Rating: 5 stars
I immediately loved this book. Ōe’s writing style is incredibly Western, so much so that I found myself wondering during the first chapter whether it was set in Japan or not. It had a West Coast American feel, and put me in mind of Charles Bukowski and Kurt Vonnegut in its straightforwardness.
The main character, Bird, is unlike anyone in the family he has married into. He is a worrying and detached personality, similar to those found in Murakami novels. I recognised Ōe’s influence on Murakami when I read The Silent Cry, and this book cements that impression.
The book explores Bird’s response to the birth of his brain damaged son. Although he’s 27 years old, Bird seems emotionally very young. He seems lost and unsure of who he is, who he should be, and who he wants to be. Even before his son is born, as Bird is waiting out his wife’s labour remotely, he seems lost. Once the child is born, and the medical staff start to advise him of the way his child’s life will play out, Bird is no more and no less lost. In the context of the loss and non-loss of his son, Bird reminds me of myself in the loss and non-loss of my mum. There is a passage immediately after the child is transferred to a specialist hospital, when Bird visits a barber, that echoes the times following Mum’s most steep decline when I would look forward to going to the hairdresser for the momentary relief it brought from being this grieving, bewildered being.
…the middle-aged barber led him to a chair as though he were an ordinary customer. The barber had not discerned any indications of misfortune. Bird, by transforming himself into the person the barber perceived, was able to escape his sadness and his apprehension.
I found I could sympathise with Bird’s predicament. I understood his reluctance to bond with a child that was and wasn’t there, that might die any day, that might survive but not have capacity or be sentient. I understood his desire for the baby to die and take the burden of caring away from him. If that sounds heartless, I can explain. My mum has a form of dementia (dementia being unknowable until a person is dead and their brain sliced up and analysed, she has the catch-all diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, but I suspect she has Lewey body dementia). In the space of 18 months from her diagnosis to having to move into a care home because she was no longer safe at home, she changed from being a vibrant, intelligent, caring person to being a withdrawn, confused and hostile person. In her first 18 months in a care home, she transformed again into a skeletal physical version of my mum with none of her spirit. To be frank, it feels like my mum died two years ago and I am left with the physical shell of her body. She is recognisable and not recognisable. Her body is shutting down. She is in physical pain. In her very rare and very brief moments of lucidity, she asks for release. At least, I take her unconsciously spoken words, “I don’t like it, I want it to be over” to mean she wants release. But she has, as the social workers and medical professionals put it, no insight into her condition now, so nobody really knows what she means when she says these words.
I appreciated this book, because Ōe gives his character Bird an honesty in his confusion. He knows he doesn’t want the responsibility of this damaged baby. He knows it is reprehensible to wish it dead, because it is human. In my honest moments, I wish my mum was dead, because her life isn’t the life she wanted in her retirement, and because I don’t like to see this physical manifestation of my mum who bears no resemblance beyond the physical to the mum I knew and loved for 40 years of my life. It pains me to see her the way she is now. So I appreciated the turmoil Bird was in throughout this book.
And then the words Bird’s friend Mr Delchef speaks when he learns that the baby is damaged and that Bird wishes it dead gave me pause for thought. I kid myself that I am rational about mum’s condition, but of course I’m not entirely rational. I am also emotional in my reaction to it, hiding it behind a wall of resilience so that I don’t completely fall apart. I kid myself that my reaction isn’t fully selfish, that I am also thinking about mum when I find myself wishing for her release from her dementia prison. Mr Delchef says this:
‘Kafka, you know, wrote in a letter to his father, the only thing a parent can do for a child is to welcome it when it arrives. And are you rejecting your baby instead? Can we excuse the egotism that rejects another life because a man is a father?’
Can I excuse my egotism that rejects my mum’s current state of being? Not really. Now that I am in the role of parent to my mum, I should welcome her as she is. And I do. I spend time with her in the moment, knowing there will be no memory of it for her. It’s how you survive something like this. It’s something that Bird realises, too. You survive by facing up to the reality of the thing.
Oh, cheery, cheery subject matter!
The other thing I loved about this book was the language. The vivid descriptions of people, in particular.
Bird managed to wedge himself into a spot where he wasn’t in the way of the bustling nurses and stood there drooping like a willow and looking down at his sweaty hands. They were like wet leather gloves.
‘What an awful experience for you, Bird,’ Himiko said, and she looked at him quietly with an expression in her eyes that seemed to cloud her lids with ink.
As mentioned above, I found similarities in Ōe’s writing style to that of Vonnegut and Bukowski. There is a dryness to his observation, a brutal honesty, and for all that the descriptions are poetic in the images they conjure up, they are also very spare. Vonnegut and Bukowski were contemporaries of Ōe. Bukowski and Ōe share an influence in Ernest Hemingway, I think. Certainly, Ōe gives Bird in-depth knowledge of Hemingway’s writing, and Ōe’s descriptive style takes influence from Hemingway’s.
A Personal Matter is a good companion piece to The Silent Cry. There are shared themes. Ōe himself had a son who suffered brain damage at birth, and his experiences inform both books, particularly in their exploration of whether a marriage can survive such a catastrophic event.
It’s a difficult story, but it is told very well. It goes against the traditions of Japanese fiction set by earlier writers like Akutagawa, Tanizaki, Mishima and Soseki, but still shares some of their sensibilities. It seems to me that Ōe took a step away from a particularly Japanese style of writing and opened the way to Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami and other Japanese writers who have followed them and who favour a more Western style of writing.