The Ark Sakura

Kobo Abe’s 1984 novel The Ark Sakura (translated into English in 1988 by Juliet Carpenter) has recently been reissued in the Penguin Classics Science Fiction series, and one can only wonder what readers, expecting anything resembling that particular genre, will make of a story that is both earthbound and (apparently) contemporary while at the same time more disconcertingly strange than any alien planet. The opening seems ordinary enough as the narrator, ‘Mole’, wanders round the stalls at a flea market before deciding to buy an eupcaccia, a rare insect without legs:

“…those appendages having atrophied because the insect has no need to crawl about in search of food. It thrives on a peculiar diet – its own feces.”

Such self-sufficiency may appeal to the narrator as he lives in a vast underground shelter beneath a quarry – his ‘ark’ – where he intends to survive what he sees as the inevitable nuclear war. (In 1984 the Doomsday Clock was set at 3 minutes to midnight, the closest it had been since 1960). He befriends the insect dealer, Komono, and offers him a ticket which will entitle him to place on the ark. This, however, is stolen by two shills, a man and a woman, who were working for Komono as fake customers to encourage real customers to buy his insects. (The Japanese for ‘shill’ is sakura – hence the novel’s title). Mole and Komono rush back to the ark but when they arrive, they find the shills are already inside, and the young woman has hurt her ankle in the dark. The first of many discussions about whether to leave again (in this case for medical treatment) follows, as does the idea of the woman as a focus of desire, particularly for Mole who offers to check her ankle:

“Unbelievably, she had accepted my invitation. I knelt down by her side on the left, scarcely breathing, like someone slipping a windfall in change into his pocket.”

We are also introduced to the toilet which will play an unexpectedly important role in the novel. Not only is it out in the open, but it flushes with enormous force:

“An earth-shaking tremor arose as if a subway were roaring in. The noise was concentrated in the core of the toilet, as if it had been passed through a parabolic lens and magnified. An instant later water came surging in with a cloud of spray, rose up level with the bowl, formed a whirlpool and vanished with anther roar.”

This is typical of the way in which Abe can take quite ordinary objects and invest them with an unexpected strangeness. But the power of the toilet is also a plot device as we discover that Mole has been using his ark to dispose of waste. Later he will get his foot trapped in the toilet, torn between his inability to escape and his reluctance to damage such a vital facility.

As one can probably tell, the plot is only credible within the narrow world of the novel. As Edmund White has said:

“It is a wildly improbable fable when recalled, but it proceeds with fiendishly detailed verisimilitude when experienced from within.”

The characters are unattractive: Mole is a loner, and quickly becomes infatuated with the young woman (at one point she tells him he should hide his feelings better, being “just like a dog looking for a pat on the head”). The ‘Captain’ with which Komono christens him with seems increasingly ironic, particularly as the insect dealer is a much more charismatic character. The male shill is unpredictable, his motives unclear, and though the young woman seems more sympathetic, we can never be sure that she, too, is not playing a role.

In addition, we have a phone call from Mole’s estranged father, a rapist and murderer, who wants to “bury the past” by asking for help in disposing of a body. There is also a rival group, the Broom Brigade, in the ark, an organisation created to encourage retirees to clean the streets, but which has become something more sinister:

“Clad in dark blue uniforms like combat suits, the oldsters parade around in the middle of the night, when ordinary people are in bed… There definitely is something creepy about them.”

The interaction of Mole, Kamono and the two shills, as well as the outside threats, creates an increasingly tense narrative. The paranoia which one would expect after the bomb had dropped already seems to be in evidence.

The Ark 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) but it is still a compelling read. Abe lures us into the novel’s world as much as its characters are lured into the ark and, confined in that small space, everything feels true, whatever the novel’s title warns us.

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6 Responses to “The Ark Sakura”

  1. Tony Says:

    Abe’s probably the one famous Japanese writer that I haven’t read much by. Apart from the obvious one, I’ve only read a very weak book of essays and a minor novel. Should really give this one a go…

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I do want to try this author but suspect this might not be the best place to start. The Ruined Map sounded excellent (and possibly more my type of thing?), if I recall correctly from your review last year?

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    What an intriguing sounding work! Like you, I do wonder what someone approaching this expecting science fiction would think, but perhaps it’s just too weird to fit anywhere else. I want to read Abe but I think I’ll try something different first…

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