Two modern writers whose place in that small part of the Western mind reserved for Japanese literature are Kenzaburo Oe and Yukio Mishima: the one by virtue of having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, the other owing to his death by ritual disembowelment in 1970. Kobo Abe’s place in that same Western mind is unfortunately less secure despite the considerable interest generated by his early novel WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1962) and its film adaptation. His final novel reaches American readers three years after the author’s death in 1993 (from a heart attack) and fully five after it first appeared in Japan in 1991. The delay is inexplicable but the wait well worth it. KANGAROO NOTEBOOK proves both Abe’s preeminence among contemporary Japanese writers and his right to the title the Japanese Kafka. Here, as in his earlier work, fantasy serves as a vehicle for social criticism, an oblique commentary on contemporary Japanese life, particularly the prizing of conformity over the authentic community for which his alienated protagonists yearn.
In Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find himself transmogrified into a monstrous vermin. Abe’s unnamed protagonist and narrator awakes one morning to find cleft-leaf radish sprouts growing from his legs. At first he thinks his condition the result of stress. (The proposal for “kangaroo notebooks” he jokingly dropped into his company’s compulsory suggestion box has been...
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