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December 25, 2015

“A Personal Matter”

by Anne Paddock

Every time you stand at a crossroads of life and death, you have two universes in front of you, one loses all relation to you because you die, the other maintains its relation for you to survive in it.

Kenzaburō Ōe is a Japanese writer of essays, short stories, and novels that primarily deal with social, cultural, political, and philosophical issues. Born in 1935, Ōe has had many of his works translated into English and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. Influenced by Kafka, Twain, Lagerlöf, and a host of French writers, Ōe often writes of the desire for adventure, the mundane parts of life, and the truly horrific parts of our existence in a nuclear age. But, the biggest influence on Ōe’s literary career seems to be his firstborn son, Hikari.

A_Personal_MatterBorn in 1963, Hikari was brain-damaged at birth – a life-changing event that influenced Ōe to write A Personal Matter in 1964. The main character of the story is a 28-year old man nicknamed “Bird” who seems to fumble through life doing what he’s supposed to do – work, get married, please his in-laws, and become a father – but not very well.

On the morning of his son’s birth – a child born with a major brain deformity – Bird is in a store purchasing maps of Africa so he can plot his life as an adventurer in the land of the Sahara. Drawn back to reality after visiting the infant in the hospital, Bird likens his life to that of a bird placed in a cage with the door slowly slamming shut, but doesn’t know what to do about it. So, he detaches himself, drinks too much, confides in others, and continues to mess up whatever good he has in his life while trying to answer the question:

How can we spend the rest of our lives, my wife and I, with a monster baby riding on our backs?  Somehow I must get away from the monster baby. If I don’t, ah, what will become of my trip to Africa?

A Personal Matter is the story of a man-child who has to decide whether he will lead the rest of his life as a child or a man. He has to decide whether he will follow his feelings for wanderlust or love those who need and love him in return.  Flee or abandon? Run or face life. It’s a dilemma that we all face during our lifetime, but the stakes are higher for Bird.

I’m playing a game I’ve already lost.

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