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 taken seriously and the narrator ordered to develop it further.) Later he learns he may be part of a secret agricultural experiment. Preposterous? Of course, but strangely prophetic too. The recent food poisoning epidemic in Japan was for a time blamed on radish shoots; farmers were ruined and inhabitants from the affected area shunned. A visit to a health clinic leads to a comical yet nightmarish underground journey aboard a hospital bed that doubles as magic carpet and ferry over the River Styx. There are comic-book size bows to Greek myth, Dante’s INFERNO, DRACULA, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, and more besides as well as brief stops at a department store and a sulfur spring where children from a local nursery play the role of aborted fetuses for the pleasure of busloads of tourists and the profit of their underfunded school. KANGAROO NOTEBOOK takes readers on a wild ride but even as he pulls one grotesque situation after another out of his narrative hat, Abe provides a strangely sober and certainly provocative look at woefully denatured, bureaucratized consumer society gone seriously awry.