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Kōbō Abé 1924–

Japanese novelist, playwright, and short story writer.

Abé's work is not distinctly Japanese, but rather shows the influence of such Western writers as Kafka. He is a master of the philosophical novel, which incorporates his major themes, lost identity and alienation.

(See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Stanley Kauffmann

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[In The Woman in the Dunes, a man comes to a] village, each of whose houses is set in a deep pit in the dunes to protect it from the weather. He stays overnight in a house with a woman. In the morning no ladder is lowered for him. He is kept prisoner: to help shovel sand into buckets, to keep the house from being buried and, incited by proximity, to beget children with the woman. Thus he is impressed into the survival and continuity of the village.

The plot, which is what it must be called, is designed as a framework for symbolisms of freedom, love, tenacity, stupidity, hope. There is no inherent demerit in such a plot but there is inherent risk. As soon as the shape becomes clear, the reader becomes aware of a blueprint being slowly followed. Unless the author is able to keep us concentrated on the present moment with interest of character and richness of texture, we become impatient. This is too often true of Abé's book. (p. 21)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Novels from Abroad: 'The Woman in the Dunes'," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. III, No. 2, January 14, 1964, pp. 20-1.

Earl Miner

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The story of an unprepossessing schoolteacher captured on an insect-hunting excursion and subjected to slavery would seem merely bizarre if it were not treated in a meaningful way [in The Woman in the Dunes]. Some of Kobo Abé's readers will recall Kafka's manipulation of a nightmarish tyranny of the unknown, others Beckett's selection of sites like the sandpit of this novel as a symbol of the undignified human predicament. Yet others will see that Abé remains wholly Japanese in rendering his abstract theme through particulars observed with such attention that they take on an almost perverse beauty…. [He] has created a myth of suffering humanity within the recognizably real frame of contemporary Japanese society.

He depicts the ease with which man loses civilized values while yet insisting upon a residual humanity. The unhappy schoolteacher is led skillfully from an initial realistic situation to his hovel in a sandpit where, like the other slave householders of the wretched seaside village, he is forced to keep back the encroaching sand. Throughout the novel he desperately plans escape. His single attempt is a failure, and when at last he might get free he has grown indifferent to release.

The result of enslavement is steady degradation and, conversely, the hero's growing respect for the woman of the book's title. Her strange appeal is partly that of enslavement, partly of femininity. She is artistically more successful as an individual and as a symbol than as an excuse for sexual excursions. There is no question about the success of the two central symbols, insects and sand…. The sand is alive and yet deadly, the hostile environment in which man must seek to establish his individuality, humanity, and civilization. The schoolteacher fails to escape it, but he comes to understand that life is a sandpit and even to achieve some dignity in his degradation….

In such a novel much depends upon intensity of tone, upon the credibility given the action, if the theme is to carry conviction. Apart from certain aspects...

(This entire section contains 389 words.)

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of the woman and a section near the middle of the story, the tone and meaning are well sustained. What happens seems intolerable precisely because it is so grotesquely credible.

Earl Miner, "Life Is a Sandpit," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1964 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVII. No. 36, September 5, 1964, p. 32.

Edward Seidensticker

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["The Face of Another"] is an intricately contrived fantasy, somewhat wanting in dramatic confrontation of characters, but replete with symbolic devices having to do with the fate of modern man.

The story, told in a series of letters and journal entries, is of a man who, as a result of a laboratory accident, has lost his face behind keloid scars, and who sets about making himself a new one. The process of imagining and producing the new face is an ordeal, the process of trying to put it to use a still greater one. The hero's motives in wishing to have "the face of another" are complex and contradictory, but central to them is a longing to re-establish communication with humanity, of which the loss of a face has deprived him. What he finds is only a companionship of loneliness. (pp. 4-5)

One of the most striking things about the book is that so little in it is overtly Japanese. The setting is urban, but the city could be anywhere from Buenos Aires to Leningrad…. [On] the whole, the characters are so anonymous and unattached and the setting as generalized as in Kafka—who of all Western writers would seem to have influenced Mr. Abé most.

Yet beneath it all there are Japanese strains. The journal form has been a favorite of Japanese prose writers for a millennium or so. On a somewhat deeper level, the imagery and the emotion, although they rarely have specific reference to things Japanese, are very much of Japan. The general mood of the book is not really one of despair (as its subject would seem to demand), but rather one of melancholy. Melancholy is much more congenial to the Japanese. (p. 5)

Edward Seidensticker, "Internationally Japanese," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 18, 1966, pp. 4-5.

Howard Hibbett

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[Inter Ice Age 4] confirms once again [Kobo Abé's] mastery of the philosophical thriller. As its bleak geological title suggests, this is his furthest venture into the remote. Yet the time is just ahead of us in the interglacial epoch in which we live, and today the extrapolations of science fiction no longer seem quite so bizarre as they used to….

In Inter Ice Age 4 characterization sometimes yields to abstract speculation, or to a burst of virtuoso scientific imagery. But these passages, fascinating and poetic as they often are, only provide the setting for a compelling human drama. The sense of reality is even more vividly conveyed by the sensitivity of the central character, a vulnerable professor of computer technology, than by the mass of circumstantial detail….

The story is narrated by Professor Katsumi of the ICT (Institute for Computer Technique) in Tokyo, where [a self-programming computer with the capacity to make simple predictions] … has been developed. (p. 37)

Thanks to the marvels of his creation, Professor Katsumi is permitted to savor the exquisite torture of a televised view of his own, and humanity's, fate. In this perspective, the least sensations of everyday reality take on a haunting meaning…. Katsumi is a prime rationalist, a devotee to his machine-god; but, because he remains capable of pity, sorrow, and fear at a time when his scientific colleagues have been frozen into emotional sterility, he fulfills the needs of an existentialist drama spanning the blank abyss between present and future.

Inter Ice Age 4 exhibits the strengths that characterize Mr. Abé's other novels: brilliant narrative, rich description and invention, vital moral and intellectual concerns. Here the concerns are so dominant that they threaten to overwhelm the innocent pleasure of an engrossing piece of fiction. Mr. Abé will "furnish neither understanding nor solution of any sort"; rather, he is determined to "make the reader confront the cruelty of the future, produce within him anguish and strain, and bring about a dialogue with himself." (pp. 37-8)

Howard Hibbett, "Books: 'Inter Ice Age 4'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIII, No. 39, September 26, 1970, pp. 37-8.

The Times Literary Supplement

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[Inter Ice Age 4] is described as "both science fiction and philosophical thriller"; well, as a thriller it is disappointing. It begins well enough, and the first half is reasonably successful in sustaining the reader's interest, but the second tends to be disjointed as well as unconvincing. Kobo Abé apparently took a medical degree and is therefore able to use the jargon effectively, but even the most devoted of modern doom-watchers are likely to find the pseudo-medical and scientific ideas in the novel too phantasmagorical and implausible. Indeed, much of the detail is just nauseating.

What, then, of the claim that the novel is "philosophical" and "challenging" and what about the "most profound moral concerns" of the author? The only direct clue to these is contained in a postscript in which Abé attempts to set out his concept of the novel and in particular the nature of "the future". This, he says, "gives a verdict of guilty to this usual continuity of daily life" and "is already cruel by virtue of being the future". Hardly profound or illuminating.

Unfortunately the novel has few merits to compensate for these disappointments: the characterization is negligible; not even Professor Katsumi comes to life. He seems just a figure in a nightmare. The other characters are no more solidly based, and for an understanding of human relationships (or amusement) the reader must look elsewhere.

"Something Fishy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3627, September 3, 1971, p. 1046.

Auberon Waugh

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Your reviewer had better admit from the beginning that he could not make head or tail of Kobo Abe's The Ruined Map. A private detective, searching for his missing person in a vast industrial city, loses his reason and begins to imagine that he is the person he is hunting for. That much is plain. As soon as the detective starts looking for the fellow, his reasoning becomes so blurred and his reactions so goofy that one decides he must have been hired as the stupidest private detective available….

When the detective, in a philosophical and introspective kind of way, begins to concentrate on a match box to the exclusion of everything else, we realise this is no normal detective thriller. It is Mr Abe's oblique and circuitous way of making a statement about the problems of identity in urban society. The characters are all as deliberately anonymous as the city. Everybody is slightly unhinged, and Mr Abe's only real grip on their human, or even inhuman identity, is that they all eat, drink, suffer toothache and feel the need to go to the lavatory from time to time. Sex is examined briefly and not very convincingly as a possible survival from earlier life-forms. There is no logic in any of the events, but there is extreme seriousness in the treatment of each inconsequential occurrence and a tendency to draw ponderous, illogical conclusions from what happens.

Generally speaking, I would describe this as a recipe for disaster in a novel. Obscurity of motive usually ceases to intrigue after twenty pages, and fails to hold the attention at all after about forty. (p. 436)

Mr Abe's book belongs to that style of novel which is this century's only contribution to the form—the serious nonsense novel…. But it would be wrong to deny that there is a precision and a startling lucidity in Mr Abe's writing which carries the reader effortlessly through the obscurities, the appalling slowness and the general idiocy of the conventions he has adopted. (pp. 436-37)

Auberon Waugh, "Eastern Promise," in The Spectator (© 1972 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 228, No. 7499, March 18, 1972, pp. 436-37.

Hisaaki Yamanouchi

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[Abé is] concerned with the solitude of men and women alienated from contemporary society and suffering from a loss of identity…. [Abé has deliberately deviated] from the dominant trend of the prewar Japanese novels. [He is] … completely free from the sentimentality of self-commiseration characteristic of the I-novelists…. [His prose style is also a mark of his] deviation from the Japanese tradition. Abé's style is objective, logical and lucid…. Abé's literary world has a closer kinship with that of Kafka and some contemporary European writers than that of his countrymen. (pp. 153-54)

From the point of view of literary technique Abé explored a new and unique possibility for prose fiction in his 'The Wall: The Crime of Mr S. Karuma' ('Kabe—S. Karuma shi no Hanzai', 1951)…. This story is concerned with the metamorphosis of human beings…. [His work bears] a resemblance to Kafka's Metamorphosis, where the technique is far removed from realism. From the thematic point of view, however, the author is still concerned with the problem of lost identity. The alternatives for Abé were whether to employ a realistic method or a method which one may call allegorical, symbolic and even surrealistic. The difficulty of the latter alternative lies in the extent to which the use of the irrational and absurd can be plausible in rationalistic terms. There was in this sense a limitation to the highly allegorical stories of metamorphosis. It was natural enough that instead of the purely surrealistic or absurd, Abé came to deal with the realistic situation while still charging it with implications that are above mere realism. (pp. 154-55)

[The Woman in the Dunes] represents all of Abé's major themes and reveals a highly ingenious technique. The protagonist is cut off from his home and society, and caught in the labyrinth of the dunes…. [In the dunes his identity is completely lost. The dunes] function, in this case, as a setting for confinement, in which the protagonist is deprived of freedom. The novel is built up on a series of ironies and paradoxes. The protagonist is not aware of the similarity between himself and the insects which he collects. Furthermore, though he himself is not aware of it, his excessive curiosity about the insects might be a symptom of his social maladjustment. In fact, in the course of the development of the novel it becomes clear that there existed an unbridgeable gap between him and his wife. It is an irony that he wishes to return to society where his identity is only an illusory one and that he tries to threaten the villagers of the dunes with this illusory identity. A further irony is found in his gradual realisation of the futility of his attempt to escape…. At the end of the novel he shows no wish to escape…. (pp. 156-57)

[The] protagonist parts company from the homeland of his birth and finds himself in another homeland…. His identity is not established in either. Abé seems to say that identity cannot be found anywhere, but consists in a continuous search in the new homeland, which in this case is symbolised by the dunes. Since the dunes never stay stable but move continuously, man … can never cease in his toil, for then he ceases to exist at all.

The theme of alienation and lost identity is further elaborated in The Face of Another (Tanin no Kao, 1964), which focuses on the relations of one individual with another and tries to define precisely the nature of individual identity. The protagonist, a chemist, has a face covered all over with a leech-like mass of keloid scars as a result of a laboratory explosion. The novel consists of his private notebook or diary in which he writes down the process of his making a mask and the subsequent psychological effect on both himself and his wife with whom he wants to re-establish a rapport by wearing the mask.

The protagonist's estrangement derives from the assumption on the part of society that one's face is one's identity and that ugly disfigurement deprives a person of his claim to be a member of that society. One of the many ironies in this novel, however, is that the protagonist, as a result of his unfortunate disfigurement, discerns the falsity of this common assumption. He becomes aware that the normal face is as unreal as a mask and that it can conceal beneath it a self which is far uglier than a disfigured face. Another irony is that the initial success of the mask comes to nullify, or at least temper, the hero's fearful obsession with his keloid scars…. (pp. 157-58)

With the use of the mask the protagonist gains insight not only into other people but into himself. Once in a crowded train he is squashed close to a woman but his mask conceals his embarrassment. In his notebook, however, he confesses that his sexual desire was aroused on that occasion. The irony of the situation is that the mask conceals but does not change his real self. The problem has a deeper implication as developed in the protagonist's afterthought: it has to do with man's helpless solitude in contemporary society. The author seems to say that human beings are enemies of one another and that philanthropism is a fiction to disguise this very fact. The sexual desire that the protagonist feels towards the woman in a crowded train is a facet of such sterile human relationships in contemporary society. (p. 158)

The ultimate end of the protagonist's plan [is] to seduce his wife…. His wife's apparently unresisting acceptance of his seduction under the mask appals him, but the actual fact is that his wife is aware of his identity…. She overcomes her initial embarrassment by trying to see his scheme as being based on his consideration towards her. She is morally innocent so long as she knows that the mask is a mere fiction and that she is actually re-establishing a rapport with her husband. The protagonist, on the contrary, is testing her and fostering distrust of her, which proves not only tormenting to himself but also injurious to her goodwill towards him. It is inevitable that the gap between the two becomes more deeply felt. The ultimate irony is that the mask which the protagonist invents to restore a tie with his wife actually contributes to an irrevocable break. (p. 160)

[Ironically] the mask helps the process of introspection and brings with it a realisation that, whether one wears a mask or not, the real self is ugly, helpless, lonely, and unable to commune with another individual; the search for one's lost identity inevitably leads to the recognition that the ideal self does not exist. The Face of Another was followed by The Ruined Map (Moetsukita Chizu, 1967), which is another novel about a search for identity: a private detective, while engaged in looking for a man who has disappeared into thin air, loses his own identity. Thus Abé does not give any easy solution to the search for identity. However, this may not be so much a pessimistic philosophy as a realistic acceptance of the human condition. It reminds us that to dream of release from our impasse must prove illusory. The lost identity is not to be discovered, and yet life is meaningful only if the search is continued: the cessation of the search means death. If we use Abé's own metaphor, we are surrounded by desert or dunes, and there is no other place for us. (pp. 161-62)

Abé's unique position may become clear by comparison with his predecessors. The Japanese I-novelists, for instance, believed or at least tried to believe that there was the ego or the core of individual personality to be searched for through their attempts to write novels, although their purpose was never really fulfilled…. Abé, on the contrary, seems to suggest that, whether disguised under a mask or not, there is no personal identity other than that which is inevitably bound to the material world. In this Abé represents the truly existentialist standpoint that existence precedes essence.

The search for identity presupposes a community in which the ego is to be realised as a social self. For Abé, however, a community is an illusory idea which he rejects outright. His works provide a picture of life in which man is utterly lonely, deprived of communication with his fellow men and determined by physical reality. And yet what Abé intends to prescribe in his works is not despair but tough reasonableness with which to accept the inescapable reality of life; only by doing so can man justify his own existence. (pp. 172-73)

[Abé] was brought up as an expatriate in a place somewhat like a barren wilderness, where neither the culture of his homeland nor that of the West was available in tangible form. In such circumstances there was nothing for him but to conceive of culture, of whichever hemisphere, in the abstract. This could have been a disadvantage, but, in Abé's case, it enabled him to create a literary universe which transcends the author's nationality. He is probably the first Japanese writer whose works, having no distinctly Japanese qualities, are of interest to the Western audience because of their universal relevance. (pp. 173-74)

Hisaaki Yamanouchi, "In Search of Identity: Abé Kōbō and Ōe Kenzaburō," in his The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature (© Cambridge University Press 1978), Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 153-74.∗


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While [Kobo Abe's] figurative language remains essentially Japanese ("His left shoulder made a sound like the splitting of chopsticks"), his themes are decidedly Western. Abe shares with writers like Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Robbe-Grillet an obsession for the hallucination vraie, the imaginary made "real" through an accumulation of precise detail. Abe's "visions" never fall apart upon a second reading, because the "science" in them is so solidly based.

But the key to understanding any Abe novel lies in the reader's ability to decipher the various levels of sexuality. All of Abe's protagonists are elitist mole-men, characters who resemble Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Kafka's K., and Robbe-Grillet's Wallas in that they are hypersensitive, fragile creatures with strong intellects and weak egos. They are all scientists, whose analytic and self-reflective powers have reached full maturity, but whose emotional capacities have either atrophied or become fixated in late adolescence. Pathetically isolated and introverted, they prefer data over people, because figures are empirical, while people are unpredictable. As narrators, they are both trustworthy (because of their ability to observe) and unreliable (because of their inability to interpret correctly what they observe).

Real confrontation almost always comes in the form of a woman, fragmented as a sexual object through voyeuristic camera-like close-ups and associated with insect- or animal-imagery. But Abe's women possess superior intellects, which enable them to manipulate the male narrators into sexual confrontations. When sex occurs, it is always described at the level of animal instinct: a sex that resolves the narrator's divided tendencies toward aggression (as a man) and withdrawal (as a scientist), a sex which forges new identity by obliterating rational intellect. (p. 129)

The Woman in the Dunes stands apart from Abe's other novels in that its conclusion allows for life beyond the sex of pure feeling with the woman. That novel's narrator triumphs both on the intellectual plane (the discovery of water preservation in sand) and on the emotional plane (the pregnancy). In The Face of Another and The Ruined Map the sexual confrontations which lead to a new identity also lead to psychic terrorism, because they eradicate intellect, leaving the weak ego to fend for itself. (p. 132)

William F. Van Wert, "Levels of Sexuality in the Novels of Kobo Abe," in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 129-32.

Anthony Thwaite

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If one could imagine a Tom Stoppard "Jumpers" written by Lewis Carroll and Kafka, translated with a minimal sense of topography to a modern Japanese setting (with a touch of Borges, as it were), one might be somewhere near grasping what Abe has done [in "Secret Rendezvous"]. But the stockpile of influences or analogues doesn't weaken or invalidate the book, which is both original and edgily entertaining….

The story concerns the head of a jump-shoe sales team, jump-shoes being a type of sports footwear with bouncy soles that make the wearer super-buoyant. One morning an ambulance suddenly and inexplicably arrives and carries off the salesman's wife, taking her to an enormous underground hospital. Bewildered, the salesman sets out to find her….

[The] book takes on a rich array of satirical targets, from total information systems to the elite mysteries—and obfuscations—of modern medicine: therapies, transplants, sex research in the name of enlightenment. And there are links with Abe's earlier novels. As in "The Woman in the Dunes," the central character is cut off from his home and his accustomed society, with the underground labyrinth and alien organization of the hospital substituted for the labyrinthine underground community Abe's insect-collector found in the dunes. As in "The Face of Another," "Secret Rendezvous" is made up of notebooks that attempt to hang on to a disintegrating personality. As in "The Ruined Map," a man's search for a disappearing person involves the loss of his own identity.

What is new in Abe's work is the clinical sense of comedy; it's a disconcertingly funny book, outrageously but successfully exploiting the comic possibilities of arbitrariness and metamorphosis. Oddly—or perhaps not so oddly—it's mainly the food references (often metaphorical rather than literal) that make the book feel Japanese: clouds move across the evening sky "like overboiled rice cakes," and so on. The idiom is sometimes too thick with clichés, which may or may not be the translator's fault: "falling for it hook, line, and sinker," "a wild-goose chase" and "he was in real hot water" within the space of four lines is a bit much. But "Secret Rendezvous" is always lucid and readable; the logic of its illogic is inexorable, and underneath its easy colloquial style lies a toughly reasonable view of the loneliness, the incommunicability and the cruelty of man.

Anthony Thwaite, "Japanese Logic and Illogic," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1979, p. 13.

The New Republic

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Kobo Abe delights in the excessive and the perverse. With its surrealistic setting, its claustrophobic atmosphere, and its increasingly distressing scenes of sexual decadence and violence, Secret Rendezvous disturbs rather than titillates. To the Western mind at least, this book is maddeningly, perhaps pointlessly, abstruse….

[Abe's hero] sets off one morning to track down his wife, who has been carried off, inexplicably, by an ambulance. Once inside the labyrinthian underground hospital, the man (the characters don't have names, only abstract identities) finds himself conducting his own full-scale investigation. The ostensible object of his search is his wife, but soon he realizes that in a strange way he is involved in a penetrating self-investigation, and the hospital officials who profess to be helping him actually spin out the hunt by luring him deeper and deeper into their own demented activities….

[Hospital] administrators do not do anything as straightforward as overseeing the medical complex. Instead, they spend their time monitoring an intensive surveillance system that records the illicit "secret" rendezvous of patients. The tapes are then used for scientific study and are sold at a handsome profit to over 4000 eager fans. This is a grotesque fantasy world where individuals are held hostage by their obsessive desires. If they lack the resourcefulness to enact their fantasies, they can simply witness them enacted by others….

The Japanese seem to embrace the unspeakable openly, as a form of release, accepting facets of the imagination Americans often skirt—even in the most lurid popular fiction. But if nothing else, Secret Rendezvous offers its Western readers a glimpse of the idiosyncracies of Japanese culture, and a reminder of our own comparative restraint as, with queasy bewilderment, we inspect Abe's nightmarish world.

D. W., "Brief Review: 'Secret Rendezvous'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 12, September 22, 1979, p. 55.

Irving Malin

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Kobo Abe refuses to write a conventional novel. He gives us a series of "notebooks" (and epilogue); within the "notebooks" are charts, banks of information, and clues. The fictional structure is a labyrinth, a "secret rendezvous" of science and poetry….

[In Secret Rendezvous, Abe is] giving us a violent and night-marish work. He deliberately mingles fear and pleasure to force us toward a philosophical position…. The novel outmaneuvers us;… it is full of deceptions, conceits, and reflections—and it suggests that "reality itself"—that is, the world outside of the fiction-world is ultimately inexplicable.

There is another turn—another part of the labyrinth…. Abe suggests that only by accepting an underlying pattern to existence, can we conclude (or even begin) our earthly endeavors. He writes a testament, a document of faith, even when he seems to mock belief in all solutions. The "secret rendezvous" is, in one way, the unforeseen meeting with fate, destiny, divine order—that final encounter by which we understand the meaning of our past and present "somersaults."

I do not mean to imply that Abe is a "salesman" of faith. He offers few glib sermons. He makes us work (as readers and believers). But the very beauty and toughness of his novel lies in its refusal to take the easy road. He resembles Kafka in this respect (and many others): he paradoxically affirms the hidden order of the universe by dwelling on secret, ominous, ghostly passageways.

Irving Malin, "Through Fantasies to Faith," in Commonweal (copyright © 1979 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVI, No. 23, December 21, 1979, p. 729.


Abé, Kōbō (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Abé, Kōbō (Vol. 8)