Primo Levi

By David Keffer

Kobo Abé

  1. Introduction: The Clinical Eye of the Physician
  2. Biography
  3. Development and Maturation of Kobo Abé's Voice and Vision
  4. Abé's Writing in the Post-Modern Context
  5. Selected Bibliography of English Translations
  6. Credits

Introduction: The Clinical Eye of the Physician

No man or woman is wooed by theory alone.
-- Kobo Abé, The Woman in the Dunes

In declaiming the ability to woo by theory, Kobo Abé betrays his desire to do exactly that. Trained as a physician, Abé has a mindset which leans toward the scientific method -- one of hypothesis, experiment, result, and conclusion. In this case, the original hypothesis posed that a man could woo by theory alone, the experiment was the attempt of a wooing guided by theoretical principles, the result a failure, and the conclusion drawn is that such a wooing is not possible, disproving the original hypothesis. We see in this procedure not only Abé's predilection for theory and introspection, but we also are provided a glimpse at the motivations of a man who would initially believe in a theory of wooing, a concept which to many might seem an obvious contradiction.

In trying to develop a theory that describes the movements of the heart, Abé gives the mind domination over the heart. That the mind is eventually found to be incapable of ruling the heart is a source of dismay to Abé, an indication of the scientific lens through which he viewed people and the world they inhabit. It is also an example of the mind's impotence, not only over parts of its body, but also the circumstances which develop and unravel around the body.


Kobo Abé was born Kimifusa Abé in Tokyo on March 7, 1924 but grew up in Mukden, Manchuria, where his father, a doctor, was on the staff of the Imperial Medical College. As a young man, Abé was interested in mathematics and insect collecting, as well as the works of Poe, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Kafka. He received a medical degree from Tokyo University in 1948, but never practiced medicine. Instead Abé started his career as a writer, soon becoming a member of a literary group committed to the goal of fusing the techniques of Surrealism with Marxist ideology.

Abé's writing, often perceived as stiff and formal, reflected his preoccupation with ideas rather than stylistic techniques. In 1948, he published his first book, The Road Sign at the End of the Street. In 1951 he was awarded the most important Japanese literary prize, the Akutagawa, for his novel The Crime of S. Karuma. In 1960 his novel The Woman in the Dunes won the Yomiuri Prize for literature. It was made into a film by Hiro Teshigahara in 1963 (Suna no onna, which won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival) and became the first of Abé's novels to be published in translation in the United States the following year.

In the 1970's and 80's Abé ran a drama company in Tokyo, producing several plays each year. He died of a heart attack brought on by a brain hemorrhage on January 22, 1993 at the age of 68.

For a much more complete biography, see Fake Fish: The Theatre of Kobo Abé by Nancy K. Shields (Weatherhill, NY, 1996), which contains a good deal of biographical content including excerpts from interviews where Abé comments on his early years.

Development and Maturation of Kobo Abé's Voice and Vision

This section will attempt to briefly outline Abé's development by individually examining the themes of his major works. I have two purposes in doing so. First, I intend to show the evolution of themes in his novels. Second, I hope that this section will be of use to a reader unfamiliar with Abé, by providing some thematic description of his various novels so that those new to Abé can select a work best suited to their individual taste.

The dates provided are for English translations.


The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the Dunes (1964), Kobo Abé's first novel translated into English, remains his most frequently cited work in the United States; though its popularity may have less to do with any perceived literary superiority to his later work, and more to do with society's overwhelming preference for theatrical over literary entertainment. Although Teshigahara filmed three other novels by Abé, The Woman in the Dunes was the only one which gained wide exposure to Western audiences.

In terms of Abé's eventual thematic and stylistic goals, The Woman in the Dunes presents a less mature realization of the literary and philosophical ideals more fully developed in his later works. What would become a crucial Abéan theme -- the application of the scientific method in an attempt to understand the underlying purpose to human life -- is in its infancy in The Woman in the Dunes, which, like Camus' The Stranger, is primarily concerned with describing the existentialist condition. Although the heavy reliance on formal existential philosophy is dropped from Abé's later work, we can see here, at the beginning of his career, a struggle with the fundamental issues of existentialism itself, i.e. the arbitrary nature of social value systems, the resulting meaningless of existence once the set of established social values are dispatched, and the inherent isolation of the individual. If there seems to be a lack of overt existential conflict in his later novels, it is because Abé's protagonists (and the writer) have already accepted the precepts of existentialism as an understood condition of life itself; existentialism forms the very canvas upon which the novels are projected.

In The Woman in the Dunes, the occupation of the protagonist is that of entomologist. In choosing that the protagonist be a scientist, Abé is preparing the reader for the rational and objective tone of the narrative, as well as giving himself a character with whom he can readily identify. In selecting insects as the source of the scientist's scrutiny, Abé reveals that the protagonist seeks (as the author seeks) to discover the fundamental rules governing social behavior, and by extension, the rules of existence itself. Communal insects such as ants, termites, and bees display behavior that can be explained by a rigorous set of rules and a rigid social hierarchy. Each member of the community knows their role with total certainty, and the purpose of their existence is defined by this role, i.e. workers provide food and shelter, soldiers protect and attack, queens breed. These rules are absolute, codified in their genetic structure. As a result, existential conflict is unknown in the insect world. Knowing this, we see that the protagonist hopes to find an analogous set of rules for human existence. An unambiguous set of rules governing human existence would conquer the anxieties of the existentialist. We will see the insect/human analogy presented again by Abé and explicitly discussed in great detail in The Ark Sakura.

The Face of Another

The Face of Another (1966) is both a psychological study and an existential allegory. The protagonist is again a scientist, "the section head of a respectable laboratory," whose face has been disfigured in a chemical explosion. This disfigurement creates a rift between the scientist and everyone he encounters --particularly his wife. The source of this rift is due less to others' repulsion at his face than to the scientist's self-disgust, both physically and mentally.

The destruction of his face triggers in the protagonist a debate of his essential worth. The logical steps linking the face and self-worth is as follows: the scientist acknowledges that he is being treated differently due to his face. As an intellectual he believes that his work, and not his exterior appearance, are of primary importance. However, since those around him base their reactions to him on his face, perhaps his works are of lesser importance than his appearance; perhaps his works are altogether worthless, perhaps he himself is worthless. This self-abnegation also widens the chasm growing between himself and his wife.

In creating a mask, so life-like that it could not be detected by an intent viewer, the scientist attempts to re-enter a meaningful life through the use of an external artifice. From an existential point of view, this attempt is obviously doomed to failure, since no external means could possibly overcome the inherent isolation of the individual. All the same, the mask is created, primarily to recapture the affection of his wife. The scientist writes to his wife, "Under any circumstances, I simply did not want to lose you. To lose you would be symbolic of losing the world." In his creation of the mask, he resorts to all the tools at his disposal. He provides an algebraic formula for the commitment to others based on age and "viscosity" of self. In selecting the specific visage for the mask, he consults psychological classifications which relate facial structure to personality. In determining which expressions the mask ought to make, he creates a list of 12 expressions, assigning each a percentage importance, i.e. abhorrence 6%, concern 3%, doubt 5%.... In presenting emotion in The Face of Another, it is not enough for the scientist to be lonely. On the contrary, he must admit to himself his loneliness, dissect it in order to ascertain its causes, and ultimately belittle himself for it. He writes, "Surely I have made to much of my loneliness. I thought my loneliness greater than all of mankind's combined."

The Ruined Map

One of most inviting aspects to reading The Ruined Map (1966) is that it is, essentially, a mystery novel. There is a desire harbored in the heart of every devotee of contemporary literature who began life as a fan of genre fiction, be it mystery, western, or science fiction; and that is to see an established literary master direct his skills to one's beloved genre, to enrich and redeem it with a creation that is elegant, thoughtful, and most of all, literary. The Ruined Map satisfies this craving for the mystery aficionado -- the protagonist is a detective and first-person narrator of the novel, and it begins with a missing persons form, filed by a wife in search of her husband.

But this is no simple mystery. The ruined map of the title is a symbol with multiple meanings. In one sense, it's the map leading the detective to his quarry; ruined because it is incomplete and must be interpolated with clues. In a broader sense, the map is a guide for living. Here, we again see the existentialist emerge -- of course, there is no absolute guide for living, and thus the map is ruined. Because the map is flawed, the detective cannot limit himself to safe places, and must adopt a trial and error approach to his explorations, wandering into unsavory and dangerous -- both physically and mentally locales.

"He says a single map for life is all you need. It's a saying of his. The world is a forest, a woods, full of wild beasts and poisonous insects. You should go only through places where everyone goes, places that are considered absolutely safe, he says."

The existence of the map is crucial because the detective does not have an internal compass and relies exclusively upon the external guidance provided by the map. Ultimately, we see that the ruination of the map causes a loss of orientation and eventually identity itself. Due to its incompleteness, the map is incapable of providing direction to the detective, and he becomes lost. This first loss is gradually followed by a second, more profound loss -- that of self. We see finally that reliance on a map to give us direction is doomed, because a complete, absolute map does not exist, and any attempts to assemble one are inherently flawed and impossible.

Inter Ice Age 4

The most frightening thing in this world is discovering the abnormal in that which is closest to us.
-- Kobo Abé, Inter Ice Age 4

Inter Ice Age 4 (translated 1970) is a little out of order in this description of Abé's novels, listed by date of English translation. Inter Ice Age 4 is the earliest of Abé's works to appear in English, having been written in 1959. As such, it appears as a sore thumb in the otherwise coherent development of Abé's themes over time. We shall continue our discussion acknowledging that this work was written prior to The Woman in the Dunes.

Just as The Ruined Map pleases the reader longing for an intelligent mystery novel, Inter Ice Age 4 satisfies the reader looking for literary science fiction. Abé describes an Orwellian future where, in order to ensure mankind's survival, extreme and secretive measures are taken outside the realm of public knowledge and at the expense of the general population. Only a select few can be accommodated in starting the next step in the evolution of humanity. The protagonist of Inter Ice Age 4 is a man who has been drawn into this plot unknowingly. In his efforts to discover the truth of the plan, he must make moral judgments as to the merit and necessity of the plan.

As usual, the protagonist is a scientist, Dr. Katsumi, who has created a computer-based system for predicting human behavior. This dream is an old one. In 1814, Laplace wrote (P.S. Laplace, Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1814); English translation by F.W. Prescott and F.L. Emory (1902), reprinted in The Beginnings of Modern Science, H. Boynton ed., Walter J. Black, Roslyn, NY, 1948):

Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it -- an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis -- it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atoms; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.

In modern times, this intelligence is recognized as the computer. In 1959, when computer science was still in its infancy, Abé used Laplace's dream to create a novel. However to Abé, this dream is more akin to a nightmare. In the author's postscript to Inter Ice Age 4, Abé describes a conflict between the present and the future. The future sits in judgment on the present and those in the present are tormented by the "cruel" future, which inevitably disposes of the present, home to those things which we hold dear. While the novel describes the moral dilemma facing Dr. Katsumi, the overwhelming theme is the conflict between present and future. In the postscript, Abé writes of Inter Ice Age 4, "You, reader, are plagued by myriad doubts. Much I still do not grasp myself." Here, I can unambiguously agree.

The Box Man

This is the record of a box man.

I am beginning this account in a box. A cardboard box that reaches just to my hips when I put it over my head.

That is to say, at this juncture the box man is me. A box man, in his box, is recording the chronicle of a box man.
-- Kobo Abé, The Box Man

In The Box Man, Abé explores the isolation of the individual by creating a psychological study of a "box man," one of the homeless who live their lives in cardboard boxes. Abé extends the allegory into hyperbole by making his box man not only sleep in the box, but live in it at all times, even moving about in it by peering through a carefully cut hole. We see that Abé indeed intends for the box man to be an allegory for the existential man when he writes, "Paralysis of the heart's sense of direction is the box man's chronic complaint."

The novel not only studies the internal sensations of the box man but also examines the effects a box man has on those in the external world. The relations between the two are strained at best, and involve the box man being shot at and being paid to simply get rid of the box and, ceasing his existence as box man, rejoin the external world. Also explored is the issue of fake versus genuine box men. Is it sufficient to don a box in order to become a box man?

As always, Abé fills his novels with digressions which flesh out and give depth to the motivations and idiosyncrasies of the protagonist. One of the reoccurring digressions in The Box Man regards vision. Abé writes, "In seeing there is love, in being seen there is abhorrence." This idea, which drives the box man to hide within the cardboard box, is also reflected in Abé's incorporating photographs into the text of the novel. The psychological response to seeing and being seen is one of the central tenets of the book, not only in bringing the man into the box but in the private relationships he has with the other characters.

One trait that differentiates this novel from its predecessors is its sense of lightness. The Face of Another, The Ruined Map, The Woman in the Dunes are all very serious in theme. But by the very absurdity of the existence of its protagonist, The Box Man maintains an element of lightness, and is sometimes outright funny -- a trait previously unseen in Abé's work.

Secret Rendezvous

She gave a slight smile, curling her upper lip, then abruptly shoved back her chair and stood up. "Want to stop by my room on the way back?"

Half rising, he hedged. "Would there be some advantage in that?" A sharp pain shot through his anklebone. She had kicked him with the toe of her sandal. The skin was broken, and it was bleeding.

"Do you have to always just think about yourself like that? It's disgusting."

"Can I help it?"
-- Kobo Abé, Secret Rendezvous

Secret Rendezvous involves a businessman searching for his wife -- taken by an ambulance at 4 a.m. and then ostensibly "lost." He initially attempts to locate her through the usual channels, but fails to find any cooperation or understanding at the labyrinthine hospital. The hospital itself is nightmarish, and the doctors' purposes seem certainly ambiguous, if not transparently threatening. Indeed, it seems as if everyone but himself knows why and where his wife was taken (kidnapped?), but insists that he find out the information for himself, providing -- at best -- obtuse clues in the process. (Kafka applied to the health system is a usual comparison, which is not off the mark. There is certainly commentary on the inefficiency and disingenuousness of the health industry.) Eventually he takes the investigation into his own hands.

In the resuscitation department, the middle-aged man started to breathe again. Since that department takes little interest in treating illnesses, however, they merely accepted his thanks and released him right away, shortly after which he died again. But the resuscitation department lives fully up to its name; even now, at intervals of every four or five days he dies and comes back to life, then dies and comes back to life again, his waking hours one long hymn of gratitude.

As with The Box Man, Abé further develops his skills in employing lightness in his novels, to such an extent that Secret Rendezvous has been called a comic satire. For example, there is a character known as the horse, a man who believes that he is a horse. In mentally noting the discrepancies between the man and the horse, the businessman notes not the obvious fact that the man is simply not a horse, but instead focuses on the subtleties, such as the man's poor posture and rhythm in his gait. Beneath the comedy and satire, however, we find Abé's concerns lie in the same directions as his earlier novels: existential isolation and futility. That the wife is lost is proof enough of the man's isolation, and the soul of futility is expressed in his ludicrous and hopelessly obscured search.

 The Ark Sakura

The central metaphor in The Ark Sakura is that of an insect known as the eupcaccia or clockbug. The legs of the clockbug have atrophied as it does not need to move around. It exists by consuming its own feces, a diet which is possible due to the insect's slow rate of metabolism, allowing the nutrients in the feces to be replenished by bacterial action. The clockbug uses its antennae to rotate it in a counter-clockwise direction, so that it persists in a cycle of ingestion and excretion. The protagonist, nicknamed Pig, though he would prefer to be known as Mole, himself marvels at the uncanny resemblance between himself and the clockbug.

"At the risk of sounding pretentious, let me say I believe that the eupcaccia is symbolic of a certain philosophy or way of life. However much you may move around, as long as the motion is circular you haven't really gone anywhere; the important thing is to maintain a tranquil inner core."

Mole lives in an elaborate system of caves formed from the remains of an abandoned rock quarry. He has stock-piled goods in this cave in order to survive what he believes to be an impending nuclear holocaust. (When this book was published in 1984, Reagan was at his height as President, the Cold War continued, nuclear arsenals mounted, and the possibility of "mutually assured destruction" still loomed quite convincingly.) For the protagonist, this cave system is a boat, no less than Noah's ark, capable of carrying a small group of humanity through the deluge to come. Mole is a hermit who realizes that he must recruit other people to join him in the ark, otherwise the purpose of the ark -- that of repopulating the Earth after the holocaust -- is pointless. It is by inviting others to view his secret ark that Mole becomes embroiled in a battle to maintain control of the ark.

Stylistically, The Ark Sakura differs from Abé's previous novels in that he has reduced the percentage of text that is strictly exposition on the motivations of the characters and increased the proportion accorded to the dialogue and action of the narrative. Of course, the motivations are still of central importance to the novel, but the mechanisms by which each character's rationale is presented has been more smoothly integrated into the narrative. In the context of today's book market, this integration of philosophy and narrative can be construed as an attempt to make the novel more appealing to a larger less literary-minded market. That Abé, an internationally established writer by this time, chose to pursue this direction must then be attributed not to concerns of publishability but exploration of other artistic directions. For the Kobo Abé aficionado, part of the allure of Abé has been his hardcore exposition into the fundamental perceptions of his protagonists. Depending upon one's point of view, this new approach can be perceived either as an interesting experiment, or as a dilution of the strength of his earlier masterpieces like The Box Man, The Face of Another, and The Ruined Map.

 Kangaroo Notebook

In Kangaroo Notebook, we see that Abé, at the end of his career, retreated into fantasy. It was not an instantaneous metamorphosis. There were signs of the absurd in his previous novels. (For example, the idea of existing completely inside a cardboard box in The Box Man.) Escapism or absurdism as a response to the existential condition is not without precedent. In theory, one tries to escape from the grim reality of an existential perception of the world by introducing fantastic and often absurd elements, which cannot possibly exist or transpire in an existential world, in an attempt to transcend, flout, or even destroy said existential world. That so many attempts at escapism result in a nightmarish fantasy, where the circumstances of the protagonist's existence are frequently worse than what they were in the existential world, is a consequence of author's unconscious or implicit acknowledgement that actually there is no escape from this world, that the creation of fantasy is only a distraction. In short, the fantastic world becomes a distorted reflection of the existential world, shackled by the very chains that bind the author to the existential world. It is sensible that the body of Abé's work ends in fantasy because, after the fantastical attack on existentialism fails, there is only the acknowledgement of defeat.

Kangaroo Notebook describes the travails of a man who begins to grow radish sprouts from his legs. He immediately seeks medical treatment, surrendering himself to the doctors' will. The doctors suggests a visit to a spa in Hell Valley. Strapped to a wheeled hospital bed that moves of its own volition, the man begins his quest for treatment in a fantastic and dream-like environment. Though he is not pleased about his unusual condition, he remains remarkably calm, and does not panic about the lack of control he exercises over his destination. Each absurd development is greeted not with disbelief, but with annoyance at the inconveniences it poses to the protagonist. In fact, even in the world of the absurd, the scientist persists. He attempts to make sense of his surroundings using logic and the scientific reasoning. Of course, it is hopeless to think that the irrational can be described in terms of the rational, but this thought never dawns on the protagonist.

As was the case in The Ark Sakura, the text of Kangaroo Notebook is further shifted from exposition to narrative and dialogue. Indeed, there are streams of non sequitur dialogue in Kangaroo Notebook that read like Barthelme's Dead Father. As previously mentioned, there are precedents in Abé's earlier novels for the absurdism and writing style of Kangaroo Notebook, but this late novel is distinguished by its lack of verisimilitude and connectivity to the real world. In The Box Man, the box man may live an absurd existence, but he does so in a very real world. In Kangaroo Notebook, the protagonist's existence and his surroundings are equally absurd. In one sense, the fact that Kangaroo Notebook is so distinct from Abé's other work makes it a delight to read. In another sense, however, it is disappointing, because the grand philosophical statements made by Abé's masterpieces are either nonexistent or not apparent in Kangaroo Notebook. There are, of course, other interpretations -- elements of the absurd were more predominant in Abé's drama than they were in his novels. (See the screenplay references listed in the bibliography and see Fake Fish, which contain numerous photographs of scenes from the stage, which portray as clearly as any essay could the absurdist nature of Abé's theater.) In this light, Kangaroo Notebook can perhaps be seen as a merging of Abé's theatrical and novelistic styles.

 Abé's Writing in the Postmodern Context

By and large, there are many monstrous individuals who, liking riddles, pose meaningless problems and make a business of forcing people who are unable to answer to pay a forfeit. …
-- Kobo Abé, The Face of Another

Calvino's Criteria

An interesting way to evaluate postmodern literature is to examine it in light of Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Vintage, New York, 1988). In this collection of five lectures (the sixth was never completed), Calvino describes five qualities that he attempted to incorporate in his own writing and which he believed were useful/essential in the continuing development of fiction. Although, Calvino presumably never intended these criteria to be applied to his contemporaries (if he did, he never indicated it), it provides a structured framework within which we can analyze the writing of Kobo Abé. The six criteria are:

  1. lightness
  2. quickness
  3. exactitude
  4. visibility
  5. multiplicity
  6. consistency


When Calvino speaks of lightness, he is not referring to frivolity, although that can be an aspect of it. (In the descriptions of all of his literary qualities --except exactitude -- Calvino never comes out and gives an unambiguous definition of the quality). "Lightness" is rather the ability, when faced with a concrete image or episode, to leap back and describe it from a novel and unanticipated perspective, to engage the imagination not solely in fantasy or irrationality but in an alternative but legitimate description of the world. This perspective takes advantage of science's atomization and further subsequent discretization of the material world, where the ability to detect the mote-like structure of the world invests in it an inherent lightness.

Few readers would choose the adjective light to describe the work of Abé. On the contrary, there is an obvious heaviness intrinsic to Abé's work. This heaviness takes the form of detailed and laborious description of the psychological mechanisms by which a brain, properly trained, perceives and reacts to the world. And yet, from Calvino's perspective, one cannot be too sure that this knee-jerk first impression of Abé precludes lightness. At the peak of his abilities (e.g. The Box Man), Abé does describe the world from a perspective that is both unique in literature and unanticipated even to the reader familiar with Abé. That he's able to evoke this lightness, despite the weight of his description, is a tribute to his keen skills of observation and recording.

That said, in Abé's later works, Calvino's lightness does emerge. It shows hints of appearing in The Box Man, Secret Rendezvous, and The Ark Sakura, although these novels are still dominated by Abé's scientific exposition. The lightness appears fully developed in Kangaroo Notebook, Abé's last novel translated into English, where every movement of the protagonist in unrestrained by ties to the world of physical reality.


On quickness, Calvino writes, "For him [Galileo], good thinking means quickness, agility in reasoning, economy in argument, but also the use of imaginative examples." Again, few readers would accuse Abé of quickness. In his novels, Abé's intent has always been to fully explore the thought process, to leave no stone unturned, to delve into medical science to provide realistic and accurate descriptions of procedures involved, e.g. the composition and construction of the mask in The Face of Another. And yet, at the same time, there is an aspect of quickness in Abé's writing. As he roams vast territory in his mental descriptions, he discovers seemingly random and at best peripherally related phenomena, which he incorporates into his thought process. As an example of this, in The Face of Another, the scientist is lamenting the fact that his repulsive and disfigured face prevents even the little girl who lives in the apartment below his from interacting with him in a normal, pleasant manner. From this sullen contemplation, the scientist moves into a mental soliloquy on the virtues of darkness. This digression is spawned by the momentary flickering of the idea that, in darkness, the girl would not have been disgusted by him. However, the thoughts of darkness take on their own life. Their is a brief, fullness to the aside, which eventually returns to the original train of thought, his hideousness. It is in the ability to bring in seemingly unrelated thoughts, that we find Abé's element of quickness. His writing is here then there then back, quickly dashing back and forth from one idea to another, all the while slowly composing a synergistic development of one man's thought process.


By exactitude, Calvino intends (i) a concise plan for the work, (ii) evocation of clear and memorable images, and (iii) preciseness in language. In contrast to lightness and quickness, where we had to search and qualify Abé's writing, exactitude is an obvious characteristic. One of the hallmarks of postmodern art and literature is that much of its development paralleled the advances in science and technology over the course of the twentieth century. The influence of science, in the form of Abé's formal medical training, is obvious in his novels. His application of the clinical methods of a physician to writing is a archetypal example of this parallel development. This reliance on his medical training is essential in bringing exactitude to his writing. There is no question that a concise plan for all of the works of Abé's existed, both on a narrative and thematic level. The language is clinically precise. When one speaks of clear and memorable images, one thinks not only of physical situations or episodes of the characters, (e.g. the woman in the lemon light in The Ruined Map, the pig with his foot stuck in the toilet in The Ark Sakura, the interior design of the cardboard box in The Box Man) but of reasoning and argument. Abé presents vivid and coherent arguments when presenting the thought processes of his characters, e.g. the reasoning behind becoming a box man.

At the same time that Abé provides exact images, reasoning, and language, there is also an important (even essential) element of ambiguity in the writing. This ambiguity is the telltale sign of the existentialist. For the existentialist, who acknowledges no absolute standards, nothing can be known absolutely. Ambivalence in thought and ambiguity in purpose result. In The Ruined Map, this ambiguity between pursuer and pursued grows as the novel progresses, until by the end, there is no significant distinction. This ambiguity is not in opposition to the exactitude. Rather, they are acting on different levels, one on a literary level and the other on a philosophical level.


By visibility, Calvino intends the imaginative process by which one starts with the word and arrives at a visual image. The evocation of images was incorporated in the criterion "exactitude," but Calvino singles out additional distinct features of images in visibility. At issue is the purpose of images: (i) imagination as instrument of knowledge or (ii) identification with the "world soul." Also at issue is the source of images: (i) we can recycle from a common bin of stock images of the mass media or (ii) we can wipe the slate clean and start anew.

In Abé's work, we see that the purpose of imagination falls more in line with identification with the world soul, except that Abé's protagonists are outsiders, alienated from the world. Their imagination serves, perhaps, the diametrically opposite purpose, that of magnifying their failure to identify with the world soul. An example of this can be seen in The Ark Sakura, where the protagonist goes to great lengths in imagining the metaphor that links him to the isolated clockbug.

The source of images in Abé's work seems to come not from a bin of stock images but seem to have originated in Abé. Perhaps the most clear example is to be found in Kangaroo Notebook, where the protagonist's affliction, namely his outsider-status with respect to the rest of the world, is manifested as growths of radishes sprouting from his legs. To my knowledge, this imagery is without precedent. In fact, because the imagery is unique it is difficult to empathize with the protagonist. The reader is initially uncertain whether the radishes signify, for example, a broken heart, or shattered dreams, or self-denigration. Eventually we see that the radishes represent a source of alienation for the protagonist but this insight is gained only by observing the reaction of others to the radishes and not from the image of the radishes themselves.


Calvino's multiplicity centers around his idea that the contemporary novel is an encyclopedia, which gives knowledge and connects people, events, and things in the world. The encyclopedic nature of the novel means that each chapter or entry is connected in innumerable ways to other chapters or entries. This aspect of multiplicity apparent in Abé's writing is due to his training as a physician. If we take as a hypothesis that there is a small set of rules (perhaps only one rule) that governs the universe, i.e. the laws of physics, as our starting point, we can extend those laws to chemistry, a study which is a subset of physics, describing how collections (molecules) of protons, neutrons, and electrons obey the laws of physics. Biology is a subset of chemistry in that biological cells are simply larger, ordered collections of molecules. Human beings are one subset of interest within the realm of biology. The brain is but one organ within human beings. Following this train of thought, the activity of the brain and the people who use them must, by hook or crook or by whatever convoluted sequence of mechanisms involved, ultimately obey the law(s) of physics. It is in attempting to explain human motives, thoughts, and actions in light of this single chain of reasoning that Abé connects each component of his novels to every other component.

Calvino's multiplicity also explicitly involves mimicking the universe, as the universe itself is the ultimate model of multiplicity, in scale, design, and purpose. Calvino wrote, "Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement." He would surely sympathize with Abé's sentiment in the postscript to Inter Ice Age 4, that Abé himself did not grasp the complete implications of the novel. Of course he could not grasp them because the novel addresses the future and the infinite and the (presently) incomplete laws of physics.

One aspect of multiplicity that Calvino does not explicitly describe in his lecture is the element of allegory. Allegory, of course, provides multiplicity of meanings in that there is always at least two levels to the story: the narrative and the thematic lesson. Perhaps, the most skilled hand in allegory from the second-half of the twentieth century is the Swedish Nobel Laureate, Pär Lagerkvist, who, in his novels The Dwarf, Barabbas, Herod and Mariamne, The Sibyl, etc., perfected the allegory to describe (i) a narrative, (ii) a psychological description of the protagonist's reasoning, and (iii) an intellectual investigation of religious faith. Although not directed toward theological considerations, Abé's work functions in much the same way. In all of his novels, we have the narrative, a psychological portrait, and an investigation into the universal circumstances of man.


Calvino's essay on consistency, if it was ever completed before his death, is not available to us. As in the other five criteria above, consistency surely was intended to contain elements beyond the literal denotation of the word. Even if we limit ourselves to the literal meaning of consistency, then we still have two interpretations: (i) the agreement or harmony of parts or features to one another, and (ii) the physical property denoting the degree of firmness or density. I don't know which Calvino intended. It seems that the first definition, that of bringing the whole together, seems more pertinent, but Calvino should not be underestimated. Perhaps, he meant to treat the novel as a stew, which must boil in the author's mind until it reaches the proper consistency.

If we limit ourselves to the first definition (an easier task by far) then we find ourselves looking for some over-riding themes that permeate the novels and hold them together, despite their numerous and (in Abé's case) disparate origins. In the descriptions of the novels above, we have put together a good argument for consistency across a body of work. Individually, the novels are self-consistent. The novels, despite their sometimes slow pace and meandering digressions, leave few loose ends at the conclusion of the novel. When there are loose ends, as in The Face of Another or The Ruined Map, the unanswered questions are consistent with Abé's existential point of view that the future is ambiguous and indeterminate, and that existence is a process, with only one conclusion, namely death. Avoiding ending all of his novels with the death of the protagonist leaves Abé only one option: the anti-resolution, the ambiguous and endless continuation of life. This ending is entirely consistent with the novel from the very first page to the very last.

Selected Bibliography of English Translations

This bibliography omits all of Abé's earliest work (including novels) which remain untranslated. It also omits Abé's last novel, Flying Man, which has also unfortunately escaped translation.

The Woman in the Dunes (Japanese publication Suna no Onna 1962, English Publication 1964)
The Face of Another (Japanese publication Tanin no Kao 1964, English Publication 1966)
The Ruined Map (Japanese publication Moetukita Tizu 1967, English Publication 1969)
Inter Ice Age 4 (Japanese publication Daiyon Kanpyoki 1959, English Publication 1970)
The Box Man (Japanese publication Hako Otoko 1973, English Publication 1974)
Secret Rendezvous (Japanese publication Mikkai 1977, English Publication 1979)
The Ark Sakura (Japanese publication Hakobune Sakuramaru 1984, English Publication 1988)
Kangaroo Notebook (Japanese publication Kangaru Noto 1991, English Publication 1996)

Collections of Short Stories
Beyond the Curve (1991, containing stories written from 1949 to 1966)

Friends, A Play (Grove Press, 1969)
The Man Who Turned Into A Stick, Three Related Plays (University of Tokyo Press, 1975)
Three Plays by Kobo Abé (1993) (containing Involuntary Homicide (1971), The Green Stockings (1974), and The Ghost is Here (1958)

Selected Critical Commentary
Fake Fish: The Theater of Kobo Abé by Nancy K. Shields, Weatherhill, 1996, New York.

--David Keffer, 10 November 2000


Dr. Keffer is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His study of classical and contemporary literature has been self-directed and he holds no formal academic credentials in the area. Inspired by Dr. John Prausnitz's article "Chemical Engineering and the other Humanities" (Chemical Engineering Education, Volume 32, Number 1, Winter 1998, Ed. Tim Anderson, published by the Chemical Engineering Division of the American Society for Engineering Education, pp. 14-19), Dr. Keffer has attempted to incorporate nontraditional elements of science and engineering, as they appear in art, theater, literature, and music, into the otherwise technically rigorous curricula of his undergraduate engineering students. In dealing with literature, he frequently directs students to the fictional writings of Kobo Abé (M.D.) and Primo Levi (Ph.D. Chemistry).

Dr. Keffer would like to acknowledge and thank Katsusuke Nagashima who first got him interested in Kobo Abé (and Jim Jarmusch), while they were both graduate students in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, in 1992.

The Abé banner at the top of this page contains an illustration by Machi Abé, from Inter Ice Age 4.

As of December, 2014, this essay is hosted by The Poison Pie Publishing House, which can be contacted here.

This essay was originally published on November 10, 2000 in the Scriptorium of the Modern Word Website, which apparently is no longer extant.