Archive for the ‘Kobo Abe’ Category

The Ark Sakura

January 18, 2022

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.

The Ruined Map

January 27, 2021

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.