Losing Grip on Reality
Japanese literature has a long tradition of producing gifted writers and storytellers, such as Lady Murasaki Shikibu, Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, Haruki Murakami, and Osamu Dazai, among others. They captivated the world with the beauty and subtle power of their books, which ranged ranging from short stories to essays to memoirs to full-length prose. Works such as Kafka on the Shore, The Pillow Book, and The Tales of Genji have become some of the most important and memorable literary works in world literature. Important literary movements, such as the I novel, have also originated in Japanese literature. Japanese writers have also excelled in poetry. Haiku, one of the most popular forms of poetry, originated in Japan. In ways more than one, Japanese literature has shaped and continues to shape literature. Among the Japanese writers whose works placed Japanese literature on the global map was Kōbō Abe (安部 公房).
Kōbō Abe was born Kimifusa Abe (安部 公房) on March 7, 1924, in Kita City, Tokyo, Japan, but he spent most of his childhood in Mukden (now Shenyang), in Manchuria, where his father, a physician, taught at the medical college. Mathematics was the subject he excelled at while studying in middle school but it was also during this period that his interest in literature started to grow. He read the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Edgar Allan Poe, Edmund Husserl, and Lewis Carroll. When he entered the Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) in 1943, he studied medicine as a form of respect for his father. Following the end of the Second World War, he returned to Manchuria in 1945 without completing his degree. In 1946, after his father’s death of eruptive typhus, he got repatriated to Japan where he pursued his studies in medicine. He graduated but on the condition that he was not going to practice medicine.
The end of the war also marked an important period in Abe’s life. He became more active as a writer, whilst pursuing his medical degree. In 1947, he funded the publication of his first book, Mumei shishū (Poems of an Unknown). A year later, his first novel, Owarishi michi no shirube ni (The Road Sign at the End of the Street), was published. He solidified his status as a rising literary star in 1951 when his short novel Kabe (The Wall) won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. His 1962 Yomiuri Prize-winning novel, 砂の女 (Suna no onna, The Woman in the Dunes), elevated Abe to global recognition. His prolific career spanned nearly five decades and produced an eclectic set of works that included short stories, essays, poems, and even plays. Apart from being a writer, Abe was a musician, photographer, and inventor.
“A tickling sensation ran up my shins. I rolled up on pajama leg and scratched. What felt like a thin layer of skin peeled off. Is it grime? I held it up to the light. It isn’t grime or skin. It’s scratchy, like dry beard bristle. Is it leg hair? Leg hair grazed by a flame would probably look like this, but scorched hair would give off a foul odor. I rolled up both pants legs and placed my feet on another chair, with my knees drawn up. There was no longer a single hair on my legs; if it weren’t for the dotlike pores, the skin would have been smooth as a boy’s. I had never had much hair, so I wasn’t too concerned. Besides, with my pants on, the area didn’t show.”~ Kōbō Abe, Kangaroo Notebook
How would you react when you discover a plant was growing on any of your body parts? To an ordinary spectator, this premise seems unlikely although stranger things have sprouted in other body parts. In 2010, for instance, a pea plant was discovered to have sprouted in the lungs of a 75-year-old man. At first, he thought it was a tumor but it turned out to be something he did not expect. In Russia, a five-centimeter fir tree was found inside another man’s lungs. This farcical concern was the premise upon which Abe built his 1991 novel, カンガルー・ノート (Kangarū Nōto), the last novel he wrote and published before his death in 1993. The novel was eventually translated into English by Maryellen Toman Mori, with the translated novel released in 1997.
At the center of the novel was an unnamed narrator, a low-level employee who was working for an office-supply firm. The crux of his story commenced when he pitched in his idea into the company’s suggestion box. This note contained one phrase, the titular Kangaroo Notebook; for context, his company requires – not requests – its employees to propose a new product twice a month. The proponent whose proposal was chosen would receive a reward and because he had nothing to lose, the narrator simply dropped his proposal and thought nothing better of it. To his surprise, his proposal was chosen and he was then asked by the Product Development Office to produce a prototype or at least a rough sketch of the notebook he has envisioned.
The narrator’s plans, however, were disrupted when the most unexpected happened. It started with itching on his leg which he dismissed at first. However, when he woke up the following morning, the itching was still persistent and no amount of scratching would relieve it. Upon checking the shins of his legs, the area of itchiness, what he saw shocked him: “On closer inspection I saw that they were not mere bumps; beneath each black dot was something that looked like a plant’s stem. Like bean sprouts, only finer. Their plantlike appearance was odd, so I tried plucking one. Instead of staying whole, it tore, and some liquid oozed out.” “Dumbfounded” by the “thought that it might be a plant”, he immediately sought out the advice of a dermatologist. While waiting for the doctor, the plant’s growth only accelerated and once it was his turn, the anonymous narrator’s condition made the doctor throw up.
As can be surmised by the ordinary spectator, the narrator’s condition was most extraordinary. It was even beyond the doctor’s capabilities. However, he was able to ascertain that the plant was a radish, the kind of which remained a mystery; they believed it was daikon radish. Confronted with something beyond his wits, the doctor suggested that the narrator tries a hot-spring therapy; hot-spring therapies, an old-fashioned view according to the doctor, are known as a great means of detoxing skin. The doctor further recommended a sulfur spring, like Hell Valley, because they are the most potent. While they were discussing the narrator’s options, the narrator discovered that he can control the bed he was lying on. The unexpected and the unusual were slowly turning into something not only bizarre but absurd.
“The doctor’s face grew smaller and smaller. It receded toward the ceiling. It fused with the ceiling and turned into a sprinkler. Is this an hallucination? From the start I knew there was a prinkler. It’s a slightly eerie sprinkler that looks like a human face. At the same time, it’s the doctor. Somewhere along the line, reality and illusion seem to have merged. Or have they? Isn’t there a theory that an illusion which one realizes is an illusion isn’t a true illusion?”~ Kōbō Abe, Kangaroo Notebook
With the narrator strapped on a bed in the clinic’s operating room, the story started taking on a hallucinatory quality. The landscape of the story started to transform before the narrator’s very eyes. With nothing but a bed and a blanket in two, he arrived in the underworld, Hell Valley. It was a world beyond his imagination as he met child demons who sang to tourists and also a ghostly harridan that reminded him of his own mother. He also met a conduit of his doctor in Hell Valley; his doctor approved his stay in the underworld. These were only some of the things and persons he encountered in the underworld. As he navigated it further, it was starting to crystallize: these persons and situations he encountered were reflections of his own realities.
Occasionally, the narrator found himself in dire straits. Rescuing him from these situations was a nurse named Damselfly, the same nurse the narrator encountered in the clinic. As this is a landscape created by Abe, nothing about her was normal. She transforms into a vampire who collects blood to win the Draculas’ Daughter Medal. Damselfly was also portrayed as sensual. The novel had a fixation on beautiful young women, with the story containing undertones of pedophilia. Sexualization of nurses, and even schoolgirls, among others, is prevalent in Japanese culture. This seemed to be one of the seminal subjects that Abe aimed to dissect. However, as the story descends deeper into chaos, this concern, like other social concerns Abe endeavored to capture in his story, was brushed aside.
Abe’s underworld was a portrait of society transforming into a dystopian world brimming with interesting but sinister characters. The absurd fuses with the ordinary. The incomprehensible takes place at every corner. It was a world bereft of order. Nothing was organized. Even as the absurd filled every order, fear silently thrummed throughout. But the deeper the reader gets into this labyrinth, the narrator’s own psychological makeup starts to manifest. It was chaotic and all over the place, a stark contrast to the reality he was living. He exhibited neither vigor nor enthusiasm in his job. He was aimless. The character was struggling to find his footing in this chaotic world. Apart from his search for personal identity, the novel explored isolation and alienation. Familial estrangement, directly referenced in the book’s title, was another subject explored by the story.
Metamorphosis, a subject prevalent in the works of Abe, was also one of the overriding themes. As the story moved forward, one subject was looming: death. Master Hammer Killer, Damselfly’s boyfriend, was researching about sudden deaths. Euthanasia was also referenced in the story, alongside references to AIDS, abortion, and even radiation sickness. Suicide was even mentioned: “Suicide probably ought to be recognized as a human right?” There was a fixation on death that the reader can’t help but surmise that the story was an allegory for it. There was a resignation that characterized the narrator’s overall response to his condition. With the absurdity that has enveloped him, he was slowly accepting his inevitable fate.
“Well now, which of them do I agree with? If the “radish sprouts” on my legs are diagnosed as an incurable disease, will I choose euthanasia? If it simply means that the “radish sprouts” can’t be exterminated, I can always concelakthem with socks or something. But what if my skin continues its metamorphosis into a vegetable patch? What if the sprouts spread to my eyes, nose, ears, and mouth, then inflitarate my urethra and anus, begin thriving inside my body, and I finally turn into a giant plant, like an algae ball?“~ Kōbō Abe, Kangaroo Notebook
However, one can never be sure of the book’s real message. There were too many things going on that one is never sure of what is actually happening. In Abe’s chaotic universe, the peculiar only kept getting more peculiar. Rarely were there any contexts. Chaos merged with the surreal, the fantastic, and even the absurd. These are elements that have characterized Abe’s prose and storytelling. But as these elements pile one after the other, Kangaroo Notebook started losing its grip on reality and, effectively, the potency of its message. Even in chaos, the readers, as has become their habit, strive to find a way to make sense of what was happening in the story. Abe, however, has other ideas. He didn’t allow room for the readers to grasp what was embedded in his otherwise lush tapestry.
Abe’s brilliance as a storyteller cannot be denied. Traces of it were palpable in Kangaroo Notebook, the last novel published prior to his death in 1993. The convergence of reality and the absurd captured the complexities of our psychological landscape. With its hallucinatory quality, the novel transported the readers to a chaotic landscape. Familiar themes were interspersed across this pandemonium. Familial estrangement, metamorphosis, isolation, and looming above all of these subjects, death were all explored by Abe. The unnamed narrator is a nod to the profoundness of the message. But for all its ambition, unlocking this diverse universe was a chore. Abe was relentless in his assault on the readers’ imagination. While the novel had bright spots, it was as if Abe wanted to keep the readers at bay.
Characters (30%) – 12%
Plot (30%) – 10%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 5%
After The Woman in the Dunes, Kangaroo Notebook was my second novel by Kōbō Abe. To be honest, I have been initially apprehensive about reading Abe’s works. I thought they were works of science fiction, a genre I generally avoid. Eventually, I relented because I keep on reading positive reviews of The Woman in the Dunes. It had existentialist elements, giving me a different dimension of Japanese literature. Now that I was a little acquainted with Abe’s prose, I felt it was time to read more. With this in mind, I lined up Kangaroo Notebook to be part of my July 2022 Japanese Literature reading journey. Everything I expected The Woman in the Dunes to be was encapsulated in Kangaroo Notebook. The novel’s premise discomfited me. The images of radish sprouts on the shins of the narrator crept me out; having anything foreign sprout or thrive on my body immediately freaks me out. Nevertheless, I pushed through. The book seemed like a quick read after all. The opening pages were harbingers of the chaos that was bound to happen as the story progressed. Overall, I found the book chaotic and the plot was all over the place. I am unfazed though because I still want to explore Abe’s other works.
Author: Kōbō Abe (安部 公房, Abe Kōbō)
Translator (from Japanese): Maryellen Toman Mori
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: May 1997 (1991)
Number of Pages: 183
In the last novel written before his death in 1993, one of Japan’s most distinguished novelists proffered a surreal vision of Japanese society that manages to be simultaneously fearful and jarringly funny.
The narrator of Kangaroo Notebook wakes one morning to discover that his legs are growing radish sprouts, an ailment that repulses his doctor but provides the patient with the unusual ability to snack on himself. In short order, Kobo Abe’s unraveling protagonist finds himself hurtling in a hospital bed to the very shores of hell. He encounters an officious child demon, a hairy American martial arts expert, and a sexy nurse who is trying to collect enough blood to win the “Dracula’s Daughter” medal. Only Abe could have assembled these oddities into a coherent novel, one imbued with unexpected meaning.
About the Author
To learn more about Kōbō Abe, click here.