Monday, September 2, 2013

Review : A Personal Matter by Kenzaburō Ōe

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- May 29, 2013)

Reading this book is nothing short of an agonizing experience.
It almost feels like somebody poking at and opening up our most secret, suppurating psychological wounds and making them bleed all over again, thereby compelling us to wake up to the realization of their existence.
These scars and bruises make their presence known time and again by causing us pain of the highest order. And so we proceed to wrap them up in the protective wadding of false pretensions, carefully hiding them away from the scrutiny of the rest of the world and more importantly, ourselves.
But Kenzaburo Oe does not only wish to cause us pain. He also forces us to acknowledge its perpetuity, accept it and achieve a state of harmony with it.

With every turn of a page, we find ourselves plunging deeper into the bottomless pit of shame, self-loathing and sheer grief along with Bird, our protagonist. But Oe breaks our fall right when we feel we are about to land with a resounding thud and teaches us how to rise, how to summon the courage to confront grim reality and reconcile ourselves with the cruelties inflicted by fate.

Bird (nickname), a young man of twenty seven, keeps drifing in and out of consciousness throughout the length of the narrative. While walking along a busy Tokyo street he is capable of sparing a thought for his pregnant wife experiencing labour pains at the hospital and alternately seeking escapism in the form of dreaming about landscapes of Africa, a continent he desperately wishes to visit some day. He neither seems to feel passionately about his wife nor about the job at the cram school he has landed thanks to the benevolence of his father-in-law. In a sense, he is apathetic to his own life but we are shown that he is not immune from feelings of embarrassment.
Weak-willed and jittery, he refuses to accept the birth of a child with a grotesque lump on its head and crucial genetic deformities. He is appalled to hear his baby would never grow up as a normal child and shamelessly gives in to feelings of utter relief, when he hears from the doctor that chances of his baby's survival are next to none. Although immediately afterwards, he suffers from a keen self-hatred.

During the course of the next few days, like the most cowardly criminal ever, he plots his own baby's murder - by conspiring with the doctor to substitute his supply of milk with sweetened water and, when that fails, by taking the baby to the clinic of a shady abortionist. Yet at the same time he shudders in revulsion at the thought of having to kill a helpless, sick child with his bare hands. He fears being in the presence of his wife and mother-in-law both of whom seem to blame him for everything, and seeks solace in violent sex with an old lover.
Thus, Bird, seems to possess no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. He is a failure at life and everything he does. He is selfish to the point of entertaining ideas of running away with his lover to Africa, abandoning all his responsibilities. He only views his biological child as an oddly assembled, defective mass of flesh, blood and bone. He refuses to give him a name or even acknowledge his gender and burden himself with the task of acquainting himself with his newborn son.
Bird is despicable in the true sense of the term.

But then at the same time, Bird is also the very personification of all our worst human weaknesses. He disgusts the reader but he also evokes feelings of sympathy and solidarity.
Because if we maybe honest enough with ourselves, there's a Bird in each one of us and his deformed baby is a symbol of the indignities of our own personal existence.
Slowly as the days trickle by after the birth of the unwanted child, Bird starts viewing the entity he repeatedly refers to as 'the monster baby', as a human offspring blessed with the powers of sensation and expression. It seems this indisputable fact had eluded him so far.
Thus begins Bird's gradual transformation, which the reader witnesses with mixed feelings. As he comes full circle, traversing the seemingly infinite distance between madness and sanity, so does the reader.
And when he finally finds hope in a hopeless place and begins the long, convoluted process of acceptance, it is not the predictability of this ending which strikes us.
Rather, we are moved by the truth in Bird's realizations and actions.

Oe has written about such a deeply personal aspect of his life (being the father of a brain-damaged son himself) with a mastery, truly characteristic of a  Nobel Laureate. His writing isn't wordy or verbose yet it hits the reader's most sensitive, vulnerable spot every time and makes one feel raw and cut up deep inside.

"The baby was no longer on the verge of death; no longer would the sweet, easy tears of mourning melt it away as if it were a simple jelly. The baby continued to live, and it was oppressing Bird, even beginning to attack him. Swaddled in skin as red as shrimp which gleamed with the luster of scar tissue, the baby was beginning ferociously to live, dragging its anchor of a heavy lump."

He does not want us to shed copious tears at the misfortunes that befall Bird or feel only an acute hatred for his indecision, but experience the entire gamut of human actions and emotions, no matter how blasphemous or conventionally unacceptable each one of them maybe.
In slow succession, the reader becomes-
Bird, the indifferent cram school teacher.
Bird, the day-dreamer.
Bird, the miserable failure of a man.
Bird, the conspiring murderer.
Bird, the unfaithful husband.
And at the very end, Bird, the accepting father.

As one plows along, it becomes apparent that Oe's aim has not been self-indulgent or cathartic story-telling, but instead, to take the whole world along on an immensely difficult journey, he must have embarked on all alone at some point.

Thus, A Personal Matter, ceases to be merely about a personal matter somewhere. Instead, it transforms into one of the most life-affirming stories ever, meant to serve as a universal panacea for the ones suffering from the affliction of an undignified existence.
Oe knows all too well, that he cannot make the pain go away. So he gifts us with the strength to endure it, instead.

5 out of 5 stars.

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