Book Review: A Personal Matter by Ôe Kenzaburô

oeA Personal Matter is an autobiographical novel of the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburô Ôe about his son Hikari.

Bird, 27 years old, a teacher at a prep school is becoming a father of a child with brain hernia. The new-born baby has a huge swelling on his head.

At the hospital the doctors state that the child has little chance to survive and if, it would be living like a “plant”. Totally shocked by this news and deeply affected by seeing his little son at the ward, Bird is devastated.

The little child is wearing a bandage around his head, he looks like the wounded Appollinaire with his huge turban. The picture of the son is haunting him and he cannot bear the pain. An undescribable pain in his heart.

The doctors are somewhat cruel: they laugh about the baby and their comments let Bird feel humiliated.

The child is going to be transferred to a special clinic for a necessary brain operation, but Bird is unable to make any reasonable decision about the operation.

In the past Bird experienced alcoholic excesses and periods of depression. His fears about raising the baby overwhelm him now and he tends to fall back into his old behavior.

The following days he spends his time with a female friend of his student years, whereas his wife is staying in hospital. Under the guidance of her mother she is totally unaware of the illness of the child. I do not know, if this could be possible, but this is the story.

The following days are driven by pain, waiting for a message of the hospital. Can the baby survive and if, how will be their living afterwards?

Bird not knowing what to do and in need of help drives directly to Himiko, a former friend of University days. She is a single woman, who sleeps at days and drives around in a red MG at night. She is the chosen person to drink with him the bottle of whisky Bird‘s father in law gave him, after he had heard the message of the new-born child.

Bird spends several days at Himiko‘s house, during waiting for the news. We hear the inner dialogue of Bird, get to know his hurting struggle, the feelings of guilt, shame and mixed feelings. He thinks about his marriage, responsibility and everything seems to be too much of a burden for him.

But every time he goes to the hospital, he feels a strong impetus, he has to make a decision and yet he is irrational, loses control.

The story goes on. Bird goes through further humiliating experiences during his alcoholic excesses … in the end he makes his decision.

The narration is an autobiographical confession without sparing shameful experiences. It is a deep moving story about a man, who has to face a sudden tragedy and about his ways of handling it.

Kenzaburô Ôe‘s son Hikari is today living with him and his wife. I think, it was very daring of the author to write this story, because it is very provocative. His writing style is lively and full of metaphors. It is an extraordinary moving novel.

大江 健三郎. 個人的な体験 (Kojinteki na taiken) 1964. Kenzaburô Ôe: A Personal Matter.

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