Posted by: Sally Ingraham | July 30, 2010

A Personal Matter

a personal matterby Kenzaburo Oe
translated by John Nathan

Bird wasn’t sure he wanted to be a father, especially if it meant (and how could it not?) pushing his dream of exploring Africa into the very distant future. He was nearly positive that he didn’t want to be the father of a monster-baby, a baby hideously mis-formed and most likely brain damaged. Did he have to keep it? At the expense of his marriage and his personal integrity, couldn’t he just quietly let it die?

This book takes an intimate look at a few days in the life of a 27 year old man who is facing one of the more terrifying moments in life – the birth of his first child. Bird, intellectuality frustrated and beaten down by the complexities of Japanese society, finds himself facing a series of impossible decisions. Whiskey doesn’t succeed in drowning his troubles, and the comforts of an old lover only complicates matters.

Bird is an amazing character who is by turns a sympathetic antihero, and a sad excuse for humanity. I wouldn’t say that I liked him, but I could for the most part see where he was coming from and relate to his fear. My mind reels at the thought of how I would face a similar circumstance. At times I found his thoughts and choices totally despicable, but his frailty and despair made him very real to me.

Oe gets a lot of points for style. His writing is very interesting – lots of striking imagery and turns of phrase that were unexpected and vibrant. I was swept along by his prose, even if the story itself didn’t grip me. I didn’t like the book particularly, even though the writing was very appealing to me and I can appreciate Oe’s unflinching portrayal.

This was our July pick for the non-structured book group, and on a last note, it is interesting to compare this example of the contradictions found in the human reaction to life, with Josipovici’s examination of it in Moo Pak, last month’s read. Hmmm. Always a fascinating, if often uncomfortable, topic.

Next month we’ll be reading In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams. Join us? Discussion will be on the last Friday of the month.


  1. I included myself in your non-structured group reading, as I have for several months now, and found this such a fascinating book. I, too, was struck by the vibrancy of his writing; sentences which struck with all the force of a hammer into my heart. So powerful.

    This line of yours, “At times I found his thoughts and choices totally despicable, but his frailty and despair made him very real to me.” also completely resonated with me.

    It was a great read, and I’m so glad for the redemption we found at the end.

    • I was actually surprised by the resolution – I wasn’t expecting it to end well. I guess I didn’t think he’d really go through with it, but something about the ending felt too tidy. Anyway, it was definitely the style of the writing that intrigued me the most, and I think I’ll probably look for more of his books in the future. Thanks for joining us, Bellezza – always very glad to have you. 🙂

  2. I included myself in the reading for this month as well.

    A Personal Matter made quite an impact on me, and like you I found myself wondering what I would have done in the situation. Like Bellezza, I am glad for the redemption at the end of the book. I don’t think I would have been able to go from a dislike of the character to a respect for the author without it. Even if, and I know it is, that has to do with my personal failure of not being able to deal with a book that describes such a character.

    • I haven’t gotten a chance to read your post yet, but I’m glad you’re joining us! I had a lot of trouble with Bird as well, but issues like the ones that Emily points to in her review help me to understand him better. I’m having a little issue with the idea of his redemption at the end though – I didn’t really feel that way about it. Not sure exactly how I feel, but I didn’t like the ending…

  3. […] post is hardly as perceptive as the others are bound to be, so be sure to take a look at what the other participants […]

  4. I agree with you that Oe’s prose is compelling, especially in light of the other book of his I’ve read, which, though it deals with related subject matter, has a COMPLETELY different but equally well-realized tone. I thought the creepy menacing atmosphere around Bird was very well-done, although like others I definitely didn’t like him as a person, and at times found the book hard to like as a result. I thought it had interesting things to say about the post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki generation, though – Bird is just kind of living this traditional life from which he feels totally disconnected. In that sense I’m not sure if the ending is redemptive or not – it kind of just seems like he gives in. (Even though I was obviously relieved for the baby’s sake.)

    • I’m with you on the relief for the sake of the baby part, but also like you I don’t think the ending is about redemption. It DID seem like Bird just gave in – didn’t have the courage/cowardice to go through with it, which points to the passivity in his character. Submitting to all those social pressures, etc. Not necessarily a good thing for him, or the rest of his life, or his child really either. I don’t feel hopeful for him…

  5. I couldn’t get a copy of A Personal Matter so I read Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!.

    Honestly, Oe’s prose didn’t do anything for me and I had a difficult time getting into the story. Maybe A Personal Matter is a better book but I’m not sure Oe’s an author I’ll be reading again anytime soon.

    • Yeah, I’m feeling less and less interested in reading more of his work…!

  6. I’m probably done with Oë, Sarah! Didn’t really care for his prose and didn’t like the one dimensional characters or that ever so tidy ending you mentioned. The sad thing is that I really liked the premise of this novel and felt that the first two chapters or so were loaded with promise. Glad that you (and the rest of the group so far) liked A Personal Matter much more than I did, but I actually found it laughable in parts b/c it was so over the top!

    • I did like the first part of the book the best, now that I think about it. While Bird was wandering about on his own, he was so compelling – once he started interacting with others I found him less interesting and somewhat ridiculous. Interesting. At least you can make room on your TBR list by crossing Oe off for the future! 🙂

  7. Like Richard, I really liked the premise of this book but was completely underwhelmed by the execution including what I saw as a pat and unsatisfying ending. If we are talking alienation in extreme terms like these, I would almost prefer it to run its course to a similarly extreme conclusion. I might be done with Oe too.

    • YES! The ending was too cute. Like you, I think it would have been more satisfying if the result of it all had been more extreme, terrible as that might be. But since the author was drawing on personal experiences, I guess the ending had to be sympathetic.

  8. I was OK with the book until the ending. It completely fell apart for me there. But I agree about his use of language–he’s a vivid, interesting writer.

    • I’ve been going back and forth over whether or not I’ll try him again. Today I feel like yes, he was an interesting read and perhaps I’ll try him again. Yesterday I was thinking about permanently crossing him off my TBR list. Good thing no one will hold me to my word on this kind of thing! I’ll see what happens.

  9. I also didn’t particularly like the book. In fact, very disappointed because I really thought I would love it. Oh well. But there are things in it I liked, although mostly I was indifferent. I still am very interested in Oe’s other works though, despite this. It’s because of a positive experience I’ve had with Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age where I really loved his writing and the atmosphere of the book. (Even thought EL really disliked it, as she said above. To each his own. :D)

    • Indifferent is a good word for how I felt while reading, although like Richard I thought the first couple of chapters were really good. I may try Oe again someday…

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