THE GREAT JAPANESE: Kōbō Abe — existentialist writer and master of the Japanese philosophical novel
Art design: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop
The name of the Japanese writer Kōbō Abe (1924–1993) became familiar to me thirty years ago when I read three of his novels one after another: «The Woman in the Dunes», «The Box Man» and «The Face of Another». The impression of the first reading remained in my memory as a feeling of incredible loneliness and hopelessness that roamed the pages of the books, leaving almost no reason for optimism.
The writer’s immersion in psychology revealed the complex relationship between man and society, the essence of the eternal conflict between the desire to be oneself and the need to adapt to reality.
Reading Abe’s works coincided with the time when I read Camus’s «The Stranger» and Sartre’s «Nausea». The Japanese writer seemed incredibly close to European existentialism, and I suddenly saw his literary predecessors: Dostoevsky and Andreev, Kafka and Akutagawa.
After the first meeting, Kōbō Abe got to the Olympus of my literary sympathies as the author of philosophical novels that are rightfully included in the treasury of world literature of the second half of the twentieth century.
I want to believe that Kōbō Abe’s books deserve to be read by you, if by any chance you have passed them by.
The wish to become a writer is simply egoism: the desire to become a puppet master and thus separate oneself from other puppets
JAPANESE ORIGIN, CHILDHOOD IN CHINA, AND CHINESE NAME
Kōbō Abe was born on March 7, 1924 in Tokyo, and his Japanese birth name was Kimifusa. But since he lived in China for the first 16 years of his life, together with his father, who worked at the Mukden (now Shenyang) Medical College in Manchuria, his name, changed to resemble the Chinese, became Kōbō.
Fate was kind enough to give the boy a beautiful and sonorous writer’s name, Kōbō Abe.
In China, Kōbō studied at a middle school. He grew up and developed in a multicultural space, and the influence of Chinese culture broadened his horizons and formed a broad view of reality that he would not have been able to obtain if he had stayed in Japan.
During his studies, Abe read a lot, and he was greatly impressed by the books of European classics, as well as the works of Dostoevsky and Gogol. When Kobo Abe returned to Tokyo in 1940, he began to seriously familiarize himself with Japanese culture.
After completing his secondary education, the young man decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and in 1943 entered the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Tokyo to become a doctor. However, Kōbō Abe failed to make a medical career, and after not working as a doctor for a day, he chose writing as his life’s work, and, as it turned out, for good reason.
VOCATION AND RECOGNITION: «THE WALL» AND AKUTAGAWA PRIZE
The young writer made his literary debut in 1947, when, having written a 62-page book of poetry, Abe printed the edition himself on a screen-printing machine. The poetry collection was a fusion of Rilke’s poetry and Heidegger’s philosophy. The book of poems was not particularly successful.
In the same year, 1947, Kōbō Abe wrote a novel that was originally titled «The Wall», but before its publication a year later, the author changed the title to «Signpost at the End of the Road». The famous Japanese writer and literary critic Yutaka Haniya liked the book and contributed to its publication.
Inspired by the positive assessments of his work, Kōbō Abe writes the story «The Wall — The Crime of S. Karma». The Crime of S. Karma», a Kafkaesque work reminiscent of the absurd situation of Josef K. from the novel «The Trial».
In 1951, the story was published in the journal Modern Literature and immediately won the Akutagawa Prize for a talented literary debut. To be fair, not all members of the jury were in favor, but the authority of the writer Yasunari Kawabata (1899–1972), the future Nobel Prize winner in Literature (1968), who enthusiastically supported Abe’s candidacy, was decisive.
In 1951, the writer expanded the story, added two more parts, and the book was published under the new title «The Wall».
Kōbō Abe’s literary career is gaining momentum. He began writing plays and short stories. In 1959, he published the science fiction novel «Inter Ice Age 4». The writer’s creative potential grew stronger, and soon he completed and published his most famous work, The Woman in the Dunes.
«WOMAN IN THE DUNES» (1962)
The barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently was due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things. What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out
«Woman in the Dunes» — is one of the writer’s best works, the most humane and perfect. It is a novel about a person and his struggle to remain human in an inhuman situation. The protagonist finds himself in a sand village, in fantastic but unbearable conditions, where he is forced to shovel sand from morning to night to get water and food from the village. Together with a strange woman he meets by chance, they work tirelessly.
Kōbō Abe gives a scientific, encyclopedic definition of the mineral: «Sand is an accumulation of broken rock. Sometimes it includes magnetic iron ore, cassiterite, and rarely gold sand. The diameter is from two to one sixteenth of a millimeter».
The sand in the novel is a symbol of destruction, a blind and ruthless force of reality that fills us with problems that are insoluble.
The epigraph to the novel — «Without the threat of punishment, there is no joy in flight» — from the first lines introduces us to the space of a wild situation when a person is turned into an ordinary slave, a sand porter, and this Sisyphean labor is absurd in its essence (despite the efforts, the sand fills the house again and again, and there is no end to this horror); in the end, sand, like the stone for Sisyphus, becomes the only meaning of life.
Yulia Yaroslavtseva defines the essence of the protagonist’s psychology as follows:
«An attempt to escape is not an attempt to escape from a sandy village, it is rather an attempt to express yourself, to show that you don’t want to be just a grain of sand in this world, that you are much bigger, but the escape is foiled, the hero is returned to his place, there is no more desire to escape, so you are just a small part of this huge world, nothing will happen in the world from the loss of this part, and the police reports that declared the hero dead are a clear indication. It is we who seem to be the most irreplaceable, but for the space, each person does not exist separately, he or she exists only as a dune».
«THE FACE OF ANOTHER» (1964)
All people cover the window of the soul with a mask of flesh and hide the leeches that live underneath
The protagonist of the novel «The Face of Another» refers to the keloid scars on his face as leeches. There was an explosion in the chemical laboratory where he worked, and a burn disfigured the scientist’s face, and realizing that his physical disfigurement interferes with his relationships with other people, he decides to hide his disfigured face behind a mask.
The hero believes that this is his salvation and the path that will allow him to leave the path of boundless loneliness and plunge into the warm bath of human relationships. The hero does not realize that his desire to hide his face is nothing more than a subconscious desire to escape from himself, to escape from moral obligations, to get the right to commit a crime and receive a future indulgence.
The mask begins to live its own life and form a new personality of the hero. He looks at the world and sees a civilization of falsity, there are many masked people in the big city, the mask is the key to success and prosperity, career growth and love victories. A mask is a profitable and pragmatic thing, and the more skillful its maker is, the more likely society will believe you and love you.
The owner of the «other person’s face» states:
«The facial expression is not a secret door that hides from prying eyes, but the main entrance, and therefore it is deliberately constructed and decorated in such a way that it pleases the eye of the passerby. It is a letter, not an advertising leaflet, which is sent without thinking about who will receive it, and therefore cannot exist without an addressee».
The mask in the novel «The Face of Another», like the sand in the previous work, is a true reality and a deep metaphor. The ambiguity of the image of someone else’s face lies in the fact that under the mask a person hides not a physical disfigurement, but a mental decay, strives to get rid of himself, his self, which has become hateful.
The second aspect is related to the problem of loneliness and alienation, when the mask is the only way to become like everyone else, to join the general human herd, to gain the respect of the society of masks and to turn hypocrisy into a ticket to life.
«THE BOX MAN» (1973)
Of course, it costs nothing to get out of the box. But since it doesn’t cost anything, you don’t want to get out in vain. Only if it is possible, I would like to lend a hand to someone
The novel «The Box Man» continues the theme of human alienation, revealing different facets of existential loneliness and social indifference. The protagonist of the novel tries to hide from the world of people behind the shell of a cardboard box house, immersing himself in the illusion of independence from society.
The box in the book also acts as a metaphor: on the one hand, its role is a symbol of protection from the outside world, and on the other hand, it is a sign of the world’s indifference and the general alienation of humanity.
Kōbō Abe’s novel resonates not only with Chekhov’s «The Man in a Case», but also repeats the meaning and feelings that arise when reading Franz Kafka’s «The Burrow». It is no coincidence that some literary critics say: «Kōbō Abe is the Japanese Kafka».
Abe’s character is lost in a labyrinth of searching:
«The box, which looks like a simple ordinary cube, is actually an intricate labyrinth with intricately intertwined paths when viewed from the inside. If there are many paths, then let there be as many truths as there are paths».
At the same time, the protagonist believes and hopes that one day he will find a way out of the dead end, a secret door to another reality, a harmonious and perfect life that is desirable and possible:
«It even seems to me that the box is not a dead end for me, which I eventually entered, but a wide-open door to another world. I don’t know which one, but it’s a completely different world».
DRAMA, THEATER AND CINEMA
Kōbō Abe’s creative biography is not limited to the fifteen novels he wrote, although they constitute the main body of his work; drama and theater occupy an important place in it, and the film adaptations of his books bring a new sound to them and increase their popularity.
Kōbō Abe wrote eight plays throughout his life. Some of them were successful, and one of his 1962 plays became the basis for the movie The Trap, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and based on the author’s screenplay. Later, this director would also film three novels by Kobo Abe: «Woman in the Dunes» (1964), The Face of Another (1966), and «The Ruined Map» (1968).
The film Woman in the Dunes, made in collaboration with Kōbō Abe, won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and won 4 Mainichi Film Awards in Japan. After its release, the movie became a cult film in the United States.
Kōbō Abe’s theater work was also successful. In 1973, the writer organized «Abe Kōbō Studio» theater, and for ten years the theater has been popular with the public, and critics have noted the innovation and non-trivial nature of the productions.
REMARKABLE FACTS FROM LIFE
Kōbō Abe became famous not only as a writer, but also as an outstanding inventor: he has a patent for anti-slip chains that can be put on car wheels without using a jack, and the demonstration of this invention at a specialized exhibition brought him a silver medal.
In addition, the writer was the first of his generation to use the text editors of the newly appeared computers, and since the 1980s he has been writing and editing manuscripts in a new way, the way we all do now.
Abe’s fascination with photography is also known, and photographs taken by him were used in the design of the collection of his works. It is also surprising that the writer’s favorite objects for photography were garbage dumps.
Kōbō Abe was also passionate about music, and purchased a synthesizer long before they were widely available, using it to score the productions of the «Studio Abe Theater».
NOBEL PRIZE NOMINATION, DEATH AND IMMORTALITY
In 1992, Kōbō Abe was nominated for the Nobel Prize, but unfortunately, the prize was awarded to the poet Derek Walcott.
A second nomination became impossible: On December 25, 1992, while working on his next book, Kōbō Abe fainted from a brain hemorrhage. Treatment was unsuccessful, and on January 22, 1993, at the age of 68, the writer died.
The Japanese writer Kenzaburō Ōe who was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, claimed that Kōbō Abe would have certainly received this award if he had lived a little longer.
I hope that he was not being disingenuous, because for me his words are more accurate than ever. I am sincerely convinced that a personality of Kōbō Abe’s stature has no date of death, and that their life is like an open book of eternity: it has a beginning but no end.