Book Review: Secret Rendezvous by Abe Kôbô

Abe Kôbô (安部 公房) was born in Tokyo in 1924. He grew up in Mukden, today Shenyang, in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. His father was a physician. Abe went to school in Tokyo and studied also medicine at the Tokyo Imperial University.

During his time as a student he began to write. In the beginning he imitated the style of Rainer Maria Rilke, a famous Austro-German poet. He wrote poems, short stories, and later novels with surreal elements. From 1949 until 1962 he was influenced by Marxism. Abe travelled to Eastern Europe and France. In 1951 he was awarded with the Akutagawa Prize for his short story ‘The Wall ―The Crime of S. Karma’ (壁―S・カルマ氏の犯罪).

Abe is well-known for his novel Woman in the Dunes (砂の女) of 1962 which was made into a movie by Teshigahara Hiroshi in 1964. Many of his works were translated into different languages from the mid-1960s onwards. He was awarded with many important literary awards as a novelist and playwright and was also mentioned as a recipient of the Nobel Prize. Since 1973 Abe directed his own theatre company in Tokyo. He died in 1993.

As an avant-garde author Abe Kôbô writes about existential problems of modern life. He uses abstract literary language and often surreal metaphors. He is influenced by Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. The setting of his novels are anonymous and timeless, mostly with nameless protagonists without an individual character.

‘Secret Rendezvous’ (密会), written in 1977, can be described as a bizarre novel with a strong surrealistic atmosphere and sci-fi elements.

The main protagonist is a man without a name, age 32. He is also the narrator. The story is mainly a report consisting of three notebooks from a third person perspective where he is referring to himself as the man. The storytelling changes in parts into a first-person perspective by the same narrator.

One night an ambulance arrives, nobody having sent for, and carries away the man’s wife. The woman is perfectly in health and knows nothing about an appointment at the hospital. Two men with a stretcher carry her away, calling it an emergency. The wife wears only a light negligee.

The man, a shoe salesman, searches after her with the help of the Mano Agency and enters the hospital where his wife is supposed to be. The wife was brought into the building but vanished without a trace.

From now on the man is drawn into a labyrinth of the hospital and makes terrible and grotesque experiences. Abe describes the environment as totally technical and de-humanized. The top executives and the staff of the hospital are acting dysfunctional. Sexual abuse is used as an instrument of power. The main themes are abuse of power, subordination and isolation of the individual in a dystopian society.

I would think of this book as a grotesque and satirical novel. It is skillfully written and well structured. At times it is disturbing but I guess this is meant to be by the author. The novel is not entertaining. ‘Secret Rendezvous’ is not my favorite work by Abe Kôbô. I would recommend this novel only to readers who really want to dive into Abe’s work.

The version I used for this review is Secret Rendezvous: translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, 1981.First Tuttle edition. Charles E. Tuttle Company. See the cover above.

Japanese title: 安部公房: 密会, 1977.

More reviews of Abe Kôbô’s book on this blog:

Abe Kôbô: Woman in the Dunes
Abe Kôbô: The Ruined Map

Art on Tuesday: Ashida

This ukiyo-e by Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797-1958) shows ‘Ashida’ from his series ‘The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidô’ (木曾街道六拾九次之内 あし田). The woodblock-print was made about 1835-38. The depicted road was one of the main five routes that connected Edo (today’s Tôkyô) with the old capital Kyôto. The Kisaidô (木曾街), is also known as Nakasendô (中山道) which means ‘Central Mountain Route’. One of the sixty-nine stations is Ashida (芦田), the post town was built in 1601. It is located at Teteshina in Nagano Prefecture.

Art on Tuesday: Nihonbashi

One Hundred Famous Views of Edo 名所江戸百景 by Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重 (1797-1858). This is the first picture of his well-known landscape series. The title of the ukiyo-e 日本橋雪晴 means clearing after snow. It shows a scene in early spring at the Nihonbashi-bridge at the Nihonbashi-river. It is located in the Chuo-district in Tokyo. The wooden bridge, built in 1603, shown in this picture does not exist any longer. Today there is a stone bridge completed in 1911 nearby the Nihonbashi subway station. In the front on the right side of the river the Edo-era fish market is located and in the back you see the flat houses of the Edo castle and Mount Fuji.

Utagawa Hiroshige also chooses the Nihonbashi bridge for the first picture of his series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road 東海道五十三次 Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi no uchi. (1833-34). This ukiyo-e shows the starting point of his first journey along the Tokaido, it is called Morning Scene (asa no kei) 朝之景. The Tokaido was the main route from Edo to Kyoto. The artist was travelling with an official delegation and depicted main stations along the route. 

A variation of the same bridge with the title of The Daimyō Procession is Setting Out  gyōretsu furidashi, 行列振出.

Book Review: Killing Commendatore by Murakami Haruki

“That sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting.”

The narrator of Killing Commendatore is a nameless portrait painter in his 30‘s living in Tokyo married to Yuzu, a female architect. Suddenly she is asking for a divorce, because she is in love with another man. She is having an affair for months now.

The narrator moves out. To get some fresh air he first goes on a trip to North Japan by car for over a month and a half. Then he settles for a living in an old wooden mountaintop house in Odawara, which belongs to the father of his friend Masahiko Amada. The old man was a famous painter, named Tomohiko Amada. Now he is in his 90‘s, suffering from dementia, and living in a nursing home near Izu Kogen.

The old house is fully furnished and equipped with things belonging to the old painter including a painting studio. There the narrator is living a simple tech-free life in the woods for the time of the story. He listens to records, mainly classical music, repeatedly to the comic opera of Strauss Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose).

After a short period of time he gets a call from his agent: a client named Wataru Menshiki wants to be painted by him and only by him for a huge amount of money. The narrator cannot decline.

So, a mysterious stranger appears in his house. Tall, slim, white hair, perfectly in style. He is 54 years old, living as a single person in a white mansion across the mountain in view of the old house. He has become rich by selling his own tech company and by stock trading. His business is somewhat unclear and remains hidden in the dark as an undescribed internet business.

He sits regularly as a model in the studio, but the narrator is not capable of painting him, because he is hiding something and appears to be soulless. There is nothing personal about Menshiki, he seems to be an empty shell.

The narrator describes his painting process to the reader and gives some background information about traditional Japanese painting techniques. This becomes an integral part of the story.

The atmosphere of the novel is loaded with fear. Something bad will happen. It is lingering in the air. Menshiki is mysterious and the narrator does not know, if he can trust him. Why is he paying him a huge amount of money for his portrait? Why is he living alone in a big mansion? And what is he really working at?

Puzzling events occur after the narrator finds an old painting made by Tomohiko Amada in the attic. This is called Killing Commendatore.

First there is a mysterious ringing bell in the middle of the night which wakes the narrator. It comes from outside. The narrator cannot ignore the sound and goes out to explore the strange phenomenon. In the backyard of the house there is an old forgotten Shinto shrine. Nothing special, something you find overall in Japan.

There he sees some square stones covered with moss. Is something or someone causing the ringing in a pit hidden by the stones down there? A nightmarish situation.

In the morning after the incident the narrator is suddenly capable of painting the outlines of Menshiki‘s portrait.

After telling him about the strange occurrence in the night, they both decide to remove the stones near the shrine. A pit in the backyard is revealed. Which leads to another strange event: the painting Killing Commendatore becomes alive. With that in the open a wild story is developing.

The structure of the novel

The story is being told basically in chronological order taking place in the first decade of 2000 from the perspective of the narrator with many flashbacks of his childhood and of past events of the main persons, mainly Menshiki and the old painter. There are also some backstories of the narrator’s sister. As the story evolves two female characters become important: the 13-year old Mariye and her attractive aunt Shoko Akikawa.

Two discoveries initiate mysterious events

  1. The painting called Killing Commendatore
  2. The pit in the backyard at the old shrine

The story of Menshiki is relevant as a counterpart of the narrator’s life.

First Menshiki is portrayed as a perfect being, that one could believe he is an android. The background story of Menshiki is being told as the story evolves.

He was never willing to get married, although he had a meaningful love affair with a woman. She got pregnant and yet broke up with him. Then she got married to another man. (This is a parallel to the personal story of the narrator.)

She was killed by a hornet, caused by an allergic reaction, when her child Mariye was about six years old. Her husband, now being alone with the young daughter, asked his sister Shoko to live with them and take care of Mariye. Shoko, the aunt of Mariye, became like a mother to her. Mariye is thirteen years old when the story is happening. The family is also living in Odawara nearby the old house and the family’s house is vis-à-vis to Menshiki’s mansion.

Menshiki is possessed by the idea, that Mariye could be his child, but he is not certain of it. His uncertainty gives him reason to watch her from afar. His behavior makes him appear as a creepy stalker and dangerous man.

After the completion of Menshiki‘s portrait, he asked the narrator to paint another portrait, now a painting of Mariye. Although considering the strange behavior of Menshiki, the narrator is willing to do so under his own conditions. The working contract regulates the painting process and his own right to sell it or not. But he still feels guilty of being complicit and has concerns about being used by Menshiki. After reconsidering it he comes to the conclusion that he can make a difference and that he is not helpless. So, he is going to paint Mariye.

From now on the narrator is drawn deeply into a multi-level nightmarish story with supernatural and paranormal elements. Surreal scenes, sounds, hallucinations, fears, memories, dreams feeling like reality accompany his own soul-searching. Elements of ghost-stories and Japanese folktales are also part of the storytelling.

The overall atmosphere is dominated by fear. Fear of looking into an abyss, fear to see the past clearly and to understand the meaning of past and present events. Everyone has a secret…

Conclusion

Part of the process is, that not every secret will be unraveled in the end. Although there remain unanswered questions, the narrator has clearly undergone some major changes towards the end, and he is able to make clear decisions. After gaining insights through soul-searching he can make his peace so far. Being together with Yuzu after a phase of self-discovery feels right, which he already points out in the beginning. The narrator lived through an exciting story and his soul is released.

The novel is 704 pages long. It took me some days to read it through. The path was not always clear and sometimes I did not know, where the story will lead me to. Surely one can analyze the meaning of everything and every metaphor, but I am not going to do that here. This would lead to a very long article. What is becoming of Menshiki and Mariye? Interesting question. I think you can go on a journey with the narrator and explore all the weird stuff happening. I guess, it probably will have a different effect on you.

In the course of reading the novel I lost track sometimes, and sometimes I was bored. It was like, when you are thinking things over and over. The story is repetitive in some chapters, but I read every page of the book. In the end I think it was worth it. You can see the whole picture then. It becomes a full circle. I would recommend the book Killing Commendatore to artists, to fans of Murakami Haruki and to people, who like to stay for a while in Odawara with a nameless Japanese painter reading his long book and discover something new.

Book title

The book was first published in two volumes in Japan: 騎士団長殺し:第1部 顕れるイデア編. Killing Commendatore. 1. Teil. The Idea made visible. 騎士団長殺し: 第2部 遷ろうメタファー編. Killing Commendatore. 2. Teil. The Shifting Metaphor. Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen. Harvill Secker, London. Published in English in 2018. 704 pages.

Art on Tuesday: Canary and Peony


This beautiful ukiyo-e  was made by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎) in 1834. It is showing a flying canary in between peonies. The rich blue background and the pastel flowers are showing an interesting effect.

Peonies are growing in Asia, Western North America and Southern Europe. They are called 恵比須草 (ebisugusa, paeonia lactiflora) in Japanese. The roots of peonies are used as traditional medicine in China. Therefore they are regarded as a traditional floral symbol of wealth and nobility, also for good luck. Canaries 金糸雀 (kanaria) are a symbol of freshness and healing energies.

Art on Tuesday: Moon Pine

This ukiyo-e was painted by Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川広重 (1797-1858). It is part of his “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” showing the so-called moon pine  上野山内月のまつ.  It is named moon pine because people liked to watch the moon through the loop of the tree from different angles. Moon watching was popular in these days and maybe it is still today.

Another ukiyo-e of the same series is showing the pine tree from a different perspective: here you can see it standing in front of the Kiyomizu Hall beside the Shinobazu Pond in Ueno/Tokyo and can be viewed even today. The picture is called Kiyomizu-do and Shinobazu Pond at Ueno.

Book Review: The Strange Library by Murakami Haruki

The Strange Library (ふしぎな図書館: fushigi na toshokan) is a short story by Murakami Haruki.

The Japanese version was published  with  illustrations by Maki Sasaki in 2008. The story is based on a former different version (図書館奇談 toshokan kidan) published in the short story collection カンガルー日和 (kangaruu hiyori. Good weather for kangaroos) of 1986.

The Strange Library is told  from the perspective of a shy little boy who loves to read. On his way back from school it pops into his mind to borrow some history books from the local library.  Starting the moment he enters the building everything turns out very strange. First he is directed to room No. 107 in the basement where he never had been before and meets an odd librarian, who seems to inhabit this dusted dark area for ages.

The boy asks him politely for the book titles. The old man mumbles and rumbles on his way to a hidden archive in the back of the library.  When he returns with the books, he tells the boy, that it is forbidden to take them home. He has to stay and read them in a separate study room.  Now the boy is slightly scared by the man, and the thought of staying here any longer makes him feel uncomfortable, but he is also feeling obliged to go to the reading area and make no fuss about it.

Intimidated he follows the old weird man further downstairs through a labyrinth. Finally reaching the room the boy sits down to read. After a short while the sheepman arrives on the scene. He then tells him, that the boy is being held hostage. A wild and spooky story unfolds with an unforeseen twist at the end.

In this early work Murakami  makes use of surreal story telling, for which he is known as a bestseller author. The book is pretty short, but along with many illustrations it is an entertaining read. For students with intermediate language skills the Japanese version is relatively easy to understand.

Translations are available in many languages. I have seen the English and German versions of the book. The illustrations are very different from the Japanese version.

ふしぎな図書館 by 村上春樹. Illustrated by 佐々木木マキ。2008.

 

Art on Tuesday: Irises and Frog

Watanabe Seitei 渡辺 省亭 (1851-1918) painted Irises and Frog in 1916, an elegant  and charming ukiyo-e.

Watanabe was a Japanese artist, who visited Europe early in the 19th century, where he was awarded at the Universal Exposition of 1878 in Paris. He lived in France for three years studying and practising art. He is known in and outside Japan as a wonderful artist, who combined Japanese and Western elements in his paintings, ceramics, cloisonné and illustrations.

Art on Tuesday: Clearing Weather

This picture is called: Awazu seiran 粟津 晴嵐 Mountain vapor of Awazu. From the series Eight Views of Ômi 近江八景. It is made by Kitao Masayoshi 北尾 政美, also known as Kuwagata Keisai 鍬形蕙斎 (1764-1824).

The inscription of the poem is given here at the website of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.