable. He goes to the very extreme of cowardice and irresponsibility and then as if he is incapable of anymore denial, takes a sharp turn. This is where I found myself wanting for more. There are so many interesting themes to this novel but Kenzaburo focuses all his attention on Bird’s plagued inner journey and tunes out the rest. Even Bird’s journey seems to be preemptive and rushed, although I appreciate how Bird connected with his conscience and changed himself.
I was expecting more on the role of Choice in a man’s life when he would rather do without choice or responsibility. I wanted Kenzaburo to take the reader through a realistic journey of acceptance - one that takes time, internal angst, and even mistakes and realizations along the way. Bird goes through angst, makes mistakes and fumbles, but the “realization” part was lacking. I guess Bird’s rapid journey makes sense, given the time pressure involving a sick infant. But, there was more time dedicated to how Bird tries to run away from the problem itself and very little focus on how he actually comes around - which is the meaty piece, according to me. Perhaps that is the elusive mystery… maybe people do come around in a flash in such emotionally draining and time sensitive situations.
The social thread in this story - of how not just society, but even doctors and grandparents look at an ill child as being unwanted and “abnormal” had a lot of potential waiting to be developed. I can imagine so many unwritten pages dealing with the intersection of Japanese culture, society, and consequently, the moral as well as social implications that go with one’s choice.
All that said, this is a well written novella with a starkly drawn protagonist. I read this book in May of this year, but I still vividly remember Bird and all the emotions he goes through. It explains why Kenzaburo is so revered in the literary world.