Human loss, disappearance, allocation of responsibility, anguish, and futility stand out as the main issues that figure in Kb Abe’s writings. At first, Abe treated such matters mostly in a serious way. Gradually, from the underlying absurdity and irrationality of the imaginary situations about which he wrote, a kind of gallows humor emerged, giving a sense of situation comedy, albeit black comedy. Abe recognized, on one hand, that without cohesive units of interdependent people, human life could scarcely exist; on the other hand, he also observed that people everywhere suffer under the pressure to model their behavior on conventionally accepted manners and mores. Abe’s characters’ resistance to such pressures (or perhaps their unconscious wish to suffer) results in their desire to assert their individuality. Ironically, such assertion leads to alienation, creating a Catch-22 situation and a sense of absurdity.
In Abe’s novels, human relationships are shown to be in disorder, partly reflecting the particular quality of his artistic imagination and partly reflecting his own youthful experiences. Except for the case of The Woman in the Dunes, which is set in a remote seaside hamlet, the main action in hisnarratives typically takes place against the urban landscape and amid the impersonalized locations and institutions with which modern city dwellers are most familiar—hospitals, offices, laboratories, department stores, movie theaters, waiting rooms, and apartments. Conversation and human intercourse are fragmented and interrupted, contributing to a sense of incompleteness. Success, fruition, and fulfillment constantly evade hisprotagonists, who are usually depicted as well-educated people, deserving to reap the rewards of their prudence and perseverance. The underlying irony of Abe’s narratives suggests that human beings have learned to govern many of the forces of their external environment, but they know so little about themselves that they struggle helplessly at the mercy of satanic workings that lurk in the irrational depths of the mind. Sexuality in many of Abe’s novels perversely turns out to exert a divisive impact on men and women, reducing them to a bestial level.
Sometimes, it would seem, gratuitous detail clogs Abe’s narratives, slowing down the forward thrust of the action and creating what amounts to a form of static. The sequence of time is often juggled, creating a confusion of past and present. Lists of objects, minute descriptions of surface appearances, and clinical analyses of emotional responses try the reader’s patience, giving an impression of awkwardness. Actually, however, what appear as technical deficiencies contribute to the overall effectiveness of the author’s style. Aside from imparting a sense of verisimilitude to the situations described—however absurd and irrational they would seem to be—the interruptions, false starts, and narrative shifts convey the state of suffering from which the characters in the end find it impossible to be freed; periodic breaks in the flow of a story are essential to the ultimate completion of the event.
Another intrusive characteristic in Abe’s novels that deserves mention relates to the didactic impulse. As critics have recognized, the novels are imbued with an implicit desire for men and women, parents and children, and family or community to work for social good. A strong social conscience drives all the novels like a compelling organic force. It is easy to understand why at the beginning of his career Abe immersed himself in philosophical writings. He not only felt empathy for Marxism but also studied Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers. As a founding member of two postwar Japanese groups of left-wing authors as well as someone involved in a cross section of European literary movements, Abe, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, stands out as an intellectual writer of cosmopolitan bent who deals not in themes of localized scope but with universal problems. As such, he deserves to be counted as the leading Japanese exponent of the novel of ideas.
In pinpointing the sources of Abe’s moral sensibility, however, one must go beyond twentieth century ideologies and consider the same Chinese and South Asian Buddhist and Confucian sources that led earlier Japanese authors, such as Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848), to treat themes touching on good and evil behavior and on the individual’s place in the larger framework of human society. For example, in terms of theme, Abe’s idea that the search for the other—typically a missing or estranged person—becomes a search for the self relates to fundamental insights of Zen. Similarly, the concept of a realm of nothingness owes as much to Buddhist philosophy as to modern nihilism. Social criticism based on the techniques of irony and satire recalls popular Japanese literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with its pronounced Confucian orientation and its express purpose of encouraging good and castigating evil.
Even in terms of technique, the idea of a postscript in the author’s voice, which suggests removal of the narrator’s mask, resembles Bakin’s practice. The ending of Inter Ice Age 4, for example, insists on the open-ended nature of literature and fiction, in which each person must form his or her own conclusion about the meaning of the tale, yet Abe in his own voice observes in the last words of the postscript, “The most frightening thing in the world is discovering the abnormal in that which is closest to us.” Few modern authors would dare to make such an observation about their own fiction, at least in the text itself, but Bakin frequently did so in his day. Nevertheless, unlike Bakin, Abe refrains from simplistic characterization of certain kinds of behavior as praiseworthy or reprehensible.
Paradox and irony in Abe’s writings give rise to positive and negative polarities. On the negative side are situations such as running away, disappearing, loss of identity, and desiring to escape, all of which lead to destruction, loss, and denial of self. On the positive side, a sense of rebirth, regeneration, and reshaped identity emerges from the narratives. The Woman in the Dunes, in particular, suggests a case in point. Toward the end of the story, the omniscient narrator states pointedly about the protagonist, “Perhaps, along with the water in the sand, he had found a new self.” Returning to a communal structure, as Niki Jumpei does, binds and imprisons but also shelters and supports.
The constituent elements of Abe’s long fiction may be summed up as follows. His main theme involves exposition of the condition of the outsider in modern society. His technique is based on allegory, irony, and satire. His narratives are often constructed by means of a series of reverses. Whenever some hopeful sign appears that communication between people is about to take place, some obtrusion appears that renders further development impossible, as if the lights were suddenly turned on in a lovers’ bedroom or...
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