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“A Personal Matter” meditates sharply on parenthood

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

This summer, two books introduced me to Japanese literature. One of those books, “A Personal Matter” by Kenzaburo Oe, is what I’ll be talking about today. Author Kenzaburo Oe was born on Jan. 31, 1935 on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Part of a clan that included female oral storytellers, Oe grew up with tales of the feudal era. He lived through the Second World War and wrote his first novel, “Bud-Nipping, Lamb Shooting'' in 1958. This was during the postwar era. Oe is considered one of the greats of Japanese literature. His work is sharp but humanizing, critical yet heartwarming. “A Personal Matter,” published in 1964, is no exception.

I am not a father. However, “A Personal Matter” makes me understand the struggles of my dad. Parenthood is a difficult thing to come to grips with. In reading this story about a middle-aged man, namely Bird, and his search for reconciliation between his troubled past and the child he has to raise on his own, I realized that it's best to focus on the present and what's important instead of what could or did happen. There’s no use dwelling on the past or getting lost in the potential challenges of the future. Ground yourself in the now.

Image via Anchor TV

“A Personal Matter” is a powerful novel about the responsibilities life deals us, and our tendency to shy away from those tasks because they are too difficult for us to deal with mentally and emotionally. It's a book that hit me with repeated gut punches before I reached the end. But that’s what made it an enjoyable read; Oe isn’t afraid to bluntly and explicitly deal in hard truths. Some things need to be communicated, no matter how hard or painful they may be. He certainly doesn’t mince words, preferring to get his points across with as little filler as possible. Yet, as real as his prose tends to be, there still remains a surreal air to this entire piece. I wouldn’t consider this book magical realism, but it does approach the border between that and historical fiction.

“A Personal Matter” is semi-autobiographical. It is based on Oe’s own experiences as a father. He managed to take that experience, even the difficult and painful parts of it, and transform it into something unimaginably heartwarming. As much as Bird has to endure over the course of this book, he comes out a stronger person. Life may be harsh, but that suffering is worth it because oftentimes the happiness that comes afterwards is far greater. Keep on pushing yourself and you will find good fortune.

It's nice to have an author who isn’t afraid of getting to the point as quickly as possible. Sometimes we need that: someone to tell things as they are instead of dancing around the conversation. Oe manages a delicate balance between the poetic and the straightforward, oftentimes letting the actions of the characters in his story play out for themselves on the page.

Another fascinating thing about this book is how Bird’s real name is never revealed throughout the story. Maybe he prefers to be called Bird because always being referred to by his real name would bring up memories too painful for him to stomach. Or maybe his burdens are so great that he wants to avoid them by fading into the background. Having an alias makes it easier to do that.

Anyone who’s struggling with the responsibilities that come with adulthood should read this book. It will remind you of the importance of family and remaining empathetic during such trying times.

Video by Anchor TV


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