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By Kenzaburo Oe
Translated from the Japanese by John Nathan
New York: Grove Press, 1969
ISBN: 0-8021-5061-6
165 pages

Bob Corbett
May 2016

This novel is not an easy read. The main character, Bird, a 27 year of Japanese fellow living in Tokyo in 1961, is facing a very difficult situation and isn’t much up to dealing with it all.

Bird, the narrator and main character is a strange and solitary man, yet married and awaiting the birth of his first child as the novel opens. He’s been married for 2 years. Yet he is a very solitary person with dreams of going alone to Africa. This dream of Africa seems clearly to be an ideal he has created so that he can escape everyday reality and retreat into the dream and this imagined ideal life.

While awaiting the child’s arrival he is out wandering the streets. Each hour, on the hour, he telephones his mother-in-law at the hospital to see what the progress is.

The reader soon learns that he isn’t exactly the model of a loving, caring husband. Rather, in the face of this wait for the birth of his child he gets completely drunk with Himiko, a former girlfriend. He has a bottle of whiskey given to him by his father-in-law and just keeps drinking. This is not just a rare event in the face of this pressure of his coming child. Rather, Bird has a serious long-term problem with drinking.

His mother-in-law tells him not to come to the hospital the second day, but to pretend to be with the baby. The baby has been born with a seemingly serious medical problem and she is expecting the baby to die that next day. However, in the meantime he is to pretend to be with the baby at a different hospital.

Himiko, the girlfriend, takes the coming death of the child as quite a normal thing, so do most people at the hospital as well. Himiko’s husband had committed suicide and she has a view of death as a repeated event for each person in various worlds. Bird suggests this is a ruse she uses to cope with her husband’s suicide.

He gets terribly drunk with her and throws up heavily. The next day he also throws up in class and is fired from his job. Things are going quite badly for him, then then the next day he is just shocked to see his child who has a sort of external brain rather than a normal head.

“The baby continued to live, and it was oppressing Bird, even beginning to attack him. . .”

He is unable to deal with it all he goes back to Himiko who is fairly disgusted with him but agrees to have sex with him in order to calm him, but at her insistence she chooses a very painful anal sex. Bird doesn’t ask for this form of sex, but his partner insists on it. After this terribly violent sex he tells her what a comfort she’s been to him. She replies:

“I mean to be. I’ll bet you haven’t been comforted once since all this began.”

He’s guilt ridden. He thinks thoughts of retribution on the doctor for not “solving the problem,” but

“He had to acknowledge that he had lost the self-esteem essential to rebuking someone else.”

Bird has sort of decided to take on the responsibility and to have the child killed, yet deep down inside him there is some shred of decency and he is having trouble facing the actions he is planning. He’s been running from responsibility all his life. Now he has to face it and he’s just not sure that he can do it.

Bird, this main character, is truly an unlikeable human being. There seems to be little redeeming value in his selfishness. He just wants to run away from anything that presents unpleasantness and this whole situation is just more than he handle.

There is virtually nothing to like in Bird and author Kenzaburo Oe seems to want to explore the mind and reasoning of someone so outside the normal social norms. The reader, or at least THIS reader, can’t much help really disliking Bird having rather little sympathy for his brutal self-centeredness and thoughtlessness. Nonetheless, Oe does create a gripping if often disgusting story.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett