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A Personal Matter ()

Nobel Prize Winners (1984)

    Japan has lost the power to connect the principle or theory and reality.  I think literature's value is
    in making those connections. That's the mission of literature. Morals are significant.
           -Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe is probably the most highly regarded of Japan's post-war novelists and A Personal Matter is certainly his best known book.  It is the harrowing, semi-autobiographical story of a parent's worst nightmare and of a brutal moral dilemma.  As the novel opens, the twenty-something protagonist, whose immaturity is reflected in the fact that he retains his boyhood nickname of Bird, anxiously awaits the birth of his first child, but dreams of escaping his mundane domestic life in Japan and traveling instead to Africa.  When Bird's son is born with a herniated brain--one doctor nervously giggles that it looks like he has two heads--he faces a choice between starving the child to death or financing exorbitantly expensive surgery with little chance of success.  Even a successful operation is likely to cause significant brain damage.

Overwhelmed, Bird seeks to avoid his responsibilities by twittering--like his namesake--between alcohol, an old girlfriend and his African fantasies, avoiding his job, his wife, his child and most of all, the decisions which need to be made.   Just hours after finally delivering the child to a back alley abortionist who will kill him and preparing to use the money he has saved up not on the prospective surgical procedures, but to run away to Africa with his girlfriend, Bird has an epiphany in a gay bar and, at last, determines to grow up and accept the mantle of responsibility that he has always sought to avoid.  The story ends with the baby having been successfully operated on, though his future mental development remains in doubt, and with Bird's father-in-law telling him that his childish nickname is no longer appropriate because he is a changed man.

It is an open secret that the Nobel Prize has become little more than a politically correct constituency plum in recent years, so the prospect of reading a novel by an eminent left-wing Japanese novelist honestly filled me with dread.  I was totally unprepared for this fierce, beautiful passion play and was pleasantly surprised by the stark, noirish prose style of Oe's writing.  The brutally direct sentences of this brief novel present an unforgettable portrait of a man wrestling with a stark moral choice, one that lies at the center of much of our own politics, but which is seldom faced honestly.  The fact that Oe's own son was born with a herniated brain only serves to add another layer of tension to an already unbearably tense tale.  When Bird chooses life and himself becomes a man it is truly one of the most moving and gratifying moments of spiritual triumph in all of literature.  Bird emerges as a heroic but very human figure.  I can't imagine any reader being unaffected by this book; in fact, I can easily imagine readers being haunted by it.  This is a great novel.


Grade: (A+)


Kenzaburo Oe Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Kenzaburo Oe
    -BIO: Kenzaburo Oe (Nobel Prize)
    -AUTHOR SITE: Kenzaburo Oe (Grove Atlantic)
    -READING GUIDE: A guide to the work of Kenzaburo Oe, novelist and Nobel laureate: Oe, who died on March 3, was one of Japan’s most important contemporary writers. Here’s where to start with his work. (Perspective by Sophia Nguyen, March 14, 2023, Washington Post)
    -VIDEO DISCUSSION: Kenzaburo Oe - Conversations with History (UC Berkeley's Harry Kreisler in conversation with Kenzaburo Oe, May 1, 2008, University of California Television)
-OBIT: Japan's Nobel-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe dies (Deutsche-Welle, 3/13/23)
    -OBIT: Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel Laureate and Critic of Postwar Japan, Dies at 88: With his powerful novels and essays, Mr. Oe tried to ensure that Japan learned the lessons of its 20th-century militarism. (NY Times, 3/13/23)
    -OBIT: Nobel-winning Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe dies at 88 (AFP, 3/13/23)
    -OBIT: Nobel prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe, dead at 88, used words to preach pacifism (Reuters, 3/13/23)
    -OBIT: Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel prize-winning Japanese writer, dies aged 88: Fiction and essays tackled subjects including militarism and nuclear disarmament, innocence and trauma (Sian Cain, 13 Mar 2023, The Guardian)
-TRIBUTE: Kenzabur? ?e: a writer of real humanity and the real Japan (Joel Abrams, March 16, 2023, The Conversation)
    -INTERVIEW: Kenzaburo Oe, The Art of Fiction No. 195 (Interviewed by Sarah Fay, ISSUE 183, WINTER 2007, Paris Review)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVE: Kenzaburo Oe (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe (Complete Review)

Book-related and General Links:
-Encyclopaedia Britannica: Oe Kenzaburo (Guide to the Nobel Prizes)
    -Kenzaburo Oe (1935-)(kirjasto)
    -INTERVIEW: Conversation with Kenzaburo Oe (Harry Kreisler, Conversations with History)
    -INTERVIEW: Face to Face:  Kenzaburo Oe and Sharon Kinsella (Prometheus)
    -The Nobel Prize in Literature 1994 (Nobel Site)
    -Kenzaburo Oe Winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -Oe Kenzaburo Unofficial Fan Club
    -Jared Wadsworth's Kenzaburo Oé Home Page
    -SPEECH: The Nobel Lecture 1994
    -BIBLIO: Books by Kenzaburo Oé
    -ESSAY: "HIKARI FINDS HIS VOICE"  Commentary by Professor Dick Sobsey
    -ANNOTATION: Oe, Kenzaburo A Personal Matter (Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW: D.J. Enright: Days of Marvelous Lays, NY Review of Books
       A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo, Oë and translated from the Japanese by John Nathan
       The Pornographers by Akiyuki Nozaka and translated from the Japanese by Michael
    -REVIEW: of NIP THE BUDS, SHOOT THE KIDS By Kenzaburo Oe. Translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama (Lindsley Cameron, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of 'NIP THE BUDS': THE FLOWERING OF DARK GENIUS (Richard Dyer, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of A QUIET LIFE By Kenzaburo Oe (John David Morley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE CRAZY IRIS And Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath. Edited and with an introduction by Kenzaburo Oe (Fumiko Mori Halloran, NY Times Book Review)
    -On Kenzaburo Oe's The Silent Cry group discussion (Founders College, York University)
    -REVIEW: of An Echo of Heaven by Kenzaburo Oe (Allen Gaborro)
    -STARRED REVIEW: Cameron, Lindsley. The Music of Light: The Extraordinary Story  of Hikari and Kenzaburo Oe (ALA Book List)
    -ARTICLE: Nobel in Literature Goes to Kenzaburo Oe of Japan  (JAMES STERNGOLD, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Book Notes: Win a Nobel (Sarah Lyall, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The World; Japan Asks Why A Prophet Bothers  (JAMES STERNGOLD, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: No-Name Publisher Who Can Attract Big-Name Authors (MARY B. W. TABOR, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Japanese Say Their Country Has Sold Its Soul (JANE GROSS, The New York Times)
    -ARTICLE: The Nobel Laureates on Life (RONALD SMOTHERS, NY Times)
    -ESSAY:  Roll Over Basho: Who Japan Is Reading, and Why (Jay McInerney/Haruki Murakami, NY Times Book Review)
    -The Donald Keene Center Of Japanese Culture (Columbia University)