Japanese fiction resembles British drama in that it started off at its peak and thereafter slid downhill. The Japanese peak came earlier: The Tale of Genji was written in the first quarter of the eleventh century. And it was written by a woman—at times it is advantageous to be a second-class citizen—since men of the Heian period had more important things to do, though it is hard to fathom what these were, beyond writing in Chinese, the equivalent of genteel “Latinizing.” Subsequently persons of a serious literary disposition devoted themselves to poetry or meditative and discursive prose. In the seventeenth century Saikaku made a stir with his racy tales of the merchant classes and the ephemeral pleasures and pains of “the floating world.” With some exceptions, later fiction was either solemn and moralistic or vulgar and smutty. The introduction from the late nineteenth century onward of European novels in translation brought new conceptions of what fiction could do, for better and for worse, but before long government repression closed down the kinds of writing which in one way or another could be described as “decadent” or “degenerate” or simply foreign. Give fiction a bad name—and it had never had a very good one—and you might as well ban it.

When the war ended the floodgates opened. The great cry was freedom, a commodity invented by the Americans and now made generously available by them. And what was more free than pornography or near-pornography? There may have been a trace of double-think here. The bruised Japanese were able to react against the rigorous tyranny of their militaristic ex-rulers by throwing censorship overboard, even self-censorship, while telling themselves that the dirt they were rubbing their noses in was to some degree foreign dirt. In part it derived genuinely from the misery and squalor of the postwar years, in part it came out of the conquerors’ insistence on freedom of expression. The docility of the Japanese was much remarked on at the time. In succeeding decades they demonstrated first that they had mastered the great secret of modern fiction—disgust—and then that, as in the case of motorcycles, they could produce the article more efficiently than the West. When in the 1950s a foreign novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was published in Japanese—the translator was an eminently reputable scholar-critic—it found itself in hot water: not because of the contents but because of the picture on the cover, intended to pep the book up. Strong stuff needed to be seen to be strong.

Tanizaki and Kawabata, writers who wrote both before and during the war, pushed a sexuality of the nerves, raffiné and perverse (and increasingly geriatric), as far as it could go, or so one would think. Much the same can be said of the more youthful Mishima, with his combination of the Japanese classical manner and a recherché sexuality of matter which it would be too easy to lay at the door of the free and evil West. Of late a number of younger writers have appeared on the scene, more remarkable for their ingeniously “extreme” situations, sexual or otherwise, than for any discernibly traditional virtues or graces. The tendency of their work can scarcely be attributed to the cultural dislocation and loss of spiritual bearings consequent on military defeat and the American occupation. A hardy and handy theme, this appears to have merged by some natural process into that international phenomenon known as “alienation.” Motorcycles are motorcycles wherever they are made, whether in Birmingham, England, or Hamamatsu, Japan; their function is the same and so by and large are the conditions in which they function. The same is presumably true of that species of writing which in my youth would have been called “dirty books.”

These days we shy away from the embarrassing imputation of obscenity or pornography if we possibly can: difficult of definition as such things are, maybe they do not even exist? When a book is translated from another language we can always surmise that the original is in some way finer—that, for instance, the actual Japanese expression was more edifying or elegant than the translator’s “cock.” Then, if a suggestion of allegory or fable can be detected in the book, we have all the more reason to choke back any old-fashioned, shamefaced complaint. Related is the phenomenon of “disgust,” a highly metaphysical state of affairs which can be seen as lifting the writing into a higher category. Thus Kobo Abe’s new novel is, or may be held to be, a blend of Beckett, Nabokov, Masters and Johnson (vigorously extrapolated), science fiction—and Kafka too. All tokens of intellectual respectability.

Common to Abe’s translated novels from The Woman in the Dunes (1964) onward is the theme of flight or of pursuit, the one sometimes turning into the other. The element of science fiction is at its most obvious in Inter Ice Age 4 (1970), in which a sinister organization is buying up fetuses for 7,000 yen a head, and it develops that human mutants, endowed with gills, are being reared in secret to cope with a rise in sea level caused by volcanic eruptions and the necessity for the race to remove underwater. Called “aquans,” these children talk by gnashing their teeth: an indication perhaps of what human discourse has come to? There is also some unconvincing (and immaterial) play with the idea of transferring dead persons’ “personality equations” to a computer and then questioning them: a boon, no doubt, to overworked homicide departments. The living characters, as is the rule with Abe, are barely more alive than the dead: they offer pointless information, they agonize arbitrarily and with a bloodless febrility (the prevailing coldness is a sufficient guard against pornographic effects). Their chief accomplishment is to promulgate a generalized sense of repugnance, they could as well be aggrieved visitors from a distant planet.


Like pornography, science fiction requires that the reader is at least marginally involved: doom can only be worth countering, the future worth contemplating, when there is something worth saving, worth surviving. The reader of Abe’s novel will have to persuade himself that he is engaged in something deeper and more subtle than science fiction, possibly in a genre of writing that calls for a mode of exegesis not yet conceived. In this, if he is susceptible enough, he may be assisted by a somewhat peremptory postscript to Inter Ice Age 4 in which the author tells him that he is “free, of course, to read into the novel either hope or despair. But whichever he does, I doubt that he will be able to avoid a confrontation with this cruelty of the future…. Whether hope or despair, the subjective judgments within the frame of our sense of continuity between present and past have overcome us, I fear.” The author will be content, he says, if he has produced anguish and strain in the reader and brought about a dialogue with himself. Kafka was a good deal more modest. So are Isaac Asimov et hoc genus omne.

At least a cataclysmic rise in the sea level can be considered a matter of public concern. The wife of the narrator of Secret Rendezvous has been forcibly conveyed to a mysterious hospital run on the principle that continued sickness is much better than cure. The hospital is in fact given over to sexual experiments of a type of which it would be merely indelicate (or more likely ludicrous) for a reviewer to recount in detail. Suffice it to say that among the patients is a grotesque “Lolita” whose shape changes as her bones liquefy so that it becomes increasingly difficult to locate her vulva, and that the tapes of the inmates’ amorous rendezvous are used to promote scientific knowledge, and also sent out to subscribers as “aids.” The great event of the hospital’s anniversary party is a competition to find which woman has the most and the longest orgasms, while the assistant director’s objective is to have another man’s lower regions, more efficient than his own, grafted on his torso. Success in the latter—“it’s seven centimeters around and nineteen long, you know. The nurses were all breathless with admiration”—helps toward success in the former. We may be reminded, mutatis mutandis, of the Chinese novel, circa 1640, known in its English version as The Before Midnight Scholar, whose eponymous hero enriches and extends his sex life with the aid of a young male dog’s member. The Chinese novel, however, is simply a more than ordinarily enterprising example of the time-honored genre of pseudo-moralistic and (intentionally or unintentionally) comic porn. The original title was “The Prayer Mat of Flesh,” and its preamble expresses the hope that “the esteemed reader will not fail to understand the author’s kindly, motherly intent.” Finally, having seen the long-term error of his ways, the Scholar retires to a hermit’s cell and rids himself with a kitchen knife (and quite painlessly) of that “accursed appendage” which, being of canine origin, is “highly displeasing to Buddha.” A case of cutting off one’s nose to save one’s face…. There we are in familiar territory.

There is precious little comedy in Abe, or precious little that manifests itself as humorous. The paths whether of pursuit or of flight lead through turds, urine, phlegm, vomit, the stench of dead animals. A master of the seedy, Abe seems ambitious to erect it into a universal law. In The Ruined Map (1969)—en passant it features a fellow eating live cockroaches in a cafeteria—the narrator opines that “within our hearts we secretly want everything in existence to be dirty.” In the new novel metaphors of disgust fall thicker and faster than ever. “Suddenly his thoughts shrank like a piece of fat meat plunged into boiling water”; “the man cowered, trembling, like a worm doused with boiling water”; “the chief…spoke as if he had a condom on his tongue”; “his penis dangled limply against his thigh, looking exactly like fish entrails”; more ornately, “his penis hung down limply like moldy Chinese food, framed by public hair like a metal scrub brush.” Is this a specifically Japanese style? Does it owe something to the sensibility of the haiku? It is light years away from The Tale of Genji, that’s for sure.


The favored word of his publishers for Abe’s work is “nightmarish,” and it is wholly apt. His writing bears many of the characteristics of nightmare: the detail that looms large and signifies little; mounting complication; strong yet gratuitous emotions; uncertainty about what is going on (in Abe this is particularly pronounced when nothing is going on); confusion of identity; time-shifts, and a sense of drifting further and further away from whatever the point once was. Some of these characteristics, one might suspect, are the marks of a writer whose material is either out of control or in short supply. The paragraph in Inter Ice Age 4 telling how the narrator breaks his pencil point while drawing a smaller circle inside a larger means nothing (but suggests that it does). In Secret Rendezvous the information that “the man” once posed as a nude model but quit when he found that the photographs were going to “fag magazines” turns out to be utterly irrelevant, except in filling up half a page.

In The Ruined Map—which is quasi-policier instead of quasi-science fiction, and might be held to show some kinship with Kafka’s The Trial—the “hero” is a detective searching for a missing man in Tokyo. Every clue misleads, every witness lies, every discovery mystifies further—and all on principle it seems. The book ends in utter inconsequence, for what is really missing is the story, and its characters. But of course the less there is to meet the eye, the more chance of someone supposing there is more than meets the eye.

That is to say, allegory…. But, like science fiction, allegory requires a measure of reality, of openness to participation by the reader, if it is to work. Abe’s writing is as far removed from Kafka’s, who owes his power to clarity, economy, and “ordinariness,” as it is from Lady Murasaki’s. Just as art is different from nightmare, and superior in interest, so it is hard to believe that any true parable concerning “the human condition” as distinct from private neurosis can survive in the vicinity of a sentence like “But don’t you realize—that extra cock you have belonged to that girl’s father!” The reader of Secret Rendezvous must be desperate for doom, gloom and revulsion if he is able to thrill to the assistant director’s proposition—a wild swing at keeping up with old Thomas Mann?—that health is ugly and while animals are still evolving, mankind is actually retrogressing, so “Hooray for monsters! Monsters are the great embodiments of the weak.” The present reader’s feelings come closer to those of the narrator on first entering the hospital in search of his abducted wife. It is she, it appears, who wins the orgasm competition. “I don’t know what the point of all this is, but it’s too damned kinky for me.”

This Issue

September 27, 1979