J-Lit Giants: 6 – Kobo Abe

It’s Wednesday – and that means it must be time for another J-Lit GiantGary, of The Parrish Lantern, is back again to introduce us to another great of Japanese literature – and after visiting the world of poetry in his last post, he is back to prose this time 🙂

A Man of Many Masks – Kobo Abe

Kōbō Abe (安部 公房 Abe Kōbō), pseudonym of Kimifusa Abe (安部 公房), was born on March the 7th 1924 in Kita, Tokyo, but he grew up in Mukden (now Shen-yang) in Manchuria during the second world war. In 1948, he received a medical degree from the Tokyo Imperial University, yet never practised medicine. As well as being a prose writer, he was also a poet (Mumei shishu “Poems of an unknown poet” – 1947), playwright, photographer and inventor. Although his first novel Owarishi michi no shirube ni (“The Road Sign at the End of the Street”) was published in 1948, which helped to establish his reputation, it wasn’t until the publication of The Woman in the Dunes in 1962 that he won widespread international acclaim.

Often described as an avant-garde playwright and novelist, he shared the same literary map as the likes of Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka and Eugene Ionesco through a shared sense of the absurd and the central theme of an alienated and isolated individual at a loss in the world. Kobo Abe manages to do this within the realms of genres that would be recognised by most: if you fancy a detective novel, there’s The Ruined Map; for Science Fiction, Inter Ice Age 4; for Fantasy, Kangaroo Notebook.  There’s even a love story aspect to The Face of Another.

In the 1960s, he worked with the Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara on the film adaptations of The Face of Another, plus The Pitfall, The Woman in the Dunes and The Ruined Map. Then, in the early 1970s, he set up an acting studio in Tokyo, where he trained performers and directed plays. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977.

Among the honours bestowed on him were the Akutagawa Prize in 1951 for The Crime of S. Karuma, the Yomiuri Prize in 1962 for The Woman in the Dunes, and the Tanizaki Prize in 1967 for the play Friends. Kenzaburō Ōe stated that Abe deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he himself had won (Abe was nominated multiple times).

Kobo Abe, through his work as an avant-garde novelist and playwright, has had names of the calibre of Albert Camus, Alberto Moravia and Franz Kafka, (as well as those mentioned above) thrown at him, and like Kafka there is an apparent clinical detachment in the writing, as though Abe’s medical background has had a direct influence upon his writing style.  Yet with this there is also an elegance that makes his work an immensely enjoyable and also an incredibly satisfying read – on all levels.

Two Great Books by Kobo Abe

The Face of Another (1964) – A plastics scientist loses his face in an accident and proceeds to obtain a new face for himself. With a new ‘mask’, the protagonist sees the world in a new way and even goes so far as to have a clandestine affair with his estranged wife. There is also a subplot following a hibakusha woman who has suffered burns to the right side of her face. In the novel, the protagonist sees this character in a film (click link for my post).

The Ruined Map (1967) – The story of an unnamed detective, hired by a beautiful, alcoholic woman, to find clues related to the disappearance of her husband. In the process, the detective is given a map (a ruined one), to help him – this turns out to be more like a metaphor of the guidelines one should have in life. The impossibility of finding any relevant clues to solve the mystery leads the main character to an existential crisis, building slowly from inside, and this finally puts him in the position of identifying himself with the man he was supposed to find.

These are just two of around eight English translated novels and at least one short story collection from this fabulous writer, and I mean fabulous with all its connotations. Kobo Abe, manages to astound and amaze and yet remain within the realms of what could be defined as the mundane reality of the world about us.

For more information I will be posting a version of this post on my blog at a later date, with all the Novels and a synopsis of them.

Thanks again, Gary 🙂  Abe is another writer I should really have read more of.  Apart from a couple of short stories, I’ve only managed to get to his most famous work, The Woman in the Dunes.  More to come, I’m sure…

And how about you?  What is your favourite Kobo Abe book?  Just leave a comment in the usual place if your favourite hasn’t been mentioned 🙂


About Tony

Championing the wonders of fiction in translation... ...but quietly (the kids are asleep...).
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12 Responses to J-Lit Giants: 6 – Kobo Abe

  1. Ally says:

    I have only read The Woman in the Dunes, and then watched the movie, and I was quite impressed 🙂


  2. Kobe abe is one of those writers that should be explored & yet because of his writing this is not a onerous task but one of pleasure.


  3. Tony says:

    Ally – It's an impressive book, but it does have some slightly disturbing themes…


  4. Tony says:

    Gary – I'm looking forward to trying more of his work. 'The Face of Another' is one I've been meaning to read for some time 😉


  5. I read Secret Rendezvous last year and quite enjoyed it, though it might not be for everyone. Bought The Ruined Map and I'm very excited to get into it.


  6. Rise says:

    The Box Man is a favorite. I've also watched a good film adaptation of it. Well, sort of.



  7. Tony says:

    ResearcherNo1 – I'm sure I'll get to those eventually (the key word here being 'eventually'!).


  8. Tony says:

    Rise – Is that a joke, or is there a connection? I know nothing about either of these…


  9. Rise says:

    Both stories feature a person who dwells in a box.


  10. Hi Tony, for anyone interested, here is the link to the full version of this post http://parrishlantern.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/a-man-of-many-masks-kobo-abe.html


  11. Tony says:

    Rise – OK, got you now 😉


  12. Tony says:

    Gary – Thanks for that. I'll add a link to the page.


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