The Ruined Map

The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe (written in 1967 and translated into English by E Dale Saunders in 1969, and now published by Penguin Modern Classics) belongs to one of my favourite sub-genres: literary crime fiction. By this I don’t mean what occurs when a literary writer such as John Banville writes a detective novel, but books which take the genre as a starting point only to manipulate and subvert it, producing something both familiar and disconcertingly different. In Abe’s case, he takes many of the elements of hardboiled detective fiction and develops them into something which seems to follow the same road but never arrive at the expected destination. In the words of his client, whose missing husband is the object of his investigation:

“Talk that reverses itself, where top becomes bottom, as you’re listening to it.”

The hunt for the missing husband is immediately made difficult by a lack of any evidence to go on:

“There must be something, something more concrete, like who you want me to tail, where you want me to look.”

The Ruined Map, however, is a novel were solidity is largely absent. Even the wife proves impossible to pin down, “a woman whose face vanished with a ripple of the curtains as if by sleight of hand.” In their many conversations, she provides little to help the narrator, and her story often changes: at first her husband had put his car in the garage; later she reveals he had sold it. The few clues which exist are classics of the genre but, as the detective explains using the map analogy which permeates the novel:

“With only a matchbox and a photograph to go on, it’s like trying to find a house that has no number.”

Other clues will include a newspaper clipping with a personal ad and some nude photographs – all, as we might expect from the novel, taken from the back. The matchbox takes the narrator to a café, though even here the evidence is ambiguous – showing that the husband is neither a regular nor someone who has only been there once. Here he ‘coincidentally’ meets the wife’s brother, who is paying for his investigation and promises him the husband’s diary (he never receives it). At a second ‘coincidental’ meeting the brother-in-law confesses that he is not entirely an innocent party, being there to ‘shakedown’ the business the detective is looking into:

“There was something extraordinary about his casually announcing on our second meeting, without batting an eye, that he was engaged in blackmail.”

The business is one that sells gas, which was also the business that the husband was in. As the city expands people initially get their gas from canisters before mains gas arrives, creating tension between the different suppliers. In this newer part of town, maps are unreliable: “the relative position of the streets appeared to be quite different.” This is only one of the maps mentioned in the novel; the narrator also ask a colleague of the husband to draw a map of a rendezvous he had on the day he went missing, which he later describes as “pretty hard to follow.” But maps also have a more symbolic meaning, as when the wife tells the detective that her brother believes:

“…a single map for life is all your need.”

The novel also raises doubts over whether the detective’s quest is just, one witness asking:

“Why does the world take it for granted that there’s a right to pursue people?”

Another comments: “…there’s more to life than just pursuing. Sometimes it’s more important to shield.” The detective himself also has doubts – not just over whether the wife actually wants he husband found – but as to what extent he is pursuing the husband and to what extent he is searching for himself:

“Perhaps I had the feeling that the husband I was investigating and I were fused.”

Later, he begins to see the husband’s disappearance as an escape:

“Was this world so unbearable that one had to go on eternally escaping until one could put up with such a life?”

The Ruined Map is a novel suffused with such existential angst. The world is portrayed as a bitter place, largely through frequent references to the cold wind which blows through the city. Life is seen as soulless and functional – the city is a “human filing cabinet with its endless filing card apartments.” It is this that eventually the detective feels the husband has tried to escape from, “he had tried to run from the filing cabinets of life.” Not unexpectedly, the husband is never found, but there is discovery of a sort. For those who want to brave the outer limits of detective fiction, The Ruined Map is an excellent place to begin.

Tags: ,

9 Responses to “The Ruined Map”

  1. J. C. Greenway Says:

    This sounds really like A Man which I read recently and was looking for more of! Thanks, will add it to my to read list 🙂

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Well, this sounds terrific! Consider me sold. (I’m adding it to my wishlist right now.) Your opening comments on subversive literary crime fiction made me think of Pia Juul’s excellent novel, The Murder of Halland, which probably fits the bill in terms of your definition?

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Oh, this sounds marvellous Grant! I’ve yet to read Abe (though I do own The Woman in the Dunes) – but I love detective fiction that pushes the envelope so I shall look out for this!

  4. Books of the Year 2021 Part 2 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] – an uncanny valley, if you like, of genre expectations. No surprise, then, that Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (translated by E Dale Saunders) was one of my favourite novels of the year. It begins like a […]

  5. The Ark Sakura | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Sakura lacks the open-ended allegory of The Woman in the Dunes, or the twisted genre tropes found in The Ruined Map (it doesn’t feel as if Abe is drawing on science fiction motifs to create the world of the novel) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: