Kenzaburo Oe: 個人的な体験 (A Personal Matter)
A Personal Matter is a semi-autobiographical novel about the birth of Oe’s son, Hikari, who was born with a brain hernia. Oe quickly realised that he had to do what he could to help his son who is now an adult and, while still handicapped and unable to speak much, has become an accomplished musician.
The novel is the story of Bird (a childhood nickname which has stuck with him), a not very successful”crammer” teacher. He is an alcoholic, which causes him to lose his job and during the course of the book, is planning to leave his wife, after”disposing” of his deformed child and go to Africa (a longtime dream) with an old (female) friend. Of course, he does not, as we know.
This could easily have become a sentimental book about a father gradually realising his responsibility towards his handicapped child. It is not. Indeed, it is not till the end that he does so, planning all the while to have the child die while he himself tries to grasp hold of who he is. He tries to find who he is with a bottle of Johnnie Walker, which costs him his job, with his friend, Himiko, an old friend whose husband killed himself and now drives around at night in her red MG, and with his dream of going to Africa. Himiko, with whom he had once had sex many years ago (her first time, though he did not know that) is also adrift, going from man to man, not doing much of anything with her life and she hopes to make sense of her life by going to Africa with Bird.
But in the end it is not Himiko, nor his wife, nor his dream of Africa, nor his job, nor Mr. Delchef, the attaché of a small Balkan country who deserts his post for a Japanese woman, nor his in-laws, nor the Johnnie Walker, that brings him down to Earth. If anyone tells him which way to go, it is his old friend who now runs a gay bar, who tells him he is trying to run away. And it is his son, the son he has been trying to get rid of, the son who is a monster, a vegetable, that shows him what he has to do. The son does not have a brain hernia but he does have a brain tumour, which means he will probably not be”normal” and that Bird will have to find another job, maybe as a tourist guide. As Himiko sails off to Zanzibar, Bird drops the nickname Bird and starts his new life.
First published by Shinchosha, Showa in 1964
Translated by John Nathan