My youngest brother is mentally retarded. He does not have Down’s syndrome, so it took a while for my parents to realize that he wasn’t reaching milestones at the same rate that their other two children had. But by the time he was 2 or 3 it was evident that he was not going to have the same kind of life as the rest of us. Beginning when I was about 6, I can remember my parents’ frustration with the doctors, their anger with the school system when my brother’s needs couldn’t be met, but mostly their deep sadness for the son they loved so much. They mourned for the life they had wished for him that he was never going to have.
The only reason for sharing this story is to confront the prism through which I read Kenzaburo Oe’s forthright and painful A Personal Matter, a semi-autobiographical novel about Bird, a young, selfish man who must come to terms with the birth of an imperfect child – one who doctors tell him is likely to be a “vegetable” if he survives at all.
At the time of his son’s birth, Bird’s marriage is in shambles. He has survived a post-marital bender that diminished his prospects at graduate school, and now works as a teacher in a “cram school,” helping students prepare for their English exams. But Bird’s dream is to travel to Africa – he worries that having a child will tie him to Japan forever. Of course, once he finds out his son is both disfigured and likely to be profoundly retarded, Bird realizes he must finally decide what kind of life he wants to live.
Bird is a mostly unlikeable character. He is uncommitted to his relationship with his wife, even with a baby on the way. And in dealing with his son’s situation, he focuses almost completely on the impact the boy’s life or death will have on himself, not on the others around him. Bird is thoroughly self-absorbed.
The doctor, without a direct reply to Bird’s question, lapsed into silence. Bird watched his face, waiting for him to speak again. And suddenly he felt himself being seized by a disgraceful desire. It had quickened in the darkness of his mind like a clot of black slugs when he learned at the reception window that his baby was still alive, and gradually had made clear to him its meaning as it propagated with horrid vigor. Bird again dredged the question up to the surface of his conscious mind: 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. (p. 74-75)
But while Bird seems cold, his predicament is very real. This I know from watching my parents and their friends. Caring for a child with special needs is a difficult job, a strain on even the best marriage. Divorce rates for parents of children with special needs are higher than those in the general population. It takes a truly committed couple to get through the ordeal intact. And Bird knew he had already proved a disappointment to his wife – how could they withstand the difficulties of raising this child. Especially in Japan in the early sixties, a society in which non-conformity was problematic, and shame was a very real part of parenting a special-needs child?
The author does not shrink from facing this and a number of other difficult questions throughout the novel. Oe’s writing is amazingly honest and eloquent, even when forcing us to confront the most horrible urge on earth: to abandon your own child. The book was also surprisingly explicit at points, and even a bit uncomfortable to read. You won’t be fond of Bird by the end of the book, but you will understand him, and that is the author’s greatest accomplishment. Having lived in a family that faced similar issues, I sometimes felt sympathy for Bird, which came as a surprise to me, considering how fierce a defender I have always been of my youngest brother. The book is definitely recommended, but only when you’re in the mood for a dark, somewhat heavy read – that’s when it will best suit your mood.