Kobo Abe

Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night also reminds me of Kobo Abe, particularly his insane works of the 70’s, The Box Man and Secret Rendezvous. As long as we’re drawing cross-continental comparisons, William Burroughs is there too, but Burroughs more surrealist, later work is pedantic and decadent in a too-familiar way. These two books of Abe’s aren’t familiar. They don’t seem like successes, and it’s not easy to say that they succeed on their own terms, because they don’t appear to have their own terms. Calling them pretentious is besides the point, since the books don’t have a pretense towards anything in particular. Psychological and and political intimations turn out to be complete blinds; what mostly flows out of the books is deep, total sickness. Apart from Inter Ice Age 4, an early work which gets mired in the tropes of science fiction, most of Abe’s translated books do have a purity about them.

I discovered Abe through The Woman in the Dunes. At the time I was a huge Camus adherent, and the summary of a man trapped in a sand pit with a woman who has lived there for years, makes it sound similar to any number of existentialist works of fiction. It’s not. Attempts to draw a metaphor do not work, since the book remains focused on the constraining of the man with a fundamentally unresponsive woman, and his very real interaction with the sadistic villagers keeping him there. The slow madness that overcomes him stems from the particular (and odd) circumstances rather than any speculative human condition. Far from existential, the story has more in common with Nabokov, especially the finely-ground fantasies Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, though it’s far more realistic than either. Teshigahara’s film of the book also seems to misunderstand it (though it has an amazing, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu), adoping long shots of dunes that don’t fit with the relative lack of desperation on the man’s part.

By the 70’s, Abe had headed away from anything close to realism. The Box Man revolves around a series of men who walk around with boxes on their heads, with doppelgangers and fakes, disconnected memories and self-consciously pompous meanderings on the integrity of being a box man. Michaela Grey offers an excellent description of the book, but I disagree with her tying it to Derrida: Abe remained focused on personal identity and integrity and was never concerned with purely textual matters. But the book is nuttier than what comes out in the article, since Abe never builds up any credibility in the narrative. The only strand that rings true is one about the noetic nature of being a box man, an affirmation that can’t be obtained externally. This in turn implies that any individual section of the book is dubious, since in total they are the ramblings of one or more men whose ability to place themselves in the world is falling apart. Apart from the surreal surface, here is where there is the most commonality with Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, in its resolute lack of commitment to any particular reality.

Secret Rendezvous is more narratively coherent, but only furthers the idea that individual plot points, characters, and settings are losing all intrinsic meaning short of inciting a vague, sickly psychosexual aura. The narrator’s wife is abducted one morning by an ambulance, and he journeys through the labyrinthine hospital attempting to find her. There is a nice twist on Kafka, when the frustrated narrator is allowed full access to the hospital’s surveillance tapes, only to find that there are so, so many hours of tape that he’ll never be able to derive anything from them. Again, the mental state of the man is subordinate to the organic disease around him that he seems oddly distant from. When, at the end, he ends up leading an entourage including a girl whose bones are dissolving, the enviroment mirrors the girl by not remaining firm enough to grasp. The parallel to Kafka is most appropriate here, but the “characters” are as indeterminate as the landscape. Where Kafka dealt with amorphous persecution, Abe simply pulls the rug out from everything he touches.

There is, at the heart of these books, very little interest in character or psychology, despite the trappings that appear. The next book he wrote, The Ark Sakura, is far less disorienting, but the main character, a paranoid survivalist, spends the last third of the book with his leg caught in an industrial toilet and the other characters are one-dimensional. The book is essentialy a Stevenson-like adventure story, and the abrupt end pushes the unreality of what’s gone before, as he finally emerges from his cave into the light:

Beyond the transparent people lay a transparent town. Was I transparent, then, too? I held a hand up to my face–and through it saw buildings.

The situations Abe deals in do not raise epistemological or existential questions; they are deranged treatments of metaphysics. The question is whether the shifting realities and, in The Box Man, pseudo-philosophical ramblings amount to something that is prior to experience and organized thought. With Donoso, I believe it is. With Abe, they seem detached from thought altogether: some sort of objectification of humans. The perversions in his books often come off as heartless, but Abe may be pushing for metaphysical heartlessness.