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Kobo Abe Biography and List of Works

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Avant-garde novelist and playwright who represented the outsider in the Japanese literary world of the 1960s and 1970s. Central themes in Abe's works are the loss of identity, alienation and isolation of the individual in a strange world, and the difficulty people have in communicating with one another. In the West Abe is best-known for his novels, such as The Woman in the Dunes (1962) and The Face of Another (1964).

"What were you looking at?"
"A window."
"No, no. I mean what were you looking at through the window?"
"Windows... lots of windows. One by one the lights are going off. That's the only instant you really know somebody's there."

(from The Ruined Map, 1967)

Abe was born in Tokyo, but he grew up in Mukden in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where his father, a physician, was on the staff of the medical school. As a young man Abe was interested in mathematics and insect collecting as well as the works of the philosophers Heidegger, Jaspers and Nietzsche. In 1941 Abe moved to Japan and entered in 1943 the University of Tokyo, to study medicine. Abe was exempted from military service because of respiratory illness. He returned during the war to Manchuria, but after repatriation Abe continued his studies and graduated in 1948, with the promise that he would never practice. Instead Abe started his career as a writer. He became a member of a literary group led by Kiyoteru Hamada. They were committed to the goal of fusing the techniques of Surrealism with Marxist ideology. Abe's writing, often stiff and formal, reflected his preoccupation with ideas rather than stylistic techniques.

His first book, Abe had actually written in 1943, and in 1947 he had published at his own expense a collection of poems. Abe established his reputation the next year with the novel OWARISHI MICHI NO SHIRUBE NI. Important writers for his own artistic development were Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Beckett, Rainer Maria Rilke and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

"Actually, binoculars, if used in a certain way, give the effect of X ray. For instance, you can read more expressions and characteristics from a single photo of a given person than you can by meeting him face to face."
(from The Ruined Map)

Abe's experimental works first gained popularity among the younger generation of readers. He received prizes for his three stories, 'Akai mayu' (1950, Red Cocoon), 'Kabe' (1951), and 'S. Karuma-shi no hanzai' (1951). In the last mentioned, the style and subject matter are reminiscent of Kafka. Among Abe's novels are DAIYON KAMPYOKI (1959), TANIN NO KAO (1964), MOETSUKITA CHIZU (1967), MIKKAI (1977), a surrealistic detective story about an unidentified man searching for his wife at a hospital, and HAKO OTAKO (1973), in which the protagonist cuts a peephole in an empty cardboard carton, places the box over his head, and walks away from his anxieties. SUNA NA ONNA (1962, Woman in the Dunes) was a kafkaesque story of a schoolteacher, who is imprisoned in a bizarre village on a holiday expedition. He accepts shelter from a woman who lives alone in a house, which is in danger of being buried by massive sand dunes that threaten to bury the whole community. The schoolteacher is pressed to help, to shovel the eternally increasing sand, but when a chance to escape comes, he refuses to take advantage of it.

Abe also wrote several plays and directed his own theatre company in Tokyo. In his plays the themes of solitude and alienation were dealt with in a similar way as in the theatre of the absurd and the works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. With the death of Yukio Mishima Abe gained the status as major dramatist in the 1970s. In Friends (1967) the apartment of an office worker is invaded by a family that take control of his life and finally he is killed by one of the daughters. Although the members of the family claim to be devoting themselves to social good, their actions are cruelly destructive. The Suitcase (1973) depicts two women who worry over the contents of a suitcase said to contain the ancestors of the husband of one of the women.

Abe's novels and plays are characterized by clinical observations, scientific nomenclature, and avant-garde techniques. Many of his works have been turned into films under the direction of Teshigahara Hiroshi. Abe died on January 22, 1993.

Dai-Yon Kampyoki (1959, Inter Ice Age 4) - A complex story set in a future Japan threatened by the melting of polar icecaps. The protagonist, professor Katsumi, has developed a computer program that predicts the creation of genetically engineered children, who are adapted for life in the rising seas. The computer has also found out that Katsumi will oppose this progress and his unborn child is enlisted into the ranks of the mutated water-breathers. The story explores the concept of free will and the moral questions of scientific research.

For further reading: Crisis in Identity and Contemporary Japanese Novels by A. Kimball (1973); Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, eds. by K. Tsuruta and T.E. Swann (1976); Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions by J.T. Rimer (1978); The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature by H. Yamanouchi (1978); Fake Fish by N.K. Shields (1966); Encyclopaedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, ed. by Dteven R. Serafin (1999, vol. 1)

Books by Kobo Abe

  • The Ark Sakura (Hardcover / 1988 / 0394558367)
    In this 1988 novel about post-apocalyptic Japan, a character called Mole constructs an ark manned by a crew of misfits and weirdos, who are then attacked by an unlikely alliance of young thugs and sex-crazed senior citizens.

  • Beyond the Curve (Hardcover / 1991 / 4770014651)
    Short stories by Japan's most difficult and challenging but popular writer.

  • The Box Man (Paperback / 2001 / 0375726519)
    In Abe's bizarre, satirical fable, a man chooses to give up all the trappings of normal life and seek anonymity by retreating to a cardboard box that he carries on his back, becoming an observer but never participating in the contemporary world he views from his refuge.

  • The Face of Another (Paperback / 2003 / 0375726535)
    A scientist who is disfigured in a laboratory accident makes himself a mask and, with it, assumes a new identity. He enters a world that he now sees to be a lonely and alienating place, full of people wearing masks of one kind or another. This nihilistic tale, like much of Abe's work, is influenced by Kafka's dark vision and by the absurdities of Lewis Carroll.

  • Kangaroo Notebook - A Novel (Paperback / 1997 / 0679746633)
    What does the fate of a narrator who awakes one morning to find what appear to be radish sprouts growing out of his shins have to tell us about the reality of life in modern urban Japan? This is the subject of Kobo Abe's terrifying and funny last novel: an ordinary man in in the grip of bizarre and often hostile forces--including self propelled hospital beds, doctors eager to cure the wrong ailment, mysterious windstorms and infant ghosts.

  • The Ruined Map - A Novel (Paperback / 2001 / 0375726527)
    A private investigator is hired by a woman who wants to find her missing husband. The only clue to where he might be is a map scribbled on a piece of paper. As the detective investigates, he encounters a variety of characters, each with his or her own murky and mysterious background. The search culminates in the hero's own loss of identity, the assumption of the identity of his quarry, and his eventual disappearance into the very turmoil he has tried to unravel.

  • Three Plays (Paperback / 1997 / 0231082819)
    The three plays included in this volume are INVOLUNTARY HOMICIDE (1971), The GREEN STOCKINGS (1974), and THE GHOST IS HERE (1958).

  • Three Plays by Kobo Abe (Hardcover / 1993 / 0231082800)
    The three plays included in this volume are INVOLUNTARY HOMICIDE (1971), THE GREEN STOCKINGS (1974), and THE GHOST IS HERE (1958).

  • The Woman in the Dunes (Hardcover / 1987 / 0192820923)
    Abe's most celebrated novel tells the story of Niki Jumpei, an amateur entomologist who is taken prisoner when he enters a remote town on his search for a rare beetle. He is imprisoned at the bottom of one of the sand pits that comprise the strange village, along with a young widow who is being punished for an unknown transgression. Niki is forced to help her with her Sisyphean task of shoveling away the sand that threatens to engulf the town, and eventually, in the process, he comes to accept his new identity, finding the answer to his own question: "Are you shoveling to survive, or surviving to shovel?" Abe's brilliant, claustrophobic, mysteriously existential tale is remarkable for its hypnotic descriptions of the sand that dominates the book. The novel was made into an acclaimed movie in 1964, for which Abe wrote the screenplay.

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