Having meandered across a few fantastic books written by Japanese authors, I recently decided to be more purposeful in reading books from Japanese authors. A quick search on the internet quickly brought me to Kenzaburo Oe. Without reading the synopsis on the cover which I never really do before reading the book in full , I checked the book out of the library and dove in. The book begins with a man, Bird, who has dreams and aspirations of traveling to Africa, but whose wife is presently giving birth to a child. The child would make such a journey to Africa financially impossible.
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Kenzaburo Oe has both. The novel ends on an affirmative note as the hero realizes that he cannot run away from reality but must accept life as it is in the real world.
Its urban surroundings, the classless misfits that populate it, and its vivid sexual descriptions make it seem socially and thematically similar to its Occidental counterparts. The salesgirls paid no attention, their arms and necks goosepimpled where the uniform blouses exposed them. Evening was deepening, and the fever of early summer, like the temperature of a dead giant, had dropped completely from the covering air.
People moved as if groping in the dimness of the subconscious for the memory of midday warmth that lingered faintly in the skin: people heaved ambiguous sighs. June—half-past six: by now not a man in the city was sweating.
Shuddering, Bird peered at the details of the map. The ocean surrounding Africa was inked in the teary blue of a winter sky at dawn. The continent itself resembled the skull of a man who had hung his head. With doleful, downcast eyes, a man with a huge head was gazing at Australia, land of the koala, the platypus, and the kangaroo. The miniature Africa indicating population distribution in a lower corner of the map was like a dead head beginning to decompose; another, veined with transportation routes, was a skinned head with the capillaries painfully exposed.
Both these little Africas suggested unnatural death, raw and violent. The map Bird had been sighing over was a page in a ponderous, leather-bound atlas intended to decorate a coffee table. If he included the money he could pick up as a part-time interpreter, he might manage in three months.
But Bird had himself and his wife to support, and now the existence on its way into life that minute. Bird was the head of a family! The salesgirl selected two of the red paperbound maps and placed them on the counter.
Her hands were small and soiled, the meagerness of her fingers recalled chameleon legs clinging to a shrub. But these were maps he would put to an important use.
Why was it always open to the Africa page? Did the manager suppose the map of Africa was the most beautiful page in the book? But Africa was in a process of dizzying change that would quickly outdate any map. And since the corrosion that began with Africa would eat away the entire volume, opening the book to the Africa page amounted to advertising the obsoleteness of the rest. What you needed was a map that could never be outdated because political configurations were settled.
Would you choose America, then? North America, that is? Bird interrupted himself to pay for the maps, then moved down the aisle to the stairs, passing with lowered eyes between a potted tree and a corpulent bronze nude.
Bird had glimpsed the doctor and the nurses scrubbing their arms with disinfectant next to the table where his wife had been lying naked.
Bird carefully slipped his maps into his jacket pocket and pressed them against his side as he pushed past the crowded magazine counter and headed for the door. These were the first maps he had purchased for actual use in Africa. Uneasily he wondered if the day would ever come when he actually set foot on African soil and gazed through dark sunglasses at the African sky.
Or was he losing, this very minute, once and for all, any chance he might have had of setting out for Africa? Was he being forced to say good-by, in spite of himself, to the single and final occasion of dazzling tension in his youth? And what if I am? Bird angrily pushed through the door and stepped into the early summer evening street. The sidewalk seemed bound in fog: it was the filthiness of the air and the fading evening light. Bird paused to gaze at himself in the wide, darkly shadowed display window.
He was aging with the speed of a short-distance runner. Bird, twenty-seven years and four months old. He was small and thin. His friends had begun to put on weight the minute they graduated from college and took a job—even those who stayed lean had fattened up when they got married; but Bird, except for the slight paunch on his belly, remained as skinny as ever.
He slouched forward when he walked and bunched his shoulders around his neck; his posture was the same when he was standing still.
Like an emaciated old man who once had been an athlete. His tan, sleek nose thrust out of his face like a beak and hooked sharply toward the ground. His eyes gleamed with a hard, dull light the color of glue and almost never displayed emotion, except occasionally to shutter open as though in mild surprise.
His thin, hard lips were always stretched tightly across his teeth; the lines from his high cheekbones to his chin described a sharply pointed V. And hair licking at the sky like ruddy tongues of flame. This was a fair description of Bird at fifteen: nothing had changed at twenty. How long would he continue to look like a bird? No choice but living with the same face and posture from fifteen to sixty-five, was he that kind of person? Then the image he was observing in the window glass was a composite of his entire life.
Bird shuddered, seized with disgust so palpable it made him want to vomit. What a revelation: exhausted, with a horde of children, old, senile Bird. Feeling as though a monster were stalking him from behind, Bird finally wheeled around. The woman stopped in front of him and peered into his face gravely. Bird stared back. A second later, he saw the hard, pointed urgency in her eyes washing away in the waters of mournful indifference.
Though she may not have known its precise nature, the woman had been on the verge of discovering a bond of mutual interest, and had realized abruptly that Bird was not an appropriate partner in the bond. In the same moment, Bird perceived the abnormality in her face which, with its frame of curly, overabundant hair, reminded him of a Fra Angelico angel: he noticed in particular the blond hairs which a razor had missed on her upper lip.
The hairs had breached a wall of thick make-up and they were quivering as though distressed. The greeting conveyed consternation at her own rash mistake. It was a charming thing to say. The transvestite executed a half-turn on his high heels and walked slowly down the street.
For a minute Bird watched him go, then walked away in the other direction. He cut through a narrow alley and cautiously, warily started across a wide street fretted with trolley tracks. Even the hysterical caution which now and then seized Bird with the violence of a spasm evoked a puny bird half-crazed with fear—the nickname was a perfect fit.
That queen saw me watching my reflection in the window as if I were waiting for someone, and he mistook me for a pervert. Now he was enjoying the humor of the confrontation. Bird felt a surge of affection for the young man masquerading as a large woman.
Would he succeed in turning up a pervert tonight and making him a pigeon? Maybe I should have found the courage to go with him myself. Bird was still imagining what might have happened had he gone off with the young man to some crazy corner of the city, when he gained the opposite sidewalk and turned into a crowded street of cheap bars and restaurants. We would probably lie around naked, as close as brothers, and talk. Because a youth who tries so hard to be faithful to the warp in himself that he ends up searching the street in drag for perverts, a young man like that must have eyes and ears and a heart exquisitely sensitive to the fear that roots in the backlands of the subconscious.
Tomorrow morning we might have shaved together while we listened to the news on the radio, sharing a soap dish. Spending a night together might be going too far, but at least he should have invited the young man for a drink. 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. Pivoting his head swiftly on his long, lean neck, he inspected the bars on both sides of the street.
In fact, he had no intention of stopping in any of them. Bird could imagine how his mother-in-law would react if he arrived at the bedside of his wife and newborn child, reeking of whisky. He loved the old man, and he was in awe of him. Bird married in May when he was twenty-five, and that first summer he stayed drunk for four weeks straight.
He suddenly began to drift on a sea of alcohol, a besotted Robinson Crusoe. Neglecting all his obligations as a graduate student, his job, his studies, discarding everything without a thought, Bird sat all day long and until late every night in the darkened kitchen of his apartment, listening to records and drinking whisky. Four weeks later Bird had revived from an agonizing seven-hundred-hour drunk to discover in himself, wretchedly sober, the desolation of a city ravaged by the fires of war.
He was like a mental incompetent with only the slightest chance of recovery, but he had to tame all over again not only the wilderness inside himself, but the wilderness of his relations to the world outside.
He withdrew from graduate school and asked his father-in-law to find him a teaching position. Now, two years later, he was waiting for his wife to have their first child. Let him appear at the hospital having sullied his blood with the poisons of alcohol once again and his mother-in-law would flee as if the hounds of hell were at her heels, dragging her daughter and grandchild with her. Bird himself was wary of the craving, occult but deeply rooted, that he still had for alcohol.
Often since those four weeks in whisky hell he had asked himself why he had stayed drunk for seven hundred hours, and never had he arrived at a conclusive answer. So long as his descent into the abyss of whisky remained a riddle, there was a constant danger he might suddenly return. This suggests that life in this beautiful country is still lacking something fundamental. Basic dissatisfactions are still driving the African villagers to despair and self-abandon.
But they existed, he was certain, so he was careful to deny himself alcohol. Bird emerged in the square at the back of the honky-tonk district, where the clamor and motion seemed to focus. Bird had been telephoning his mother-in-law at the hospital every hour since three that afternoon.
A Personal Matter
Kenzaburo Oe has both. The novel ends on an affirmative note as the hero realizes that he cannot run away from reality but must accept life as it is in the real world. Its urban surroundings, the classless misfits that populate it, and its vivid sexual descriptions make it seem socially and thematically similar to its Occidental counterparts. The salesgirls paid no attention, their arms and necks goosepimpled where the uniform blouses exposed them.
Written in , the novel is semi-autobiographical and dark in tone. It tells the story of Bird, a man who must come to terms with the birth of his mentally disabled son. Plot[ edit ] The plot follows the story of Bird, a 27 year old Japanese man. The book starts with him wondering about a hypothetical trip to Africa, which is a recurrent theme in his mind throughout the story. Soon after day-dreaming about his trip and a brawl with a few local delinquents from the region, Bird receives a call from the doctor of the hospital regarding his newborn child, urging him to talk in person. After meeting with the doctor, he discovers that his son has been born with a brain hernia , although the fact is still obscure to his wife. Bird is troubled by the revelation, and regrets having to inform the relatives of his wife about the facts concerning the state of the child, who is not expected to survive for long.
Shelves: nobel-laureates , cherished , melancholia , human-drama , asian-literature , and-more , novellas-short-novels-short-stories , nihon-ga-suki , adoration , existentialism-absurdism Reading A Personal Matter is nothing less than an agonizing experience. It almost feels like somebody poking at and opening up our most secret, suppurating, psychological wounds and making them bleed all over again, thereby compelling us to wake up to the realization of their existence. These scars and bruises make their presence known time and again by causing us pain of the highest order. And so we proceed to wrap them up in the protective wadding of false pretensions, carefully hiding them Reading A Personal Matter is nothing less than an agonizing experience. And so we proceed to wrap them up in the protective wadding of false pretensions, carefully hiding them away from the scrutiny of the rest of the world and more importantly, ourselves. He also forces us to acknowledge its perpetuity, accept it and achieve a state of harmony with it. With every turn of a page, we find ourselves plunging deeper into the bottomless pit of shame, self-loathing and sheer grief along with Bird, our protagonist.