Kathryn Harrison on Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe (1924-1973) was a giant of post-war Japanese literature, whose novels and plays captured the alienation and loss of identity his society wrestled with after their defeat. Abe’s personal history sensitized him to these dynamics. While he was young, his father took the family to Manchuria, in northern China, where he practiced medicine. Japan soon invaded and then brutally occupied the province, developing Abe’s lifelong ambivalence with his nation.

After the war, he explored the profound sense of confusion and loss in Japan’s growing urban centers through deeply imagined absurdist works that are often described as Kafakaesque. His major works include:

The Face of Another (1964), offers a chilling postscript to The Metamorphosis. The narrator is a scientist hideously deformed in a laboratory accident–a man who has lost his face and, with it, his connection to other people. Even his wife is now repulsed by him. His only entry back into the world is to create a mask so perfect as to be undetectable. But soon he finds that such a mask is more than a disguise: it is an alternate self–a self that is capable of anything.

The Ruined Map (1973) combines the narrative suspense of Chandler with the psychological depth of Dostoevsky to tell the story of a nameless detective hired by an alluring yet alcoholic wife to find her husband, a salesman who went missing six months ago. With just two clues, a photo and a matchbook, he embarks upon an ever more puzzling pursuit that leads him into the depths of Tokyo's dangerous underworld, where he begins to lose the boundaries of his own identity.

The Ark Sakura (1984), is a Kafkaesque allegorical fantasy about a man named Mole who has converted a huge underground quarry into an “ark” capable of surviving the coming nuclear holocaust and is now in search of his crew. He falls victim, however, to the wiles of a con man-cum-insect dealer. In the surreal drama that ensues, the ark is invaded by a gang of youths and a sinister group of elderly people called the Broom Brigade, led by Mole's odious father, while Mole becomes trapped in the ark's central piece of equipment, a giant toilet powerful enough to flush almost anything, including chopped-up humans, out to sea.

Abe's most famous novel, The Woman in the Dunes (1962), was later made into a film of the same title, which remains a landmark of world cinema. The celebrated American writer Kathryn Harrison placed the novel atop her Top Ten list and we are grateful that she agreed to describe her admiration.  

Appreciation of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes by Kathryn Harrison

One day in August a man disappeared. The man was an entomologist and had set out into the desert with a canteen of water and a pack filled with the tools he used to collect specimens. It was his hope to discover an as yet unknown species of insect that lived in the sand dunes. Were he to find one, then he would be promised a kind of immortality: his name would be recorded and forever linked to the taxonomic identification of the bug—his bug.

Shifting sands, isolation, a quixotic attempt to defy mortal limits: even before the hero of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes has missed the last bus out of the desert, the reader knows he is lost to an existential quest. Abe, trained as a medical doctor, writes as a clinician, dispassionately and with exactitude. In the dunes his hero, Niki Jumpei, falls captive to the enigmatic woman from whom he seeks shelter for a night. Having descended into the sand pit where the woman lives, Jumpei discovers that there’s no way out; he’s trapped in a sinister village where each citizen becomes Sisyphus. Every day Jumpei must join the inhabitants in their necessary work: shoveling away the sand that threatens to bury them and their homes.

The Woman in the Dunes transcends the form of allegory—often lifeless and didactic—to engage its readers to the point of discomfort. It’s a claustrophobic novel, subjecting us to Jumpei’s mounting panic as he begins to suspect that he will never leave the sand pit, that meaningless striving is his, and our, inescapable fate.