A Personal Matter
by Kenzaburo Oe

A Review by Scott finished April 4, 2010

This review will contain spoilers!

In many sentences:

I don't remember ever being as disgusted with the main character in a book as I was with Bird. How could he, upon seeing his new son, not want to do everything possible to take care of him? How could his first thought be to free himself from his new son? How could he refer to him, throughout the book, as a monstrosity? The only thing that keeps me from outright hating Bird is that he, ultimately, does what should have been the only option from the very beginning. This, however, does not excuse Bird for the days of despicable behavior. However, frustratingly, it does prevent me from hating him. Instead, I just think he is disgusting.

I really had a hard time reading this book. As a young father myself (also 27 when my son was born), I simply could not relate to Bird and his actions. At the same time, I'm the father of a healthy, happy little boy, not a baby with an apparent brain hernia. Granted, I don't think I would behave as deplorably as Bird does, but it did make me think about how hard it must be.

From what I understand, Oe himself has a mentally handicapped son, and that was part of the motivation for writing this book. Though I don't think Bird behaved in any way like Bird, I do think Bird may have represented how Oe felt about his own doubts. Consider this: a young father is faced with the future of raising a mentally handicapped child. He loves his new son, but he is frightened and confused by the demands that such a child will place upon him. Maybe he even wishes he were free from this burden. Not in any cruel way, but merely out of understandable selfishness.

Over time, he realizes that these obstacles don't matter, but when he reflects on his initial reaction, he is guilt stricken. Isn't it possible that such a man could write a book in which his own initial fears are so exaggerated to symbolize the author's own guilt over his own fears? I don't know that any of this is accurate, but it makes sense. Bird is not Oe, instead he is how Oe sees his own early fear. It is disgusting, deplorable, and he hates it. It doesn't matter that the right decision was made in the end (which makes sense considering it takes up on 2 of 165 pages), because Bird behaved horribly upon first getting the news. Oe is guilt ridden, and so he writes this book to release that guilt, at least slightly.

When I consider the book like this, it is impressive artistically. Despite that, however, it is not a pleasant experience. Oe makes Bird so real in his horribleness that you honestly hate him for 163 pages. You don't hate him in the very end, but you don't respect or sympathize with him very much either. He didn't act nobly or courageously - he just did the barest minimum required of him. Oe's ability to capture this is impressive, but not enjoyable.

An aspect of this book I didn't enjoy in particular was the graphic nature of the sex. I understand, thematically, why the sex was present. It was clearly a symbol for Bird's desperate attempt to place his shame upon another (Himiko), as well as to deceive himself from what he must do. This is even stated explicitly when Himiko says: "...I was a sexual refuge from your anxiety and from your shame" (142). Ultimately, I don't mind that it's present, I just wish it wasn't so painfully graphic. Sometimes less is more, and I think this would certainly have been such a situation.

One part of the book gives particular insight into Bird's character. When having an argument with Himiko, he says to her that the situation he is in with the baby is an entirely "personal matter" (120). This shows, better than anything else, just how selfish he is. Bird completely ignores everyone else the life of the baby will impact (the baby himself, the mother, the grandparents, the doctor's he asks to help kill him instead of save him) because all he can consider is how the baby will prevent him from having a normal life, and will keep him from travelling to Africa.

Finally, the book ends with Bird saying he will look up the word "forbearance", implying that this word will replace his current nickname of Bird. What significance could this have? I think there are a few things this could mean. First of all, it could be forbearance in the sense that he must now refrain from his trip to Africa. In addition, it could be more ironic, and could be meant to serve as a reminder to Bird that the patient endurance that was required of him when he learned the truth of his son's ailment. It could also be meant to serve as a constant reminder that he must have this quality going forward. Regardless, I thought this was a clever way to end the book, because it reveals much about the future of the protagonist in a subtle, reflective way.

Something I just thought of is that this book could be a "parallel world" to the decision Oe actually made when he learned about his own son. Himiko introduces the idea of parallel worlds at the momentous occasions in their lives. Maybe this is Oe's "parallel world" for a man who was very nearly willing to allow his sown to die?

This book is definitely not for everyone. The craft behind it is impressive, but Bird's behavior is so disgusting that no one will find pleasure in reading it. However, if you enjoy reading books that are disturbing in this sense, you will probably enjoy this book as well. In that sense, it is recommended. However, in general, this is not a recommended read. It is an ugly book - the very opposite of the beauty you will find in a work like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Approach with caution.

Favorite Quote

"But it seems that reality compels you to live properly when you live in the real world."

Kenzaburo Oe in A Personal Matter

First Line

"Bird, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a short sigh."

Kenzaburo Oe the First Line of A Personal Matter

Last Line

"Bird intended to look up forebearance."

Kenzaburo Oe the Last Line of in A Personal Matter

Originally Published Jan. 1, 1964

Paperback edition:

165 pages - Jan. 13, 1994

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