Abe Kôbô (1924-1993) was the major Japanese 20th-century writer whose work I long shied away from reading. I have found him an interesting figure in the memoirs of American Japanologists such as Donald Keene and John Nathan, and admire the three movies based on his novels made by Teshigahara Hiroshi (Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another; I have not seen “The Ruined Map”). I did not want to read an Abe novel that I had already seen adapted to the screen and hopes that the relatively short one that I chose, SecretRendezvous (first published in 1977 in Japanese as Mikkai) would not be too scifi for me.
It was more scifi than I hoped, but not too much for me. A blurb from the Chicago Sun-Times on the back cover proclaimed that the novel “reads much as if it were the collaborative effort of Hieronymus Bosch, Franz Kafka, and Mel Brooks.” The Kafka I can see, though I know (from Donald Richie’s Japan Journals) that Abe was irritated that critics kept claiming that Kafka was an influence on him, that the prime western influence on him was, rather, Lewis Carroll. The mood and dry recounting of absurdities prefigured Paul Auster and recalled Edgar Allan Poe more than either Bosch or Brooks. There is some surrealist humor, but more like that in Philip Roth (especially the Philip Roth of The Breast and Sabbath’s Theater) than that of Mel Brooks.
What is like Kafka is that at the start someone is whisked away for no apparent reason. A major difference is that the someone is a woman, not the narrator, but the wife of the narrator. And it is medical rather than legal authority that is menacing.
An ambulance came for the wife at four in the morning though it had not been called and she was in perfect health. The mystery deepens after the narrator finds the hospital to which she was taken, but cannot find her.
An official who is always referred to as “the horse,” who seems to be more a centaur with a human diet and the ability to speak, gives the narrator security tapes to listen to in exchange for promising to write about his (the narrator’s) investigations.
Though continuing to try to find out what happened to his wife, the narrator is distracted by other very strange things going on at the hospital in the way of experiments on sexual arousal. There is a lot of female masturbation in the novel, and substitution not of single organs, but of half-bodies (the bottom half). There is also a thirteen-year-old nymphomaniac woman whose bones are melting (rendering her increasingly blob like). Heterosexual male fantasies, for sure. And very clinical (both the horrors and the failure to feel anything are prototypically heterosexual male…)
The book seems of great current relevance in anticipating heightened surveillance. The narrator joins the security apparatus centered in the hospital-one financed by selling recordings to aural voyeurs. The meaningful signal to noise ratio is very low, reminding me of presentday US surveillance biting off (collecting) far more than it can chew (make sense of or from): “The electronic surveillance system has swollen to unmanageable, mammoth size, and cointues to absorb new information all the tie; even though no one is actually in charge of it any more, the mere suggestion that such a person might exist seems to inspire awe and submissiveness” (p. 117).
I neither liked nor loathed the novel and concluded that my original intuition that Abe’s fiction is not for me was right. Reading about him interests me more than reading him, the fate of too many writers, I realize. In a 1953 Paris Review interview, Nobel Prize-winner François Mauriac contended that “almost all the works [of fiction] die while the author remains…. There are almost no writers who disappear into their work. The opposite almost always comes about. Even the great characters that have survived in novels are found now more in handbooks and histories, as though in a museum. As living creatures, they get worn out and grow feeble… even Anna Karenina, even the Karamazovs. They need readers in order to live, and the new generations are less and less capable of providing them with the air they need to breathe.” This has become the case for Kafka, and at least for me, for Abe, too.
BTW, Abe won Akutagawa Prize in 1951 for The Crime of S. Karuma (which has only been partiually translated into English in a collection of his stories titled Beyond the Curve), the Yomiuri Prize in 1962 for Woman in the Dunes, and the Tanizaki Prize in 1967 for the play Friends.