Abe Kobo

Abe Kobo

My novelist for August, in this series of 20th-century Japanese novelists, is Abe Kobo (1924-93), who is as different from the authors I've already introduced as he can be, but he has belonged to the set of the "big five" for me ever since I first met them in reading the five novels assigned in the course in Modern Japanese Literature I took  from Father William Currie at Tokyo's Sophia University in the summer of 1973, when I read Soseki's Kokoro, Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles, Kawabata's Snow Country, Mishima's Temple of the Golden Pavillion, and Abe Kobo's The Woman in the Dunes.  For years I had a flyer (from Berkeley Press, I think) that I passed around in classes that showed that each of those five Japanese authors (and no others) had at least five novels translated into English--all available in paperback from that press.  A good friend in Topeka, Dr. Tetsuro Takahashi (whom I'll feature later as a Kansas author in his own right, with a book for sale), also pointed out to me that all five of these authors, over the generations, had graduated, as he had, from Tokyo University.

But, working chronologically, we came to Abe Kobo last, of course, and discovered that he was different from those other four novelists in four important respects.  First, he was still alive in 1973 (three of the others might well have been, having died within the previous eight years, two by suicide) and was very active in avant-garde theatre right there in Tokyo that very summer (though, I'm sorry to say, I did not know enough to seek him out at the time, but did finally meet both Abe and his wife at a reception in St. Louis after a production of the play The Little Elephant is Dead that he was touring the United States with in 1980).  Second, our professor, Father Currie, had just finished his dissertation comparing Abe Kobo to Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka that spring (Metaphors of Alienation: the Fiction of Abe, Beckett and Kafka, University of Michigan, 1973), so knew Abe's work (and Abe himself) very well, and was most favorably disposed toward him, as I, too, came to be by the end of the course--and then went home to teach those same novels at Washburn the next spring, finding that my students in Topeka liked Abe best, found him easiest to read.  Third, he was as active as a dramatist as he was as a novelist, which I will comment on below.  And fourth, The Woman in the Dunes is the least peculiarly Japanese novel of that set of five.

Abe's work in general is metaphorical, or perhaps allegorical, concerned with "universal themes," as he was perhaps most strongly influenced by European writers like Beckett and Kafka.   The story of The Woman in the Dunes may be set in Japan, but that story could happen anywhere--anywhere there is enough sand (North Africa?  Hawaii?).  At the end we find out that the central character's name is Niki Jumpei (and that he was born 1924, the same year as Abe himself, and is an insect collector, as Abe was), but very little else in the novel would  establish the place as Japan or the characters as Japanese--it is just "the man" and "the woman" meeting in the encroaching sand dunes that they must keep shoveling to keep their home and their village from being overwhelmed by sand.  And Abe has a scientific knowledge of the peculiarities of sand that does make it a major character in the novel.  The man comes as an outsider and is captured and forced to shovel sand, if he wants to eat, but finally comes to accept this duty, this woman he has been paired with, and the community that has captured him and paired them.  Such a situation seems ridiculously impossible--that people would try to live in the middle of the shifting sands, fighting to preserve their living space--but for years I said that it was the story of my own life, as I shoveled my way through the two large wastebaskets of  freshman themes the community had assigned me to grade each semester if I were to feed myself, my woman, and our family.  A great movie was made of this novel in 1963, which after being shown at the Cannes Film Festival, came to have international reputation (people talked about shaking the sand out of their cuffs coming out of the movie, tasting it in their popcorn).  I saw the movie in the mid-'70s in the Menninger film series here in Topeka, and would very much like to see it again.

And that abstract quality applies to Abe's novels more generally--they may be set in Japan, but might happen anywhere--or nowhere.  I then read Inter Ice Age 4, which, even more than The Woman in the Dunes, might be seen as science fiction, set in the future as the melting of the polar ice caps threatens the continued existence of the human race, and scientists work on biological mutations that will allow humans to survive, then The Ruined Map, a mystery novel where the detective must identify with the man he is seeking until their identities merge in interesting ways, The Box Man, another weird one, about a man who lives in a specially modified cardboard box, andThe Face of Another, my favorite, because, again, I could project the experience as my own, as a kind of allegory of everyman re-defining his own identity.  It is about a man who has his face destroyed in a laboratory accident, but who has the scientific skills to restructure it, and decides to do so on his wife's ideal, but not tell her, just seduce her with the new face.  I won't tell you how the story ends, but still recommend the novel most highly (it is one of my half-dozen favorite Japanese novels).

But Abe is also almost the only Japanese dramatist who has had an international impact, and his plays are as unusual as his novels.  I had the special experience of directing a reading of Friends, his best-known play, for a play-reading group I belonged to in the early '80s.  It is the story of total strangers, really, who move into a man's apartment and take possession of his life.  It was first performed in Tokyo in 1967, and was widely seen as an allegorical reading of America's intrusion into Vietnam, people who arrive declaring they are your friends and leave after they have destroyed your life.  But that is no doubt to oversimplify the play, and The Little Elephant is Dead, which I saw in St. Louis, has the subtitle "An Exposition of Images" and defies easy allegorical interpretation.  It was as much dance as drama, dancing sometimes under huge sheets (upon which the English sub-titles were sometimes projected).  I  understand that Abe's reputation in Japan is as much as dramatist as novelist, but I can't pretend to speak with as much familiarity of the plays, nor are they as available to those who might read this short sketch as the novels named above all are, and based on those novels alone, Abe Kobo stands as one of Japan's most important 20th century writers.

Abe is the only one of these "big five" writers not to have a chapter in Donald Keene's excellent Dawn to the West (Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1984) where he is only twice mentioned in passing along with other "avant garde" authors, so the best I can offer from my own shelves (who knows what has been written in the last ten years?) is the chapter on The Woman in the Dunes, "Abe Kobo's Nightmare World of Sand" (1-18), by Father Currie in Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, edited by Kinya Tsuruta and Thomas E. Swann (Sophia University: Tokyo, 1976), which does contain essays on all of the others, as well as on five other 20th century Japanese novelists, including my man for next month, Oe Kenzaburo.