December 13, 2019
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Unknown Citizen

A scrutiny of ordinary lives

Unknown Citizen
A Personal Matter
By Kenzaburo Oe
Picador/Rupa Rs 165; Pages: 165
WHEN a writer barracks conservative literary values, he is uncritically revered or mindlessly condemned. As various histories of literary criticism have shown so often, there is seldom a middle path that analyses the undercurrents in his style before justifying why he did what he did.

An example is Kenzaburo Oe, a Japanese prodigy whose novella The Catch created a furore way back in 1958. A student of French Literature in Tokyo University, Oe's story of a 10-year-old Japanese boy who is betrayed by an Afro-American pilot won the prestigious Atukagawa Prize in Japan.

It was in 1994 that Oe won the Nobel Prize. And, with the passage of time, his protagonists have been different from the young Japanese boy in their mannerisms as well as attitudes towards life in general. In A Personal Matter, the writer's hero is Bird, a despondent intellectual ensnared by problems. His marriage is in trouble; he indulges in sexual escapades and liquor; he is depressed at the birth of his child; he dreams of escaping to Africa.

In some ways, Bird recalls the typically peripheral and inverted anti-hero of modern times. He could have been a philosophical 'unknown citizen', or Rushdie's Omar Khayyam Shakil, if not Herman Hesse's several anti-heroes glorified only since they existed in the pages of novels.

The author's prose is direct and sharp, often spawning remarkably tense sequences while Bird goes through the motions of living: "Bird again dredged the question up to the surface of his conscious mind; how can we spend our lives, my wife and I, with a monster baby riding on our backs? Somehow I must get away from the monster baby."

Having led a perilously chaotic life, Bird finally realises the need to take responsibility of his child. Anchored in deep-rooted scrutiny of ordinary lives, Oe's narrative reflects how Japanese literature has drifted towards the mainstream of world literature. This is the work of a great realist, and he could have been American.

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