In the 1960s, Kenzaburo Oe began regularly writing about a character based on his autistic son, Hikari.
Translated by John Nathan
“A Personal Matter,” first published in 1964, one year after Hikari was born, is the novel where Oe begins to engage with the theme of disability, and he does so with characteristic disconcerting honesty.
The novel’s antihero, Bird, is an existentialist stripped of every ounce of romanticism. Unlike Albert Camus’ antihero, Meursault, Bird is an irresponsible dreamer with a track record of fleeing reality — most spectacularly on a four-week drinking binge after getting married. While his wife is in hospital giving birth he is off buying maps of Africa for a fantasy trip. Due to a brain hernia the child is born a “two-headed monster,” and, facing a future trapped by the child, Bird encourages the doctors to let it die. He then disappears into a cloud of alcohol and sex — not that Bird can manage much in the way of sex.
“A Personal Matter” is a deathly black comedy, a hideous study of male impotence set against the backdrop of the postwar era’s “new left” politics and student protests. It is Oe’s satire on 1960s Japan, a book dripping with nuclear terror, security threats and spies. Bird thrashes about, like Japan at the time, risking everything and achieving little.
A horrible question hangs over the book: Why bring a child — disabled or not — into this chaotic world? Oe leaves the answer hanging.
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