Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Personal Matter

Bird is a young man who dreams on going to Africa. The start of the novel sees him in a bookshop, buying a map of Africa, while his wife is giving birth to his child in the hospital. By the time Bird gets to the hospital, it's clear that his son has been born with a Encephalocele (warning: the photo is pretty graphic) and will probably not survive the next few days. The doctors make it clear that even if the child does survive, it will never lead a normal live and while no-one ever says it out loud, the unspoken agreement is that it's better to let the child die.
Bird runs away, hooks up again with an old girlfriend, drinks too much, looses his job and pretty much refuses to make any decisions. The books follows him for the next few days and chronicles his journey towards acceptance of the situation and taking responsibilities.

A Personal Matter is an autobiographical book. Kenzaburo Oe does indeed have a son who is developmentally disabled and he and his wife were advised to let the child die. They did not and Hikari Oe is a successful composer today and has played a role in other books written by his father, who says that he is trying to give his son a voice in them.

The thought of facing a situation like that scares us all and it's even worse because we suspect that we may react like Bird does: looking for the easy way out, abandoning our responsibilities. It's not a book that is easy to read and there are no characters that are very likeable and it's a book that demands that the reader gives it some thought, the moral dilemma presented here is complex and not easily solved. I have read the German translation, but the rhythm and melody of the Japanese original makes itself felt nonetheless.

I was struck by how passive women are presented here. Bird's wife never is told what exactly has happened to her child ("some organ damage" is the most she hears) and has no part in the decision. His girlfriend is still suffering from her husband's suicide a few years ago and while she seems to take control of the situation, she's just a sounding board for Bird while he tries to come up with a solution for his problem. Part of it may be just Japanese culture and the fact that the book was written in 1964, but it still caught my eye.

If you want some food for thought, then I highly recommend this book.

22nd book for the Library Challenge

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