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November 16, 2012

Short Stories by Abe Kobo (Book Review)

Abe Kobo (1924-93) is best known for The Woman in the Dunes and the film based on it by Teshigahara. To me, this superb novel is indeed the crown on his work, but also in other novels, stories and plays Abe has engaged in surreal and nightmarish explorations of individuals in contemporary society. The usual comparisons to Kafka (and Beckett) are unavoidable, although, interestingly enough, Japanese commentators in the past used to emphasize the Marxist political dimension of his work - a side which to me is happily invisible. Reducing Abe's work that addresses the general human condition to the mere political is in fact absurd.

Since the 1970s, three collections of English translations of Abe's short stories have seen the light of day, the last one being Beyond the Curve (1991) by Juliet Winters Carpenter. I have also a collection of five stories in a Dutch translation, and it seems there were translations in many other languages as well, although most of that is now out of print. Writers have their seasons and that of Abe Kobo seems a bit past - something which enables us to have a more objective look at his real achievement. So here are first the short stories, like the novels a subtle merging of real and surreal events. An ordinary individual is suddenly placed  into extraordinary, often nightmarish circumstances that lead him to question his identity.

Here are remarks on a number of the stories:

"Red Cocoon" (1950; not in Beyond the Curve, but in my Dutch collection; it has also been translated in The Showa Anthology, 1985) is one of Abe's earliest stories which already contains the idea of alienated man that we find in his later fiction. A homeless man is wondering why he has no home. Or does he have a home and has he forgotten it? He happens to pull on a bit of silk thread hanging from his shoe and ends up unraveling his leg, then his whole body. The thread forms a cocoon around him, until his body has completely been unraveled. "I have a house now," says the man, "but there is no one left to come home to it." Alienated man seeking for a place in society has lost himself in the process.

This can also be linked to Abe's own rootlessness. He was born in Tokyo, but grew up in Manchuria, while his family came originally from Hokkaido. Abe always felt he had no real place of origin. That could also be the reason his fiction has such an international quality: it is mostly devoid of typical Japaneseness, and not linked to any specific cultural location. In that respect Abe Kobo resembles Murakami Haruki.

In "Dendrocacalia" (1949) a bewildered man called Common discovers he is turning into a rare plant; he eventually ends up in a botanical garden. The director of the Botanical Garden is called K. so it is clear we are in Kafkaen territory here!

Only part of "The Crime of Mr. S. Karma" (1951) has been translated in Beyond the Curve - which is a pity as it is quite interesting: the "crime" is that Mr S. Karma lets his name cards (meishi) get away from him and take over his personality. Without cards he has no name or identity, no self, he is hollow inside - a predicament that shows how much Japanese businessmen rely on their business cards.

"Intruders" (1951) is the only political story: a salaryman living alone in a small apartment is visited by complete strangers, a large family with grown-up sons and a daughter, who take over his apartment and his life. They use his money and he has to wait on them as their servant. They even steal his girlfriend. Although they behave very dictatorially, everything is decided "democratically" by the majority. This is a satire of the American occupation of Japan; in his play "Friends" Abe later would remove the anti-American satire and write a  more general piece about the human condition.

"Beguiled" (1957) is a very clever story. Two man confront each other in the waiting room of a small station, one the pursuer, the other the pursued... but which is which? In the end, one of them is led back to the lunatic asylum from which he escaped.

"The Dream Soldier" (1957) is a moving, straightforward story about an old police officer guarding a village during war time. An army unit is exercising in the snow and a deserter is on the loose. When the villagers find him, he has already committed suicide - it is the son of the old officer. Thanks to the subdued and indirect way of narration, this is a small masterpiece.

In "The Bet" (1960) an architect for a demanding advertising company discovers a bizarre building with doors and stairs that lead not to other spaces but to red lights and slogans. It is a satire on the efficiency of a modern company. The contest is to decide where the President should have his room. The architect finally designs "the path of the president's office as a mathematical function of the System."

In "An Irrelevant Death" (1961), a man returns home from work to find a murdered man he doesn't know in his apartment. He contemplates ways how to get rid of the unexplained and unpleasant body without incurring suspicion, but everything he does seems to implicate him more and more in the crime.

In "Beyond the Curve" (1966) a man with amnesia tries to remember his past, which exists just beyond the curve of his mind - and is symbolized by the fact that he can't remember what is beyond the curve of the road he is walking on. He has no identity, he even has no business cards in his wallet. When a woman working in a coffee restaurant recognizes him, he still fails to remember who he is and he can only try to cover up his ignorance while waiting for his memory to come back.