Kobo Abe: Japan's Novelist of Alienation

Article excerpt

KOBO Abe was born in Tokyo on March 7, 1924. He was taken by his family to Mukden when he was barely a year old and thus spent his early years in the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo. Abe's ancestral origins were in Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, and his father, a doctor of medicine, taught at the medical school at Mukden. In Japan it is important to have identifiable roots in a furusato (hometown) setting. Abe never felt that he had this declaring, |I am a man without a hometown'. It was to be an emotion that coloured his writing from the start.

A voracious reader, Abe was to be influenced by such as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Poe, and it was with extracts from the latter that he used to regale his school friends during lunch breaks. When he had exhausted Poe, Abe entertained with stories of his own device.

His early teenage years were lived within a traditional Japanese household, but against a background of hostile Chinese administration under the figurehead of the puppet emperor Henry Pu Yi. As a diversion from the alien culture around him Abe began painting abstract pictures and studied entomology.

By 1940 Abe had returned to Tokyo and entered the Seijo High School. A convalescent period from tuberculosis gave him time to study more Dostoevsky, and he embarked on a research into modern Japanese literature. He admitted that his search was to find something to substantiate his own feelings of antagonism towards the militaristic cabinets of such as General Hideki Tojo. It was a time when he absorbed the writings of Heidegger, Jaspers and Kafka.

Abe's searches did not produce what he needed and his own writings developed into a book of poems, published by himself in 1948, as Poems by an Unknown.

In 1943, following parental insistence, he entered the medical school at Tokyo Imperial University, but the stress was too much and for a while he voluntarily entered a mental hospital. By way of forged papers concerned with his health, he made his way back to Manchuria and lived out the rest of the war in what he described as |peaceful idleness'. He eventually qualified in medicine in 1948, but never practised. Abe had married Machi, an artist, while still a student.

On his father's death Abe considered himself |released' from any gimu (duty) he had towards his family and began to see literature as his life's work. In 1948 his first book was published, The Road Sign at the End of the Road.

In 1951 Abe was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize for his novel The Crime of Mr. S. Karuma. The storyline was to be characteristic of Abe: the book's narrator loses the power of normal communication with other humans. He communicates though, through zoo animals and shop-window dummies. And throughout his writing career Abe's main theme was to be the alienation of modern people within an urban setting.

By this time, Abe was allying himself with such as Kiyateru Hamada, dedicating his work to merging surrealism with Marxism. For a while Abe was a member of the ineffective Kyosanto (Japanese Communist Party), but was expelled from membership in 1956 for writing a book scathing of Eastern European socialist regimes.

Abe now became an important |translatable' writer. His Suna no Onna (1962: The Woman of the Dunes, 1964) was filmed by Hiroshi Teshigahara in 1963. The film won the Jury Prize at Cannes and the Yomiuri Prize for Abe. This was to become Abe's best known work in the West and concerns a school teacher on an outing who is imprisoned by the local folk in a large sand pit with a recently widowed woman. The teacher's attempts at escape are unsuccessful and in true Abe fashion he |discovers' himself, his purpose, his life and when he is able to, he refuses escape. …