Friday, January 18, 2008

Book Review: A Personal Matter

Kenzaburo Oe’s novel A Personal Matter is one that is both private and traumatic. It details the life of Bird, a 27-year-old college dropout whose wife has just given birth to a deformed son. The child has a brain hernia, which means that even if he does live, he will most likely be a vegetable all his life. It would appear to Bird that the answer is obvious – let the child die, as opposed to dealing with the shame of having given birth to a monster. This sentiment is reflected in the view of his in-laws as well as the doctors at the hospital at which the baby is born. But then a divide occurs at the second, specialist hospital – those doctors want to keep the baby alive, and want to go so far as to perform an operation. Bird struggles with himself, trying to decide what to do – does he let the baby die? Or allow it to live, knowing it may never lead a normal life?

To me, this novel depicts the schizophrenia of a post-war Japan, with Western culture and traditions trying to bully their way in. Bird’s attitude is that there is no point in the child living if something is wrong with it. His shame is compounded by the way his mother-in-law treats him, and affirmed by the doctors in the first hospital. One of the doctors actually encourages him to take control and not allow the doctors in the second hospital to operate, saying that it is his choice. But in the second hospital, there is a more Western view – they feel that the life of the child must be prolonged no matter what. This is the attitude that is given, much to Bird’s chagrin.

Unable to face this problem alone, Bird seeks out an old girlfriend and holes up with her, giving in to alcohol and continuing to fight with himself to come to a decision. Would he rather let his misshapen son die rather than prolong the life of something that would cause him some much personal shame if others discovered it?

Distracted and tempted by the idea of letting the child die and running off to Africa, his life-long dream (well, the Africa part; I doubt it was his life-long dream to let his deformed child die), Bird stares into the face of his own mortality and the path he has chosen in life. Does he do what is responsible; does he save the life of the child and dedicate his life to him? Or does he run away from this problem, risking the chance that he may never stop running once he starts?

I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I’ll stop there. Bird is one of the most compelling, conflicted characters I have ever grown attached to. I was surprised and pleased with the ending of the book. I highly recommend it, especially for anyone interested in Japanese culture and/or modern Japanese literature.

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