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