Two months ago I decided that I wanted to join in on one of the reads for the Non-Structured Book Group. I always enjoy reading the insightful post of those who participate. I joined in on reading A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe this month. Of course, my post is hardly as perceptive as the others are bound to be, so be sure to take a look at what the other participants said.
Because the cover summary sums it up so much better than I can:
“A Personal Matter is the story of Bird, a frustrated intellectual in a failed marriage whose utopian dream is shattered when his wife gives birth to a brain-damaged child.”
Actually, the reader learns of the birth of the child on page 15. And the ensuing pages portray Bird’s attempts to cope with the news. Except that he doesn’t. Cope, I mean. He flees his wife, his baby and his family and takes up drinking and an affair. Bird might sound like a sympathetic character from that summary, but he isn’t. He is selfish, caught up in his own misery and definitely feels like a character who is stuck in his earlier teenage or student years. He may be married, but he isn’t an adult.
I struggled with this book. There was something in it that compelled me to keep reading, but all the same I wasn’t enjoying it. Part of the difficulty was Bird’s voice and behaviour: calling a baby a monster? But it was more than that. There is a bleakness to the life of Bird that I found it hard to deal with.
“In a world shared by all those others, time was passing, mankind’s one and only time, and a destiny apprehended the world over as one and the same destiny was taking evil shape. Bird, on the other hand, was answerable only to the baby in the basket on his lap, to the monster who governed his personal destiny.”
And that bleakness is not limited to Bird, it is everywhere. There is a strange sense of alienation in every character involved in the story. Is this a story about the after effects of WWII? Is it a story of alienation in the Cold War? Is it supposed to portray the bleakness of modern living? Somehow, I couldn’t come to terms with it. It was too much. There is simply no joy left in life, if you look at it the way it is portrayed in this book. Even sex is only escapism, and not so much escapism but a mechanical violent act.
*** MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
But then those last ten pages. They saved the book for me, restored common sense a little. It was like waking from a bad dream, realising that it was all a portrayal of an author and not reality. I understand that some might think that the change is too sudden, too much like trying to wrap everything up in the end which might make it unrealistic. But for me it redeemed the story, helped me put it all into perspective. It helped me to take a step back and look at these themes of alienation. It helped me realise why exactly I had been so uncomfortable with the book before that. And without it, I don’t think I could have written what I have written about it here. I would have been too caught up in my dislike of Bird. Not that he ever changes into a likeable person, but it didn’t disturb me so much anymore.
“As a matter of fact, I kept trying to run away. And I almost did. But it seems that reality compels you to live properly when you live in the real world. I mean, even if you intend to get yourself caught in a trap of deception, you find somewhere along the line that your own choice is to avoid it.” Bird was surprised at the muted resentment in his voice. “That’s what I’ve found anyway.”
*** END OF SPOILERS ***
A Personal Matter is a difficult and intense read. I didn’t expect to say this while reading the first 140 pages, but even though I had difficulty with it, the book makes a worthwhile read as well. Plus, there are beautifully written passages even if it is hard to see at first, because of the themes.