Oe, Kenzaburo Entries

A Personal Matter


WARNING: May contain triggers for those who have experienced rape.

I've written before about how novellas sometimes sneak up on me, taking a while to build up and becoming truly engaging just as they're about to end. I suppose that one sure-fire way to avoid this syndrome is to start your novella like Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter: full-throttle intensity from the first page, when the atmosphere of subtly grotesque alienation is already fully developed, and the reader seems to be thrust down into the midst of an interpersonal wound of a situation—one that that has obviously been festering for some time. Long before the protagonist Bird hears the news, on page 15, that there is something abnormal about the baby his wife has been laboring for hours to deliver, it's already plain that he perceives the world around him in a skewed and deeply estranged way. The most ordinary details around him, such as the "small and soiled" hands of a cashier, "the meagerness of her fingers recall[ing] chameleon legs clinging to a shrub," or the "mean sky that seemed ashamed, roughly violated by clouds like galloping shaggy dogs," suggest a grotesqueness, a fun-house quality that constantly prevents Bird from getting his bearings or even keeping his balance. His dreams are vivid and disturbing, and his life has the quality of a dream as well: seemingly stalled at an emotional age of about fourteen, he has somehow ended up married to a woman he seems hardly to know and to whom he feels little connection, with a job he dreams of chucking and fleeing to Africa, and he wakes up one morning after a fistfight with a gang of street toughs to discover that he is the father of baby with a severely malformed brain.

A Personal Matter is the story of a man's coming to terms with his deformed baby, but writing out the plot like that suggests a very different book than the one Oe has actually written. For one thing, it implies that Bird is a sympathetic character: who could withhold sympathy from a man who has just suffered such a horrendous blow? But in fact Oe's protagonist is deeply unsympathetic—a result, of course, of his own inability to feel love, connection, or sympathy with anyone around him. A more alienated (in the sociological sense) character I've seldom read: not only does Bird seem to lack any loyalty to or love for his wife, son, and family, but he has fantasies about extremely violent and taboo actions (like killing his mistress and raping her dead body, for example, not to mention the central conflict of the book: whether he will kill what he considers his "monster baby" or raise it as a son). Unsurprisingly, he also has the classic feeling of enacting a role, that all actions left to him are empty performances and that no mode of behavior has any "reality":

Bird turned around, as if to make certain of an escape route: paused along the dim corridor, young women in their nightgowns were peering at him through the dimness. Bird considered scowling back but he merely shook his head weakly and turned his back, then gave a timid knock at the door. He was performing the role of the young husband who has been visited by sudden misfortune.

But it's not just Bird. The whole society in which he lives is similarly alienated. His mother-in-law actively encourages Bird to lie to his wife (her daughter) about what's wrong with the baby, and to encourage it to weaken and die, because otherwise (as she says), her "little girl will never agree to have another child." Honesty and the mental health of the wife/daughter/mother take second place to the vague cultural mandate that a woman should produce multiple babies; the behavior I expect from a woman's own mother is turned on its head. Similarly, in one of the most grotesque scenes in the novella, the doctor at the hospital where Bird's baby is born refuses even to refer to him as an infant, instead scoffing when Bird announces that he is "the father," asking whether Bird wants to "see the goods" (meaning his son), and giggling as he informs the Bird that his son appears to have two heads. At every possible turn, the people in the society depicted desert, betray, and fail to connect with one another; and while this doesn't make Bird's behavior likable, it at least provides a context in which to place him. As much as I might be repulsed by Bird at times, it is hard to come up with a more logical or compassionate mode of behavior, when everyone around him is also so alienated and even vindictive.

Oe does a good job of keeping the onus of Bird's complexes and dubious behaviors on his own shoulders, while at the same time examining the external factors at play. It becomes plain, about halfway through the novella, that one of the main sources of this society-wide disorientation is the outcome of World War II and the role of the nuclear bomb in ending it. Set in 1961, and involving Kruschev's announcement of the Soviet resumption of nuclear testing which eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, A Personal Matter is also dealing with an overtly political matter: the devastating consequences of 200,000 dead and a traditional way of life shattered, with no viable alternative yet developed. Bird and those around him continue to act their parts, perform their roles as more or less traditional members of society (marrying, having children) despite the fact that those roles have lost their power to provide meaningful self-definition for those who practice them. The people of Bird's generation have been defined by a huge event which they nevertheless were too young to actively affect or understand:

If he had ever been to war, Bird thought often, he would have been able to say definitely whether he was a brave type. This had occurred to him before fights and before his entrance examinations, even before his marriage. And always he had regretted not having a definite answer. Even his longing to test himself in the wilds of Africa which opposed the ordinary was excited by his feeling that he might discover in the process his own private war.

Bird is defined by war, but has never been to war; he has never grown up, but is somehow a father in his late 20s. As much as I was sometimes very put off by the violence and alienation of Bird's consciousness, I think I understood the root and necessity of them by the end of the novella. It was harder work to like this book than Oe's 1990 novel A Quiet Life (the only other book by him I've read), and definitely harder to like its protagonist, but in the end I found it at least equally powerful.

And speaking of A Quiet Life, the contrast between the two books was fascinating. One could argue that both novels are thinly-veiled autobiography, but the events of A Personal Matter take place thirty years earlier, and whereas the earlier work is told from a limited third-person perspective focused on the young Bird, the later one (narrated in first-person by the Bird-like character's daughter) presents him character at a vast remove, a delicate yet enigmatic father-figure whose for whose periodic breakdowns every character has a different explanation. The atmospheres of the two books, though similar in their masterful craftsmanship, are likewise radically different, for while Ma-Chan lives in a more or less benign environment (bad things happen, but her existence is more or less quiet and thoughtful), Bird's world is so fraught with menace that he can barely step outside without being threatened by something or someone. In A Quiet Life, the wild lack of any foothold has been replaced with a semi-distant but nonetheless caring, engaged family life, and the mystery behind Ma-chan's father's persistent melancholia is a somewhat intellectual one. On the contrary, Bird can hardly get his breath in his surroundings, let alone think calmly or selflessly enough to engage in a passionate conversation about Vonnegut or Céline. Although I was initially wary when I heard that Oe returns again and again, in his novels, to the theme of his brain-damaged son, I'm now very intrigued and eager to read more of his novels, to explore the different angles from which he approaches his repeated subject.


A Personal Matter was the July pick for the Non-Structured Book Group; join us in August for In the American Grain, by William Carlos Williams.

A Quiet Life


In a piece of remarkable serendipity, I happened upon A Quiet Life at Powell's just after reading Claire's post about the authors she planned to read for the Japanese Literature Challenge. Knowing the lady has taste, I picked it up and started reading. I got through the first chapter in the store, bought it, came home and devoured the rest of it over the course of three days, letting it eclipse any other reading I might have been doing. I've been reading a lot of the bizarre and macabre lately, and the understated, minimally-drawn yet intimate realism of A Quiet Life felt like exactly the contrast I needed. It's always such a gift to happen upon something so precisely calculated to resonate with my mood at a particular juncture, and when it happens I always try to welcome it with open arms.

Two things really made this book for me: the quality of the writing, and my warm liking for the main character, Ma-chan. The plot, which is apparently an artful mixture of fiction and autobiography, concerns the three adult children of a famous Japanese author, K, who retreats to a temporary post at UC-Berkeley to deal with one of his recurring existential crises (which he calls "pinches.") His wife accompanies him, leaving the three kids, the eldest of whom (Eeyore) is brain-damaged, to fend for themselves. They are all making their ways through that liminal space between adolescence and adulthood, and the quietly-narrated events of the year or so in which they live alone in their parents' house serve to deliver them a bit closer to realizing who they are as human beings.

I've seen several reviews that claim this book is essentially written from Oe's (or K's) own perspective, and only "ostensibly" narrated by his daughter, Ma-chan, who is used as something like a smokescreen. I didn't find this to be the case at all. Ma-chan, for me, is vividly her own person, and I feel a great deal of wamth and tenderness toward her. It's been a while since I've read a book whose main character I flat-out liked as much as I like Ma-chan. She's struggling with all the universal difficulties of being 20 and figuring out what kind of adult she's going to be, and, as a young Japanese woman, she's been socialized in the importance of filial piety, respect for her elders, and some degree of submissiveness. These things are genuinely important to her; she's no cultural revolutionary. At the same time, there is a core of confidence and vehemence to her that coexists with her diffidence. She is honest with herself about her growing consciousness of faults in her parents, particularly her father, and of the feelings those faults arouse in her. She sees herself as "a coward" in social situations, yet she finds the courage to do a wide variety of scary things - call attention to an assault on a young girl, care for her brother, write her college thesis on a writer everyone says she is too female and inexperienced to understand. When she encounters attitudes and actions that she doesn't like, she may not say anything out loud, but her inner refrain of "Hell no! Hell no!" articulates her strong selfhood.

As a side-note: Ma-chan is writing her undergraduate thesis on Céline, who she was inspired to read after meeting Kurt Vonnegut (K.V. in the novel) and having him autograph a volume of Céline's work for which Vonnegut had written the introduction. Coincidentally, I also came to Céline first through Vonnegut. I think this must be pretty common for American readers who read Céline at all - after all, Vonnegut is extremely popular, and praises the French writer in one of his most famous books, Cat's Cradle - but it was yet another endearing connection with Ma-chan.

Above all, I love Ma-chan's thoughtful intelligence. Not only does she cultivate a loving and observant relationship with Eeyore, but she thinks deeply about the ways in which people interact with the mentally handicapped. She and her siblings (and their parents) live a rich life of the mind, conversing about films, novels, and philosophy in a way that is real and profound without ever seeming ostentatious. Despite the difficulties in Ma-chan's relationship with her father, I felt so tenderly toward them both for the way they respect each other's intelligence and do their best to help each other along their diverging paths.

I don't have the ability to comment on French style, but with Céline, I get the impression that he writes in a way that, contrary to what I had imagined, presents a serious subject in a light and straightforward manner - and I like this. I had copied this passage on one of my cards a few days before, and was translating it far into the night, when I realized Father was standing beside me, having snuck up without my noticing - which is another reason this passage, in particular, remains in my heart. Father doesn't dare touch my letters, but he readily picks up the books I read, or the reference cards I make, and looks at them. He does this all the time, and it has irritated me since I was in kindergarten. And that night, while I was copying down some more passages from the book, he picked up a few of the cards and said, "Hmm ... 'the old have nothing more to hope for, these kids, all ...' How true." His voice was so unusually earnest and sad that I couldn't make a face at him for having read my cards without asking me.

The next day, however, Father brought me volumes one and two of Céline's Novels, from the shelf of the Pléide editions he especially treasures...

One of the things that struck me about A Quiet Life was how enigmatic the supposedly autobiographical character - the novelist/father K - is to all the other characters. Wherever Ma-chan and Eeyore go, people are speculating about the cause of K's "pinch." His old friend Mr. Shigeto thinks that K is having some kind of religious crisis - that his all-or-nothing "lack of faith" (K perceives a necessity for sacrificing all worldly entanglements in order to be a "person of faith," and he has chosen instead a family and material success), is throwing him into a metaphysical quandary. Ma-chan's aunt, with whom the main characters converse while attending K's brother's funeral, theorizes that K was frightened by the looming reality of his brother's death, and ran away to California in order to avoid dealing with end-of-life issues. Ma-chan herself wonders whether her parents have retreated to the United States in order to repair damage done to their relationship over the years - damage partly caused by K's attitude toward Eeyore. Ma-chan's mother suggests that K's "pinch" may be caused by his feelings of inferiority and failure as family patriarch, which were touched off when he was forced to call a professional plumber to sort out a sewage problem.

In the midst of all this theorizing, K himself comes almost to resemble a blank canvas, onto whom each character projects their own interpretation of his actions. Even his name, K, while possibly short for "Kenzaburo," is also familiar to Kafka fans as the shorthand for "everyman." I wondered whether this blankness was a comment on the traditional, patriarchal family structure, in which the father is supposed to be removed and inscrutable, and is therefore left without any confidantes. It also occurred to me that the reduction of palpable selfhood in K, which allows all the other characters to project their own theories onto him, is a good approximation of severe depression, in which the sufferer often feels less and less "like himself" the longer the malady continues. Compared with this sliding into a lack of self, Ma-chan's refrain of "Hell no! Hell no!" seems even more remarkable, as does Mrs. Shigeto's insistence on standing up for the basic human dignity of oneself and all the other so-called "nobodies" with whom one lives:

"Ma-chan," she said, "the little relief I find in what you told me, if I can call it that, is that you apologized for Eeyore before the girl called you dropouts and not afterwards. I wouldn't have gone so far as to slap her in the face, but if I'd been there, I would at least have made her take it back. I wish you had. It's very important for a human being to take such action."

I strongly recommend this understated story of figuring out what actions are important for human beings to take. A big thanks to Claire for putting me on Oe's track; I anticipate enjoying more of his novels in the future.

(A Quiet Life was my sixth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing Japan.)

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography