Nevermind about the selfishness of Bird’s character, the way he abandons his unloved wife after she’s given birth to a baby with a brain hernia. Nevermind about his four month drinking spree, which he spent completely inebriated after their wedding. Nevermind about him clinging to his girlfriend, Himiko, instead of waiting by his wife’s bedside, or baby’s incubator, in either hospital.
What jumped out at me was the focus Bird had, and the attention Oe gave, on his obsession with Africa. By examining this thread, we can see the changes that Bird undergoes throughout the novel:
Uneasily he wondered if the day would ever come when he actually set foot on African soil and gazed through dark sunglasses at the African sky. Or was he losing, this very minute, once and for all, any chance he might have had of setting out for Africa? Was he being forced to say good-by, in spite of himself, to the single and final occasion of dazzling tension in his youth? And what if I am? There’s not a thing in hell I can do about it! (p. 3)***
We’ll manage to restore our family life to normal. And then, all over again, the same dissatisfactions, the same desires unrealized, Africa the same vast distance away… (p. 68)***
Somehow I must get away from the monster baby. If I don’t, ah, what will become of my trip to Africa? (p. 75)***
He had just slightly more than thirty thousand yen in the bank, but it was money he had deposited as the beginning of a reserve fund for his trip to Africa. For the present, that thirty thousand odd yen was hardly more than a marker indicating a frame of mind. But even the marker was now about to be removed. Now, except for two road maps, Bird was left with nothing that related directly to a trip to Africa. (p. 78)***
“You know, you often dream about leaving for Africa and shout things in Swahili! I’ve kept quiet about it all this time, but I’ve known you have no real desire to lead a quiet, respectable life with your wife and child. Bird?” (p. 97)***
“That’s not such a bad idea—” Himiko glanced at Bird as if to test him. “You could forget our unhahppiness about the baby, Bird. And I could forget my husband’s suicide.”
“Exactly, and that’s so important!” Himiko’s father-in-law declared. “Why don’t the two of you just pack up and leave for Africa?”
“…I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t,” he said with a feckless sigh…”It’s too slick, that’s why, just happening to forget in the course of traveling around Africa that your baby’s life has ebbed away. I…I just couldn’t do it!” (p. 131-132)
This story, more about the father than his baby, is ultimately about growing up. Accepting responsibilities, disappointments, and the knowledge that there is very little in life we can control. No wonder it won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.
I will never forget it.