Abe, Kōbō 1924–
Abe is currently the Japanese novelist most frequently translated into English. Attention was drawn to his work when it became widely known that the classic film Woman in the Dunes was based on an Abe novel. Since then Abe has written a number of provocative novels and short stories which bear the influence of trends in Western literature and philosophy, particularly existentialism. Abe also has a growing reputation in this country as a science fiction writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
With Suna no Onna (The Woman in the Dunes) Abe has written a novel of exceptional force. It is the story of a man obliged by strange circumstances to live with a young woman in a pit of sand. They live in a house at the bottom of the pit, and shovel the sand every day so they will not be buried by it. The atmosphere is intense and nightmarish: the sand falls constantly and everywhere. The two are obliged to live together in anguish and moral torment, though the hope of escape always dawns. All of this—the life in the sand pit, the authentiticy and meticulous attention to detail—gives an extraordinary and haunting strength to the unusual theme. Minute precision and abundance of detail, the indifference to physical suffering, and the refined cruelty are all in the line of Japanese tradition. It is a well-balanced novel with excellent construction and skilful building of suspense. Circumscribing itself by dealing with only one subject and one scene, extreme concentration is attained which accounts for its extraordinary haunting intensity. Bitter and dry satire against man and society is the main reason for this apparently perverse nightmare.
In Abe's short story Akai Mayu (The Red Cocoon), a man changes into a cocoon; in Bo (The Stick), a man changes into a stick. There is a barren coldness, a frightening loneliness, and also literary artificiality in these stories. Probably no one else has used the technique of Kafka in such a modern, personal way, but what is lacking here is the deep, rich Kafka symbolism. (pp. 208-09)
Abe has found a new literary dimension for expressing the awesome loneliness of the individual lost in a monstrous city like Tokyo. He cannot find human ground in which to plant his roots; he cannot cultivate ties with other men strong enough to satisfy his yearning for friendship and human solidarity. In his recent novel Moetsukita Chizu (The Ruined Map), Abe treats the theme of man lost in a huge labyrinth—the modern city—by writing of a private detective who searches for a lost man named Nemuro. The information he gathers from various sources is too complicated and too intermingled. People in the huge city are only superficially connected to one another. Thus, a man can never be found in this monstrous riddle in which individual existence and life itself lose all meaning. (pp. 209-10)
Kōbō Abe, more successful as a novelist, has also written plays. The best known is Yurei wa Koko ni Iru (Here Is a Ghost), a satirical comedy of a young man who finds a fortune in the idea of convincing people that many ghosts live among them…. The play flows rather slowly in an amusing tone with songs inserted here and there in the way that Brecht made famous.
A rather original theme is developed in Tomodachi (Friends), the fantastic story of a family that invades the home of a bachelor. A family with five children and a grandmother come with their suitcases to sleep and stay. They pretend to feel a great affection for the tenant of the house (who does not pay his rent on time). The eldest daughter tries to seduce the bachelor, although it is her sister who is in love with him. Finally, the family succeeds in putting the bachelor into a cage. There he dies, and the family goes away. The bizarre tale has a dry humour and social satire hidden in its strangeness. (pp. 225-26)
Armando Martins Janiera, in his Japanese and Western Literature (© 1970 by Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.), Tuttle, 1970.
The action of ["The Box Man"] seems to take place inside [a cardboard] box, which has become a kind of labyrinth for the box man, a porous, breathing skin. "The more you struggle, the more new passages you make in the labyrinth, the more the box is like another layer of outer skin that grows from the body, and the inner arrangement is made more and more complex."
The sad truth of the box man's existence is that the "waterproof room" he wears on his back hasn't satisfied his quest to be without an identity. Scribbling on the inside walls of the box, he invents a past, present and future that crash together in his brain. With an irony that turns in upon itself, he becomes a creature of multiple identities….
"The Box Man" becomes a book in search of a narrator. Arguing with one of his possible selves, the box man speculates: "Perhaps it is I who am going on writing as I imagine you who are writing as you imagine me."
At times the novel reads like a curious amalgam of Robbe-Grillet and Beckett, but without the precision of "Le Voyeur" or the crisp, beautiful tones of "Molloy" (this, in part, can be blamed on the creakiness of any translated text). Yet "The Box Man" is an invention with its own crazy pull. It is a difficult troubling book that undermines our secret wishes, our fantasies of becoming box men (and box women), our urge to walk away from a permanent address and manufacture landscapes from a vinyl curtain or some other filtering device.
Abe's book is a stunning addition to the literature of eccentricity, those bitter, crying voices of Melville's Bartleby the scrivener and Dostoevsky's underground man. It gnaws at the reader, forces him to question his values, his Shibboleths and his ritualistic props, and shoots an energetic poison into his ear. "The Box Man" is funny, sad and destructive, an ontological "thriller" that bumps into and contradicts its own clues….
"The Box Man" is a much more daring creation [than his earlier "The Woman in the Dunes"]. Rougher, less controlled perhaps, it is a more frightening book. (p. 6)
Jerome Charyn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 8, 1974.
In range, depth and style, the works of Abe Kōbō represent a considerable departure from the writing of almost all the Japanese novelists and dramatists who preceded him. From his earliest novels, short stories and plays, Abe has been concerned with an artistic expression of the break between man and his world—a common phenomenon today in the East as well as the West. He has written novels that explore problems of existence in narratives of almost mythic simplicity, most of them touching in one way or another on the problem of human alienation. Some of Abe's themes which illustrate this general problem of alienation are: the individual's search for the "roots of existence" that will serve to ground his identity; the difficulty people have in communicating with one another; and the discrepancy between the mind and the external world, or between inner and outer reality.
Another important theme in Abe's fiction is the conflict between the two kinds of kokyō, or "homeland". There is the place where one was born, and there is the place or ground or foundation for living in such and such a way. The first meaning represents to Abe the everyday, the routine, the inauthentic life which one leads as part of the impersonal crowd of people that make up any community. It is this kokyō that one must reject in order to find the other kokyō: the true "home" of one's existence.
In presenting these themes, Abe uses settings and characters which are themselves metaphors of human alienation. He uses strong, universal metaphors in such a way that they become a basis for his narrative art. By using metaphors, Abe expresses complex ideas not by analysis, nor by making an abstract statement, but by a sudden perception of an objective relation. This relation is expressed in one commanding image.
Abe's narratives, which are built around a single metaphor, are developed with a kind of dream literalism. He maintains a rather consistent adherence to a tone of realism carried through a series of episodes which taken collectively are thoroughly unrealistic and irrational. Abe shows a meticulous care for concrete detail worthy of the most confirmed naturalist or realist. His precision and concreteness give the impression of reality to the dream or nightmare. In this regard, Abe, who is sometimes considered thoroughly Western in his approach to literature, is solidly in the Japanese tradition with his emphasis on the concrete and the particular. Abe builds up the impression of reality, even in improbable situations, through the accumulation of realistic details.
The unity that Abe achieves in his fiction is, in general, a unity of image rather than of action. Perhaps this makes his works less satisfactory to someone who prefers a traditional narrative with a beginning, middle and end, but Abe's works depend for their effectiveness on an intensity of the image that is built up through the narrative.
Abe's themes and literary methods are very well illustrated in the novel which is probably his best work to date, Suna no Onna (The Woman in the Dunes). It is an extended narrative centering around a man named Niki Jumpei, a schoolteacher and insect collector who disappears one August afternoon and seven years later is officially declared missing. A gripping story on the surface level, it is, however, more than that: the novel presents a probing study of a person's search for a new self in a cruel and challenging world of sand. Sand is the novel's central metaphor, standing for the shifting reality in which the hero must come to terms with himself and his surroundings, find roots for his existence and discover who he really is.
The first page of the novel strikes a theme that recurs throughout the book and in many other works of Abe's fiction: escape. At the end of a paragraph discussing the high number of persons reported missing every year, and the small proportion of those found again, there is the matter-of-fact statement: "Many disappearances, for example, may be described as simple escape"…. (pp. 1-2)
Abe includes in [the] opening scene of the novel a rather lengthy discourse on the nature and properties of sand, set down as a result of the hero's investigations into the substance, which had come to intrigue him so much. Some of the conclusions about sand serve to build up, at an early stage in the narrative, the complexity and weight of the central metaphor, which comes to bear much of the burden of unifying and amplifying the story as it unfolds. Sand, for instance, is omnipresent, always being renewed, never-resting, and destructive…. (p. 3)
[Sand] comes to represent in the novel a kind of mythic force, endowed with superhuman powers and vaguely hostile to human life: "The barrenness of sand … apparently was due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things."… It is no wonder that this powerful, awesome, and vital "being" should appeal so strongly to the imagination of the withdrawn, ineffectual school-teacher whose uneventful life was a monotonous succession of boring, routine days….
In the opening pages of the book, Abe has told us just enough about the central character to make him appear as a very real person, a trifle dull and pedantic, but an ordinary, average man. Niki Jumpei's speculations about sand have already projected him into the role of a contemporary Everyman, stuck in a dehumanized routine and, perhaps unconsciously, looking for a way to excape, expecting the perpetual movement of the sand to help him somehow.
From the very beginning of the novel the main character and the central image of the book are closely woven together, and in this way the dream character of the narrative begins to take shape: "While he mused on the effect of the flowing sands, he was seized from time to time by hallucinations in which he himself began to move with the flow."…
Abe has successfully brought off a very difficult accomplishment in this early section of the book: while presenting many of the central character's reflections in the third-person narrative, he has maintained a certain mystery and ambiguity about the hero's feelings, motivations and goals. (p. 4)
Part Two comprises the bulk of the novel, extending up to the last four chapters which make up the third part. The theme of escape is strong in this second part, as Niki Jumpei tries to devise various schemes for getting out of the sandpit. Related to the escape theme is the theme of kokyō. The hero's reflections on the world that he left, with its "glum and gray" colleagues, make it clear that this was not the sort of "home" in which he could easily live a full life as a free human person, sure of his own identity. Therefore what would "escape" mean for the hero if it did not mean returning to his former life? Abe skillfully keeps the question in the air, never actually articulating it.
Parallel to these two themes is the theme of human loneliness, which is closely related to them, and is heightened in the novel by the device of having the woman in the dunes serve as a kind of double for the man: in her loneliness, alienation, and the absurdity of her life, he comes to see his own loneliness, alienation, and the absurdity of his own life "in the world".
The characters are developed with considerable care throughout the second part, but Abe tells us no more about them than is necessary for the plot to unfold and the various themes to develop. There is always a certain ambiguity and elusiveness to the characters which is crucial for maintaining the dream atmosphere and the necessarily ambiguous ending….
The contrast between the world outside and the small world at the bottom of the sandpit is effectively used by Abe to show that inauthentic life above the ground, in civilized society, is not very different from inauthentic life in the dunes. This contrast and similarity is illustrated, for example, when the man and the woman are discussing her lack of freedom. (p. 8)
The relativity of what different people call "freedom" is an idea that is never far from the surface of Abe's narrative. Here too the central image of sand colors the interpretation: shifting, moving, lacking in continuity….
It is not until towards the middle of the book, however, that the sand metaphor becomes explicit. The hero recalls a conversation he had had with one of his colleagues:
"… The reason I brought up the example of sand was because in the final analysis I rather think the world is like sand. The fundamental nature of sand is very difficult to grasp when you think of it in its stationary state. Sand not only flows, but this very flow is the sand. I'm sorry I can't express it better."
"But I understand what you mean. Because in practical education you can't avoid getting involved in relativism, can you?"
"No, that's not it. You yourself become sand. You see with the eyes of sand…."
While in flight, Niki Jumpei passes the other sandholes in the village where other people are carrying on the same deadly existence he has just escaped from…. The enumeration and repetition of objects is a device that Abe uses to good advantage to illustrate dullness, monotony and routine. (p. 11)
Suna no Onna, as written, stands as a remarkably unified work of fiction in which a contemporary alienated Everyman comes to grips with modern everyday reality in the form of the all-encompassing sand, the novel's central metaphor. (p. 16)
Everything in the novel is built around the central metaphor of sand: plot, characters, themes and imagery. The plot is relatively simple and straightforward, as is appropriate for a narrative in which the author is inviting us to look beneath the surface of events and consider metaphysical problems. Abe takes less liberties with time and place and the ordinary conventions of realistic fiction than he usually does. And yet for all the attention to concrete detail, this is not a realistic novel, but a narrative developed as a dream might unfold, dramatizing the inner life of the central character in his efforts to escape unreality and come to terms with himself and the world around him.
The plot seems to be determined by Abe's central concern: to develop the metaphor of sand around which the novel takes shape. Thus the plot cycle, involving the hero's alternating acts of rebellion and periods of resignation, reinforces the images of sand: discontinuous, unpredictable, moving constantly and imperceptibly. The discontinuity of sand is likewise related to the crucial event with which the plot begins: the hero's decision to escape his everyday routine and possibly build a new future for himself. Sand too is related to Niki Jumpei's creative act on which the plot hinges at the end of the novel. For Abe the desert is "the idea of creation". In this case it is matter for human ingenuity to experiment with, a source of possibilities and avenues of investigation for the creative mind. In Suna no Onna the sand is crucial for Niki Jumpei's discovery, and thus it is literally in the sand that he comes to find his own identity.
The character of Niki Jumpei is very carefully and interestingly drawn. There is a great deal that we know about him and yet a great deal that we do not know. Ordinary, mediocre, decent at the beginning of the book, he becomes frighteningly animal-like and inhuman in his treatment of the woman as the book progresses. Abe controls the information we have about the hero so that our gradual understanding of him develops with the process of self-realization he himself pursues. The total picture we get is of a very immature person, self-centered and insecure. His rational, analytical approach to life is a defense against becoming too closely involved with reality. His relationship with the woman remains problematic throughout the novel. Although at times compassionate and understanding, he treats her for the most part as a mere appendage to his own needs and plans. There are hints that this attitude is changing as the novel ends, but nothing is made really clear.
Part of Abe's success in this novel lies in the effective veil of mystery he keeps over the character of the woman. First of all, there is no clear physical description given of her, and no name. She is always "the woman". We see her mostly through the eyes of the hero, and our perceptions are always somewhat clouded. This enables Abe to set her up as a mirror for the man, in whom Niki Jumpei comes to see himself, thus growing in self-knowledge. If there seems to be a slight inconsistency in the characterization of the woman (a fluctuation between pity and hardheartedness, a mixture of innocence and seductiveness) this can partly be ascribed to the mirror function fulfilled by her character in the novel, and partly to the subordination of character to the central metaphor. Inconsistency is appropriate to illustrate the flow of sand, with no continuity between yesterday, today and tomorrow.
The various themes in the novel also serve to reinforce the principal metaphor of sand. The theme of disappearance establishes the freedom for the hero to move with the shifting sand, not tied down to his former identity or profession or responsibilities. The connected themes of flight and search for a homeland are closely related to the sand image, since the wilderness is the place to which one escapes to erase the past and seek to create a new future. The theme of creativity points to the central image again, with sand as a vast resource offering matter for man's ingenuity, and thus the possibility of escape from alienation. Also connected with sand is the theme of loneliness: the man's and the woman's as they are trapped in their sandy prison and isolated from one another; the vast stretches of uninhabited dunes; the isolated homes at the bottom of the sandpits that make up the village.
Besides the sand imagery, Abe makes considerable use of insect imagery in the novel. This is appropriate enough, since the hero is an insect-collector, and the story is set in a place where insects are likely to be plentiful. People are frequently compared with insects, and vice versa, illustrating the level to which persons are reduced in the condition of alienation. The wall imagery for which Abe was noted in his earlier stories is present here in the walls of sand imprisoning the hero at the bottom of the pit. But sand is the principal image, theme, main character and plot.
Throughout the entire novel, Abe consistently faces real human situations at a deep level and expresses his vision of reality with imagination and art. Abe's vision of man and his world is a nightmare vision, and the conscientious attention he gives to realistic detail emphasizes the dreamlike quality of his narrative. Like Kafka and Beckett, whose works Abe's fiction resembles in some respects, Abe has created an image of alienated man which is disturbing and disquieting. But also like those two writers, Abe has shown a skill and depth in this novel which has made it a universal myth for our time. (pp. 16-18)
William Currie, "Abe Kōbō's Nightmare World of Sand," in Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, edited by Kinya Tsurutu and Thomas E. Swann (copyright, 1976, by Monumenta Nipponica), Sophia University, 1976, pp. 1-18.