Kenzaburo Oe



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Kenzaburo Oe (Japan, 1935)

"Kojinteki no Taiken/ Personal Matter" (1964) is one of the many books written by Oe that deal with Oe's own tragedy: his son was born with brain damage. The virtuosistic imagery of his descriptions shifts the existential angst of the protagonist to a different plane of reality. What could be merely a moral tale becomes a protracted hallucination as an ordinary man is forced to wander through a labyrinth of distorting mirrors and accept that pilgrimage as "normal" life in a normal universe. The protagonist grew up in an amoral or immoral universe of juvenile delinquents, while outside the Cold War rages on with its permanent threat of a nuclear holocaust, and he adopts a nihilistic and selfish stance. The novel is somewhat weakened by the happy ending that comes a bit abruptly.

A 27-year-old man nicknamed "Bird" buys an expensive map of Africa. His wife is giving birth at the hospital but he walks around the neighborhood as if he had nothing to do. He meets a transvestite. He plays an arcade game. He is cornered by a gang of teenage thugs and narrowly escapes. We learn that he got married at the age of 25 and spent four weeks getting drunk nonstop, and never graduated from college. He is dreaming of Africa when the hospital calls him to tell him that his wife had a baby but the baby has a horrible deformation: a brain hernia, i.e. the brain doesn't fit inside the skull, and most likely this means that the baby will be a vegetable, and may not live more than a few days. The obstetrician is excited to have witnessed a rare disease and starts talking to Bird about being eager to perform an autopsy while they are transferring the baby to another hospital that specializes in brain surgery. The doctor reassures Bird that both the baby and the parents will be better off if the baby dies. Bird leaves the dying baby at the hospital and visits his father-in-law who is a university professor. Informed of the tragedy, the old man doesn't seem shocked. He gives Bird a bottle of whisky. Bird suddenly thinks of an old girlfriend, Himiko, with whom he had sex only once. Himiko's husband committed suicide one year into their marriage. Bird heard gossip that Himiko sleeps around. Himiko lives in a messy apartment. She is obsessed with the poet and painter William Blake. Bird tells her that his son died, and starts drinking the whiskey. Himiko believes that there is more than one universe, and at every major juncture the universe splits in two. Hence, there is a universe where Bird's son is alive and well. Bird and Himiko remember when they had sex. They actually didn't succeed because Bird didn't manage to penetrate her vagina. Himiko now tells him that she was still a virgin. She didn't feel any pleasure that time and since then she has been trying to overcome her frigidity, going from orgasm to better orgasm. She feels that sex has been her only real job since she was a student. She leaves him alone to drive around in the night, and he falls asleep, drunk. Bird lectures at a cram-school. He vomits during his lesson in front of the students and is verbally attacked by a disgusted student who promises to get him fired. He is surprised to find out that his son is still alive and ready to undergo surgery. His wife is still unaware of what is going on. His mother-in-law favors getting rid of the baby. Bird tests the doctor and the doctor seems sympathetic to making the surgery fail. Nobody wants the baby to live. Bird, suddely aroused with sexual desire, decides that he is willing to beat and rape Himiko if she doesn't have sex with him. Bird finds a very willing Himiko, but she tells him that she could get pregnant. This turns him off. Himiko offers anal sex, which Bird performs ferociously. He realizes that she has become a sexual expert. The following day he makes the mistake of bringing grapefruits to his wife, who hates grapefruits. She tells him openly that she doesn't trust him with the life of their son. She senses that the baby's life is in danger and she does not trust that Bird wants to save it. She tells him that she wanted to name the boy after an old friend of Bird's, Kikuhiko. That was when Bird was still a small-time delinquent. Bird set out to find an escaped madman and eventually found him hanging the neck, whereas Kikuhiko got scared and gave up. That event somehow caused Bird to abandon his life as a delinquent and enroll in university. Bird leaves the hospital and sleeps again with Himiko. The following morning the principal of the school asks him to resign, which Bird does without trying to defend himself, although some students are ready to help him out and encourage him to lie. He has no desire to keep the job, although he has bills to pay at two hospitals and although this kills his dreams of traveling to Africa. He returns to Himiko's home and finds another former schoolmate, a fat annoying gossiping girl. Himiko tries to psychoanalyze Bird's mental state, reminding him that his father committed suicide. Bird is obviously wishing that his baby dies, and Himiko says it openly. When the annoying girl leaves, Himiko tells Bird that the girl is a pathetic loser and her girlfriend take turns at sleeping with her to make her feel better. Bird has lost any moral sense and doesn't find the news particularly shocking. He is equally unmoved when Himiko tells him that the Soviet Union just exploded a super-powerful nuclear weapon. Bird is paranoid that the doctor and the nurses are keeping his baby alive instead of letting it die. He visits the hospital again and learns from the doctor that the baby has survived. Bird cannot find the guts to remind the doctor that he wants the baby to die. Friends ask Bird to convince Bird's friend Delchef to return to his country: Delchef was visiting with a diplomatic delegation from a communist country and defected after falling in love with a Japanese girl, but this is creating a political incident. The friends are friend that they will get involved in a scandal, but Bird doesn't care and accepts to intercede. Delchef and Bird discuss briefly in broken English, and Delchef reaffirms his determination to remain with his Japanese girlfriend, although she doesn't speak English and therefore they cannot communicate. Delchef inquires about Bird's baby and, upon hearing that Bird hopes for its dead, Delchef reproaches him and writes the word for hope in his home language. Bird sleeps again with Himiko. He enjoys sexual pleasure with Himiko, a welcome change from the clumsy sex with his frigid wife. In the morning her father-in-law visits and suggests that Himiko sells the house and the two of them go on a trip to Africa. He has not seen Himiko so happy since her husband's (his son's) suicide, and is basically hinting that an African trip would heal both of them from their traumas. Bird has so far lived in the hope of receiving a phone call from the hospital announcing his baby's death. The phone finally rings and the doctor summons him at the hospital, but it is not what Bird expects: the doctors need his permission to perform brain surgery, but cannot guarantee success. Bird denies the permission and decides to take the baby home. Himiko suggests that they ask an abortion doctor to kill the baby. She confesses that, by reading the book and the map of Africa that Bird bought, she has become obsessed with Africa too. She wants him to kill the baby and divorce his wife, so they can leave together for Africa. Before they can go to the hospital, one of Himiko's disgruntled boyfriends steals a tire of Himiko's car and Bird has to install the spare tire. At the hospital Bird is required to record the name of the baby, and he picks the name Kikuhiko. It turns out that Himiko is familiar with a gay club with that name, and Bird suspects it is run by his old friend. Himiko is shocked by the inhuman look of the baby. As they drive away, Bird realizes that his wristwatch has stopped. The radio is broadcasting debates about the Soviet bomb. It is a stormy night. The baby starts crying. The drive to the clinic through the countryside is pure torture as they get lost repeatedly in the rain and the dark. Himiko almost loses control of the car when she sees a dead sparrow on the road and swerves to avoid it (an odd reaction for someone who has just decided to kill a human baby). Eventually, a police officer stops them because one of the car's lights is not working and tells them where the clinic is.

After delivering the baby to the abortionist who is going to kill it, Himiko and Bird head for Kikuhiko's bar. Kikuhiko recognizes his old buddy. And then suddenly Bird decides to take back his baby and approve the brain surgery. Himiko, how is already dreaming of the trip to Africa is devastated. Bird has realized that he has been running away from responsibility all his life and now wants to change. Himiko tells Bird that she's still going to Africa, but with the disgruntled boyfriend. The baby is operated and recovers well: it wasn't a brain hernia after all, just a benign tumor. Bird's father-in-law is proud of him: he gave blood for the transfusions and stood courageously by his baby. Bird wants to save money for his son and pledges to start a new career as a tourist guide, and his father-in-law tells him that it's time to abandon the nickname "Bird".


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