Ah, life. No one survives life unscathed. As we go on with our own lives, we note how eventful our own lives are. Around us, several things are happening. Some don’t directly impact us but there are also several that do. It is these events that both directly and indirectly shape us and the way we perceive the world. It can come in the form of simple but meaningful events such as the birth of a child. It can also be the accomplishment of a simple task or endeavor. It can also come in the form of overcoming major obstacles in life or surviving a major disability. It can also come in the form of traumatic events that shook us to the core. It can be the death of a loved one. Life never runs out of surprises but as we go on, we realize that we are a tapestry of these events, whether major or minor.
In the world of literature, the writers’ personal experiences have become inevitable and even integral parts of their prose. Personal experiences, after all, are a rich well of a plethora of subjects that are worthy of being written about. Charlotte Brontë, for instance, wrote about her experience living in Belgium in her novel Villette (1853). It was an important part of her life story and it was also source material for her first novel The Professor; unfortunately, it was not as popular as her succeeding works. Meanwhile, Ned Vizzini’s experience of being hospitalized for depression was the inspiration for his most successful novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2006). Another example is Etaf Rum whose 2019 novel, A Woman is No Man, was predicated on her own experience of arranged marriage. Writing about these experiences has become a form of escape and also a coping mechanism.
Like their fellow writers from other parts of the world, Japanese writers also turned personal experiences and struggles into a rich fabric for their own novels. Their novels are often suffused with details of their own lives. Some of their works are even semi-autobiographical. This is so prevalent in Japanese literature that there developed a literary movement they referred to as the I-novel (Japanese: ししょうせつ、わたくししょうせつ, watakushi shōsetsu, or shishōsets). It is one of the seminal literary movements in 20th-century Japan. I-novels are typically narrated by the author and are confessional in nature. These novels expose the darker side of the writer but they also magnify important social concerns. Among the prominent I-novelists are Naoya Shiga and Osamu Dazai.
“The baby was no longer on the verge of death; no longer would the sweet, easy tears of mourning melt it away as if it were a simple jelly. The baby continued to live, and it was oppressing Bird, even beginning to attack him. Swaddled in skin as red as shrimp which gleamed with the luster of scar tissue, the baby was beginning ferociously to live, dragging its anchor of a heavy lump.”~ Kenzaburō Ōe, A Personal Matter
1994 Nobel Prize in Literature awardee literature Kenzaburō Ōe is another prominent student of this literary school. He was recognized by the Swedish Academy for creating “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today”. In their press release, the Swedish Academy cited his 1964 novel, (個人的な体験, Kojinteki na taiken) as one of his works that epitomizes what they deemed was the driving force of Ōe’s prose: the exploration of humanity by focusing on the individual. The book was translated into English by John Nathan and was released in 1968 as A Personal Matter; the book’s Japanese title literally translated to A Personal Experience.
At the heart of A Personal Matter was Bird, a 27-year-old man living in post-war Japan. He was a teacher at a cram school, a job he was able to obtain with the assistance of his father-in-law. When the novel commenced, Bird was “gazing down the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer.” He was deeply contemplating going on a trip to Africa, his dream destination. It was to be no simple trip; he wanted to escape from the monotony of his quotidian existence. His life has been reduced to nights of decadent drinking: “Bird was on a street lined with cheap, cozy bars: the crowd sweeping him along was full of drunks. His throat was dry and he wanted a drink, even if he had to have it alone.”
There were, however, several factors that he must consider before booking that trip to Africa. First off, he was barely earning enough from his current job; the atlas he wanted to buy would cost him five months’ worth of salary, three if he takes on private tutoring. His salary barely supported his and his wife’s living expenses. A major change was also about to take place as the couple was about to welcome their firstborn. Bird was about to become a family man! Sure enough, his reverie was disrupted by a call from his mother-in-law. She and her daughter were at the hospital. She further informed him that his wife has already given birth to a baby boy. There was, however, a catch. His wife gave birth to a baby with defects.
The news came as a shock to Bird. Ironically, it was not his baby’s or his wife’s condition that was his primary concern. His main concern was that the news would bar him from fulfilling his dream of traveling to Africa. He then “shuts his eyes tight and tried to submerge in the warmth of his bed, as if by denying reality he could instantly banish it. But nothing changed.” He was resigned to his fate. With a heaviness in his heart and feet, and with the prodding of his mother-in-law, Bird made his way to the hospital where he was met with even worse news. Bird finally got to meet his son but was both astonished and appalled by the way the doctor described his newborn son: “a species of monster beyond classification.” The baby was further dehumanized by the doctor who referred to the baby as “goods”.
“But what I’m experiencing personally now is like digging a vertical mine shaft in isolation; it goes straight down to a hopeless depth and never opens on anybody else’s world. So I can sweat and suffer in that same dark cave and my personal experience won’t result in so much as a fragment of significance for anybody else. Hole-digging is all I’m doing, futile, shameful hole-digging; my Tom Sawyer is at the bottom of a desperately deep mine shaft and I wouldn’t be surprised if he went mad!”~ Kenzaburō Ōe, A Personal Matter
The doctor further explained Bird’s son’s condition. The baby had a brain hernia where “the brain is protruding from a fault in the skull.” The prognosis only gets worse. Because of the baby’s condition, he will be unable to develop “normally”. Surgery is an option but the chances of developing normally are still virtually nil. If the surgery is successful, the best thing that they can get is a “vegetable human being.” The baby’s chance of survival was reduced to zero. The doctor was not enthusiastic about the baby’s chances of surviving beyond a day. Unfortunately, apart from Bird, nobody knew of the baby’s condition, not his wife, and not his relatives. This placed pressure on his shoulder as he had the unenviable task of informing his family of the news and of their options. Bird certainly did not relish this.
As Bird tries to come to terms with the news, what ensued was the story of a man descending into the darker sides of his humanity. His knee-jerk reaction was to seek affirmation and comfort in some other places. In a way, Bird’s story was a depiction of the stages of grief. In the intimacy of the novel’s text, the story exposed the darkness that lurks at the seams of the main protagonist’s soul. As Bird’s inner demons manifest, the image that broke beyond the veneer was ugly. But we all have our own inner demons that we tackle. We all have internal battles that we try to win over. For Bird, it came in different forms that unsettled him.
Bird’s dilemma is certainly one that many can relate to. He was at an impasse. However, it also begs answers to several questions. Was Bird’s immediate reaction – “I’m the monster’s father” – the product of societal pressures? Japanese society, after all, is renowned for its pursuit of perfection; they refer to this pursuit as kaizen. In the contemporary, Japan is a paragon of perfection that many countries around the world try to emulate. It is also of note that the baby was the couple’s firstborn and it was a boy. A firstborn boy is historically revered in most East Asian societies; this is, however, not exclusive to this region as several societies also have a preference for male firstborns.
But the deeper we immerse in Bird’s complex psychological profile, the novel’s autobiographical elements slowly manifest; the reader finds himself or herself in the middle of the writer’s mind. There was an intimacy to the novel’s voice that it doesn’t take much to catch on to. On the surface, the short novel masquerades as a typical story that captured the internal struggles of a new father. Bird, however, was a conduit of the writer himself; the title was also a giveaway. A Personal Matter was Ōe’s coming to terms with the birth of his son, Hikari who was born with a cranial deformity. The novel extensively dealt with the slow acceptance of the reality of raising a mentally handicapped son.
“As a matter of fact, I kept trying to run away. And I almost did. But it seems that reality compels you to live properly when you live in the real world. I mean, even if you intend to get yourself caught in a trap of deception, you find somewhere along the line that your only choice is to avoid it. That’s what I’ve found, anyway.”~ Kenzaburō Ōe, A Personal Matter
The birth of Hikari was one of the first major crises that the Japanese writer experienced during his life and literary career. A Personal Matter is an intimate and intricate account of his initial reactions and eventual acceptance of this new phase of his life. The impact and influence of Hikarii on the writer’s life and career are widely documented; it even got a mention in the Swedish Academy’s citation. Even Ōe himself credited his renewed vigor in writing – he already established himself as a rising literary star even before Hikari’s birth – to his son. Hikakri also figured prominently in Ōe’s succeeding works. Ōe’s 1990 novel 静かな生活 (Shizuka na seikatsu, A Quiet Life) was also written in the same mantle as A Personal Matter but from the perspective of Ōe’s daughter. Interestingly, doctors tried to convince Hikari’s parents to let their son die because of his condition. His parents refused and Hikari lived on to adulthood and even became a musical composer.
It cannot be denied that a discourse on Ōe’s life and oeuvre is never complete without a mention of Hikari. Hikari has become synonymous with his father and understandably so. But as captured in A Personal Matter, the journey to embracing Hikari’s place in Ōe’s life was riddled with self-doubt and even anguish. Through a series of personal awakenings, Bird became determined to raise and even coexist with his mentally handicapped child. In this slender novel, Ōe showed a different dimension of his persona. It is a side that many of us possess but tend to obscure or mute lest new floodgates open. The book sheds new light on a prominent writer. In writing about how he grappled with his inner demons, including his doubts, frustrations, and his proclivity for single-mindedness, Ōe was humanized. As the course of his career eventually showed, in embracing the new phase in his life, Ōe was given a new lease on both his life and his writing.
Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
To be honest, I was initially apprehensive about exploring Kenzaburō Ōe’s oeuvre. However, my curiosity got the better of me. I ended up liking The Silent Cry, the first novel by Ōe I read. It was while writing about Kenzaburō Ōe’s biography that I came across A Personal Matter. It immediately grabbed my attention. The fact that it captured a very important part of his life and career contributed to my growing interest in the book. In 2021, I was able to obtain a copy of it. I then listed A Personal Matter as part of my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. A Personal Matter focused on the period immediately following the birth of his first son who was a disabled child. The book provided me with an intimate peek into the mind of the Nobel Laureate. I got to read about his doubts, his frustrations, and his proclivity for single-mindedness. He was like many of us, except that he is a successful writer. Even if I didn’t know it was semi-autobiographical, I can spot the same because of the intimacy of the language. The short novel furthers my interest in Ōe’s works. I was saddened to hear of his passing last March 3.
Author: Kenzaburō Ōe
Translator (from Japanese): John Nathan
Publishing Date: January 1, 1995 (January 1, 1964)
Number of Pages: 165
In this, his most famous book Ōe examines the devastation, fear, and shame of fathering a brain-damaged child. The central character is Bird, a frustrated intellectual in a failing marriage, who dreams of an escaped to Africa. The magnitude of Bird’s disappointment at the birth of his baby reveals itself through his alcoholism, sexual exploits, and attempts to destroy his own innocent and powerless son, until finally he realizes that he must take responsibility not only for the child, but also for himself.
About the Author
To learn more about the recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, Kenzaburō Ōe (大江 健三郎), click here.