Book review: A Personal Matter, Kenzaburo Oe

In review

My third read this year is Kenzaburo Oe’s “A Personal Matter”. I’m not sure where I bought this secondhand copy, other than it’s not on Booksale (no sign of the price sticker or that hard-to-remove glue). But signs of its previous owner are everywhere: her name (Lacey Fox) written at the first page; some sentences clumsily underlined in blue pen, as if in a hurry (perhaps for a student book review?) and the postage stamp with a hole (swipe right) that took a life of its own after decades of being pressed under the weight of books stacked on top of it, convincingly framing the man’s face in the cover, as if it’s in the original artwork!

The story is about a young, intellectual father nicknamed “Bird” and the birth of his son that has a brain hernia. The entire book is escapist – escape from the reality, from a dreary job as a cram school teacher; escape to Africa (his dream) and to Himiko, a seductive college fling-turned-fuck buddy. What made it a difficult read to some is its realistic narration that glosses over the ethics (hints of euthanasia) and morality (adultery) of the story: it’s clear that this is all about Bird, Himiko, and the child as the elephant in the room – all personal matters. Once that is established, it’s fantastic until the last few pages that read like it was gussied up for a more conventional ending.

The highest point of the book for me is Bird’s brief flirtation with alcohol, and the accurate albeit lurid depictions (entire nights of sleaze and of retching by the toilet!) that came with it, which no doubt Oe himself wrote as they unfold in real life. That, and sentences that read like poetry: In his foreword, translator John Nathan noted on Oe’s interesting word choices (“treads a thin line between artful rebellion and mere unruliness”), which almost always read stilted and unnatural, and yet inventive. When confronted by a student that he’s teaching while under the influence: “…Bird’s consternation turned to fear, aureoles of fear spread around his eyes like deep rings: he felt himself turning into a frightened monocle monkey.” All the more reason to get your blue pen to underline sentences, committing it to memory.

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