A Personal Matter
by Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe is a semi-autobiographical 1964 novel. It tells the story of Bird, a man struggling to come to terms with the birth of his disabled son. Set in the early 1960s, it explores the difficulties of parent-child relationships and learning to let go of the past.
The story opens with Bird in a bookstore purchasing maps of Africa, a continent he has always longed to see. He goes looking for a phone in order to call his mother-in-law and find out how the birth of his child is going. While doing so, he thinks of both how fatherhood will stifle his dreams and also his struggles with alcoholism. He finds that the birth is taking much longer than it should. He goes into an arcade to test his strength. There, he encounters a gang of young ruffians. At first he is being overpowered by them, but ultimately he is able to fight them off. The following day he finds out that there is something wrong with his child. He goes to the hospital and finds out that his son suffers from what is referred to as a “brain hernia” in which parts of the brain are pushed outside of the skull.
Bird discusses the situation with doctors and is told surgery cannot fix the condition. He takes the baby to another hospital to get a second opinion. He also goes to his father-in-law to inform him of the situation. His father-in-law is a university professor who gives Bird a bottle of liquor. Bird takes the bottle with him on a visit to Himiko, his former girlfriend. Himiko’s husband has recently committed suicide. She drinks with him although Bird consumes more and is soon drunk. He passes out in Himiko’s bed.
The following morning Bird is hungover as he goes to work. His job is at a school and he throws up in front of one of his classes. One of the students threatens to report him to the principal. On his way back to Himiko’s apartment, he thinks about how he will have to spend all of the money he was saving for a trip to Africa on medical expenses. This makes him aggressively angry which he then channels into sexual activity with Himiko. Next, Bird goes to his wife in the maternity hospital, where she accuses him of planning to leave her and their child. She compares this to the way he abandoned his friend Kikuchiko, the baby's namesake, when he was younger.
Meanwhile, back at Himiko’s apartment, Bird waits with her as he still hopes to hear good news from the second hospital. Himiko takes an interest in Bird’s maps of Africa. The following day, Bird quits his job at the school, knowing he is likely to be fired soon anyway. A friend of Himiko's and another friend of Bird’s tell him that he needs to examine his conduct and realize how he is shirking his responsibilities. They suggest he and Himiko follow their dreams and go to Africa together. At this point Bird finds out that if the baby gets a little stronger, there is an operation that could possible seal his skull around his brain properly. Bird tells the doctor that he plans to take the baby home.
Bird and Himiko discharge the baby from the hospital and plan to take him to a doctor she knows who has performed abortions. It is their hope that the doctor will help them get rid of the baby. They get lost in a rainstorm but eventually arrive at the doctor’s clinic and leave the baby there. They then go to a gay bar that Himiko is familiar with to have a drink. While at the bar, Bird runs into his old friend Kikuchiko. They speak for a while and Bird realizes that the life he has been trying to escape--and the "controlling" influence of his newborn child--does not truly exist. This realization prompts him to drive back to the clinic to rescue his son. By the end of the narrative, his son's head and brain have been surgically repaired. Bird’s father-in-law says it is obvious that Bird has changed and become more mature.Kirkus Reviews
said of A Personal Matter
, “This is the first book to appear here of a very young and very successful Japanese writer considered the most ‘promising’ since Yukio Mishima-a less formal writer to be sure, with a restless, somewhat wayward style all his own. Admirably catching the squirming, scurrying, scuttling progression of his young protagonist…By no means everybody's book, but one which succeeds on its own terms and through its high-strung spontaneity and imaginative agility.”