In 2010 I was working for a businessman on the Kings Road in London. He needed someone to research patents, the idea being that I was to categorise as many as possible ahead of the creation of some kind of online service. I don’t believe it ever launched. The task was vague and endless, and the businessman would constantly smoke cigars inside the office, but he was pleasant enough to work for and some of the patents were memorable. I remember finding a patent for a sex toy that looked like someone had fixed a dildo onto a railway pump trolley. The job also gave plenty of time to read, and in those months I read a lot of Kōbō Abe.
Abe was born in 1924, died in 1993, and in between those years wrote a series of novels, plays and poems that are among the strangest and most ingenious ever written inside or outside of Japan. He grew up in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, his father a doctor in the city of Mukden, now the Chinese city of Shenyang. Following the family trade was encouraged, so at the height of the Second World War he studied medicine at Tokyo University. It didn’t go particularly well. At one point he checked himself into a hospital from the stress, and poor grades meant he had to forge a certificate stating he had tuberculosis to avoid being drafted to the front. He never practised as a doctor but, after the war, did make a living as a street vendor, selling vegetables and coal. He also found a medic’s eye in his writing, the ordeals of his characters drawn with the clinical precision of a surgeon dressing a wound.
I found Abe by accident. I’d gone to the old Foyles on Charing Cross Road, made it as far as the letter A, and plucked a book from the shelf because of the title: The Woman in the Dunes. I’d never heard of the author but I was open to chance, the kind you find in bookshops. I don’t recall the weather or the time of day, but I remember the distinct feeling of being watched by someone in the room. I needed to keep my fingers busy. There’s an intimacy that comes from finding an author in this way, when a chain of moments brings you to a particular time and place, makes you susceptible to raise your hand and pull a book by its spine.
The Woman in the Dunes (1962) is probably Abe’s most famous book, a mystifying erotic nightmare that was made into a Cannes Festival award-winning film by Hiroshi Teshigahara. The story is about a teacher and amateur entomologist who travels to an isolated community in search of a particular species of sand beetle, but instead finds himself imprisoned by the villagers in a house at the bottom of a vast sand dune. In the house is a woman, and the captive must help her to shovel the ever-encroaching sand.
The sand gets in everything. It is a source of rot, breaking clocks and machinery. It strips and corrodes. It is when they are cleaning sand from each other’s bodies that sex first enters into the relationship. It wears away any understanding the captive has of the woman, any structure of meaning he can prop up about who she is and what she wants. She says the bodies of her dead husband and child are buried somewhere in the sand but she cannot remember where. Through E. Dale Saunders’ translation, the sand got into my mind. There is a fundamental terror at the heart of the novel, something formless. Perhaps it is formlessness itself. As the narrator says about the sand: ‘The very fact that it had no form was doubtless the highest manifestation of its strength, was it not?’
Around the time he was writing The Woman in the Dunes, Abe was expelled from the Japanese Communist Party. As the author David Mitchell writes in the Guardian, perhaps this event spurred the writer to eschew moral absolutes and certainties, to suggest that ‘no dogma, interpretation and no authorial intention is immune to the transforming effects of the future’. Perhaps. What I can tell you is that the past decade has seen the rupturing of so many perceived certainties, so many truths, and that Abe’s work of disorientation speaks so potently to these times we are living.
The shifting ground of The Woman in the Dunes takes different shapes in Abe’s other work. The Face of Another (1964), also adapted into a film by Teshigahara, is about a scientist who suffers facial disfigurement and sets about creating a lifelike mask to hide his scars. But with the mask comes an alternate self, and the scientist begins to seduce his estranged wife under the guise of this other. Early on in the novel the human face is described as a ‘roadway between people’, but the path soon becomes a labyrinth of uncertain directions and dead ends. The dunes are not literal, but instead the ‘thousand layers of masks’ the scientist comes to see in the face of his wife, constantly slipping and eluding his attempts at reconnection. His own face is an empty space, a masked void that sees but is never seen.
Here, as always, Abe denies access. To his characters, to any stable notion of interior truth. Like the protagonist of Luigi Pirandello’s One, No One and One Hundred Thousand (1926), the scientist searches futilely for an identity divorced from other’s perceptions. Like a Gillian Wearing artwork, an imitation of a face hides the promise of truths never quite seen. These acts, of seeing and being seen, the difficulty of both, are things that interest me too. I tend to write with a mirror close by, making faces and trying to name what I catch reflected back at me. If I can only understand a character’s expression, I think. If I can perfectly articulate the way they curl their lip or furrow their brow, then perhaps I can find a path into what they are hiding. Often, I fear I’ll find an empty space.
When I first read Abe, I had graduated into a recession, had struggled to find work, ended up categorising patents for a purpose I didn’t fully understand. The next year I would move to Tianjin in north-east China to spend two years teaching at a university. I brought some Abe novels with me. This was when the country was making a dramatic push to expand and develop its cities. There I saw whole fields of vast residential towers constructed for future investment, many of them uninhabited. They would look monumental in the daytime but if you returned at night not a single window would be lit.
The mask of the postindustrial city is built in this way, in ghost complexes and mock-historical facades, in advertisements for new developments hanging over crumbling communities. Abe was interested in the place of the individual in such a labyrinth. In The Ruined Map (1967), a detective is hired by an alcoholic woman to find her husband. With only a few clues he searches the sprawl of Tokyo, gradually losing grip of his own identity, coming to see himself as the missing man. It takes the sense-making machine of the detective, a force for unpicking the tangle of the modern city, and renders him lost. The lines between pursuer and pursued are blurred. Identity begins to seem a trick of memory; those pins we stick into our maps, trusting that the paper won’t move and tear beneath. How easy is it to forget who we are, asks Abe. How strong are the thumbtacks we press into the streets and buildings, into the faces of people we know?
These ideas are given their fullest expression in The Box Man (1973), my personal favourite of Abe’s novels. It tells the tale of a nameless man who has shed the trappings of identity to live anonymously in a cardboard box that he has fashioned into a portable shell. Inside the box is a shelf of simple belongings; a mug, a towel, a thermos and a radio. He busies himself with arranging a makeshift shelf. Eyeholes equipped with a protective vinyl curtain allow him to voyeuristically look out at the world. He is far from the only one living this way, we learn, and he was not always a box man, but his identity is in a constant state of slippage. We hear about a former surgeon, as well as an assistant that may or may not have stolen the surgeon’s identity. His identity, the source of the box man’s gaze, is less a fixed point than a series of echoes. At one point he peers at a young nurse undressing: ‘At the same time as I was looking at her, another was looking at me looking at her.’
I am writing this as England moves into its second national lockdown. Many of us have become horrifically acquainted with the walls that surround us. We sit at our computers, lift the vinyl curtain, and look out at a world that feels both remote and insidiously close, inescapable despite our best attempts. We watch events transpire on our screens, surrounded by our belongings and the small tasks that keep us grounded. We tick things off. We take regular walks.
The horizon is constantly slipping out of view and amongst this uncertainty, what can we hold onto? Habit. ‘The ballast that chains the dog to his vomit,’ as Samuel Beckett once described it. The protagonist in The Box Man survives by habitually considering what is at hand. ‘When I look at small things,’ he says, ‘I think I shall go on living: drops of rain, leather gloves shrunk by being wet . . . When I look at something too big, I want to die.’ In the latter, he counts Japan’s main governmental building and a map of the world. Against the immensity of things, look at what you can grasp, he seems to say. Grasp it tightly. Earlier today I passed through an empty shopping centre. The shops were shuttered but workers were still putting up Christmas trees.
But how long can the ballast hold? The ground is ever-shifting. The sand gets everywhere.
Thomas McMullan’s novel The Last Good Man is available now from Bloomsbury.