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

Book Review: The Ruined Map by Abe Kôbô

ruinedmap“The City — a bounded infinity. A labyrinth where you are never lost. Your private map where every block bears exactly the same number. Even if you lose your way, you cannot go wrong” – Abe Kôbô (1924-1993).

The Ruined Map by Abe Kôbô is a very mysterious detective story. It’s setting is in 1967 in a big Japanese city like Tokyo.

Nemuro Hiroshi, age 34, is missing for half a year. His wife has hired a detective after the police could not find him. There are no hints of her husband’s whereabouts, only a matchbox of the Camilla coffeehouse.
The husband had left no notice, but disappeared in the landscape of the big city. He should have been on a business meeting, but his wife does not know any specifics about it.

The detective has no clue whatsoever. His investigation gets stuck and wherever he is turning to, there is no answer. Even the wife is no help, but has obviously a drinking problem. So there are many scenes, when the detective is sitting with her in her dining room looking at a blinding yellow curtain, watching her drinking one beer after another. The case becomes so annoying to the detective after a while: He then himself mistrusts his client, doubting if there even is a real case. But then, there is also her mysterious brother or is he her lover? He is the only person, who seems to have some kind of information about Nemuro Hiroshi.

On the other hand investigations at the company are fruitful: a co-worker of the husband hands over a hand-drawn map, which the missing man could have used for his last appointment in duty of the company. After that encounter the detective meets also the brother of the missing person’s wife. From now on the story gets into a wild ride, where the brother ends up dead, but Nemuro Hiroshi is still missing without a trace.

The atmosphere of the story is Kafkaesque and during reading I somehow lost the track. I could not lay the book down, because I wanted to know the end. I realized in the latter half of the story, that  everything dissolves  in the end without a logical solution.  I cannot say, that I enjoyed the reading fully through the book, but Abe Kôbô kept me interested finishing my reading.

Abe Kôbô is a well-known author in Japan. He was a main representative of the literary avant-garde in the 60’s of the 20th century. He wrote many books using surreal content structure and elements on the basis of his philosophical thoughts. Often it is not easy to read. One of his most famous works is Woman in the Dunes, but The Box Man and The Face of Another is also noteworthy.

安部 公房. 燃えつきた地図. 1967. Abe Kôbô: The Ruined Map. 1967. Translated by E. Dale Saunders.

Book Review: Woman in the Dunes by Abe Kôbô

dunesAbe Kôbô 安部 公房 (1924-1993) was born in Tokyo and raised in Manchuria. He studied medicine before he became an author and playwright. His works can be characterized as avant-garde with surrealistic elements. Abe Kôbô was strongly influenced by Western authors as Poe, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Kafka, which can be seen in many of his works.

His novel Woman in the Dunes was his international breakthrough and won the Yomiuri Award in 1962. The famous producer Hiroshi Teshigahara made a film of the novel in 1964. This was also praised as an outstanding artwork and won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in the same year. Abe Kôbô was nominated for the Nobel Prize of Literature many times.

An amateur entomologist called Junpei Niki loses his way on an excursion. He is alone searching for a rare beetle at the seashore somewhere at Japan’s west coast. There he enters a bizarre landscape. He finds a village completely blown over by sand. The damage is caused by constantly raging typhoons. Some of the houses have been buried completely by vast dunes.

These houses have been shoveled free from the sand. But because the dunes are so high, each house is now standing at the bottom of a separate sand hole, circled by high sand walls. They can be reached by climbing down a rope-ladder into a deep hole. The habitants have to shovel the sand away every day in order to survive. Because the sand is floating, it is like building a house in the ocean, by shoveling water away. The sand is everywhere and life is a struggle against the sand.

Junpei Niki is captured by the inhabitants of the village, forced into the home of an old woman, who is living alone in one of the sand holes. First he does not recognize, that he is a captive, but when he realizes, that the exit rope-ladder was drawn away, and there is no way out of the sand hole, his struggle for survival begins.

The relationship with the nameless woman is strange and difficult at the beginning and changes through the story. First he wants to distance himself from her, but becomes dependent on her later on. He despises her looks and her way of life. He feels a mix of disgust, despair, curiosity and yet sympathy for her.

The woman has been living in the dunes for a long time. The sand is blowing without mercy. Sand is everywhere, raining down from the ceiling, pouring down into the food, crawling under the clothes. She is used to the situation and has made her peace with it. She sleeps at day. At night she shovels sand away by filling little canisters. The people of the village help her transporting the sand away. That is her work. She is paid with water and food. Without shoveling sand, there will be no life. So Junpei Niki has to shovel sand too, but he is reluctant to do so, but otherwise he would be given no water.

Junpei Niki struggles, he does not want to stay! But the villagers will not let him go. He makes plans, but cannot break free. He does not want to take part of this extremely absurd way of life, but has to give in to survive. Then he rages against the woman and against the system – without effect. He tries to convince the woman to escape this nightmare, but she is assimilated to this life. She gave up resistance long time ago.

Abe Kôbô invented a nightmarish story of the individual in a world fallen to pieces, a no-way-out situation. Abe Kôbô pictures the condition of the individual in the Japanese society at his lifetime. Woman in the Dunes has similarities with the Sisyphus myth. A merciless nature, a fate that cannot be understood and without escape. It comes with a microscopic view, a very detailed narration with an extraordinary elaborated protagonist. The scenes are claustrophobic and raw, yet there is some sympathy between the characters and without helping each other they would not survive, so they do. The inner struggle of the protagonist is well described, so that you know his thoughts and can feel the tension, anxiety and strong will to survive in every scene. The solution of the story is surprising then, but only logical, if you give it a second thought.

Woman in the Dunes is an extraordinary exciting and fascinating book, a classic of Japanese modern literature. An absolute must read.

Japanese: Abe Kôbô. 砂の女 Suna no onna. 1962.