A baby with a deformed head is born to a Japanese couple. The father, Bird, who dreams of an unencumbered life in Africa, keeps the baby’s problem a secret from his wife and conspires with a doctor to give his son weak milk to kill him. The thought of his disabled offspring drive Bird to binging on alcohol and shacking up with an old girlfriend with problems of her own. So begins Kenzaburo Oe’s A PERSONAL MATTER. Oe himself has a with brain issues, born a few months before this work appeared, and while Oe’s coming to terms with his son is probably much more mundane than the events here, it certainly adds a new dimension to the book.
Oe’s typical awkward yet poetic prose is on full display here. Disillusioned with Japanese traditions after the Second World War, he spurned his country’s conventional prose, like the understated work of Yasunari Kawabata, in favor of long sentences padded with odd and unexpected adjectives. Just look at A PERSONAL MATTER’s opening line:
Bird, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a sigh.
This is not a book meant just for those interested in Japanese literature; it was the inaugural pick at Jonathan Franzen’s book club. As such a focused image of despair, it transcends cultural boundaries, and for such depressing subject matter it is quite the page-turner. For those on the fence, it is also a small commitment, clocking in at 165 pages in my edition.
The most common criticism is the ending, with even some mesmerized by the rest of the book being disappointed upon reaching the last pages. The first time I read it, it was the only negative I could think of. As such, the rest of this review will deal with spoilers, so keep reading at your own risk.
Since Oe accepted his son’s disability in real life, it is not too surprising that Bird does the same here. After the innutritious milk fails to off the baby, Bird and his old girlfriend take him to a sketchy abortion clinic and stop at a bar for a celebratory beer before traveling to Africa when Bird has a change of heart and returns to his family life. Many have claimed that all the bad decisions and existential angst preceding this renders the ending unconvincing and out of place.
The first time I read A PERSONAL MATTER, I went through the book cover to cover one evening, utterly entranced until the ending, which made me rethink my rating from a 5/5 to a 4/5. I had even known the conclusion before I began reading and it still seemed tacked on, ranking up there with GREAT EXPECTATIONS for awful endings.
And then, a few years later, traveling through Japan, with my family, I reread it, taking my time and finishing it after a few days. I was blown away. Tons of literary references that went over my head before now made sense and deepened my appreciation for the author. His language went from odd but beautiful to measured artistic rebellion (I had not known about his reasons for incorporating bizarre metaphors and sentence structures previously). And, most importantly, the ending made sense. When Bird shows up to his job teaching at a cram school incredibly hungover and vomits in front of his class, one student threatens to report him to the headmaster, most likely resulting in a termination. Other pupils offer to cover for him but Bird refuses, insisting he must take responsibility although he cannot articulate why he feels this way. This and a few other side plots and references that I missed when I barreled the book in a few hours foreshadow the ending.
Even with this, the ending still is not a 100% fitting finale, but at least it does not seem like a passage ripped from a different novel and made enough sense in context for me to restore that missing point in my rating. Given the relatively quick composition, it’s a wonder that it is only the ending that does not perfectly fit. A PERSONAL MATTER is not a flawless novel, but it comes very close. Just be sure to take your time with it; it is deceptively dense.