A Personal Matter, Kenzaburo Oe, Grove Press, 1969, 165 pp (originally published in Tokyo, Japan, 1964; translated from the Japanese by John Nathan)
By chance I read another translated novel, not from my challenge but from the 1964 list for My Big Fat Reading Project. Bonus!
Back in 2010 I read this author's 1958 novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. As far as I could tell, that was his first novel. In both books the writing is powerful and clearly influenced by Western literature while putting the reader smack into 20th century Japan.
In A Personal Matter a frustrated intellectual named Bird is awaiting the birth of his first child. The child is born with a brain abnormality. If he lives he will be handicapped for life. Bird's mother-in-law is desperate to keep the newborn's condition from his mother. She is afraid it will frighten her only daughter too much to try for more children.
Bird is ashamed to have produced such a child. He is not happy in his marriage but his job was gotten for him by his father-in-law and he is rather terrified by the mother-in-law. Should he just let the child die and lie to his wife about it? Should he approve an operation that may still leave him a vegetable?
He takes refuge in the arms of a former girlfriend. Over the period of a week, when the child's life hangs in the balance, Bird struggles with his conscience. He has long harbored a dream to visit Africa and had planned to make the trip shortly. Now everything is in chaotic flux.
In this, as well as other Japanese literature I have read, most of which was written in post WWII times, the country's traditional culture is in crisis due to its defeat, the end of the Emperor, the American occupation and the beginnings of democracy. It is as if the entire ancient culture is suffering from PTSD.
A Personal Matter is gritty, sometimes grotesque, especially when it comes to sexual matters. Bird's former girlfriend is a deeply immoral being and an enabler for his plans to deny responsibility for his baby. Yet there is a sort of dark humor and a psychological viewpoint to the plot, both of which make it feel as modern as any American novel from the 1960s.
At first I was put off by the characters and the ways they approached their problems, but the pace is fast, almost frenetic, and I became hooked on wanting to find out what Bird's decision would be. In an author bio, I read that Kenzaburo Oe himself had a disabled child. Perhaps that is why the story felt so real.
The author continued to write about the effects of the atomic bombing of his country and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.
(A Personal Matter is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)