Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ark Sukura by Kobo Abe 安部 公房

Ark Sukura by Kobo Abe (1984, translated by Juliet Carpenter)

As Strange a Book as I have Read in a Long Time

Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1924 to 1993-Japan) is one of the "Big" books of the post war Japanese novel.    It is on almost all lists of the ten most important Japanese novels (for sure it is on mine)  of all times.    (There is some background information on Abe in my prior post on him.  He has a medical degree but never practiced.)     I really enjoyed reading it but there are those who were turned off by its reduction of humans to the conditions of insects (and Kobe Abe has a "thing" for insects)  and found it to bleak for their liking.   Forgetting these issues,  Woman in the Dunes  is must read for anyone who wishes to seriously read in the Japanese novel.   It is taught in universities around the world as an example of the Existential novel in the tradition of Albert Camus.   Kenzaburo Oe said Abe should have been given the Nobel prize instead of him.

Ark Sukura (I have also seen it called The Ark Sukura) is about Mole, 250 or so pounds,  about five foot six and near blind in the sunlight from living underground.    Mole is a nick name he took for himself as he lives in an abandoned underground warehouse where he is building a concrete ark for a coming apocalyptic flood or/and for a shelter in case of a nuclear explosion in Tokyo (something feared as a  real possibility from terrorists organizations).   Mole has a number of tickets he plans to give to potential crew members for his ark who he sees as  the re-builders of the human race.    He lives underground but once and a while he goes to the surface to look in the malls  and the markets for candidates worthy to be on his ark.

As the story opens Mole is at a street market of some sort.    He spots someone selling insects.      He wants to buy one as soon as he sees a man with an attractive woman go crazy with joy when they buy one.    The insect (something Abe made up) is kind of a metaphor for Mole's view of  the state of his own life and maybe Abe's darker side's view of humanity.   The insect eats exclusively its own waste products.   (Think of the Japanese horror movies about monsters born in garbage dumps).   Mole eventually figures out that the couple are shills working with the vendor.  

After a confrontation, Mole invites the shill and the woman to join his crew (which so far is just them) underground to work on his ark/bomb shelter.   The woman is treated in a very objectified way.   Mole spends a lot of time looking at her body parts.  (One has to assume there has never been a Mrs Mole!)    All sorts of bizarre (and funny if you are a bit warped!) things happen.     Mole gets stuck in a giant toilet which is designed to be used should the ark ever go to sea.    (This is not a book for those squeamish about reading about human waste.)   Mole is looking for about 300 people to join his crew.   He has totally thought through this project.   I was fascinated to learn about some of the details of the ark.

There is just so much in this book.   Some readers will say it shows the influence of French Absurdist theater on Japanese literature (after reading Ubo Roi by Alfred Jarry I see this as very pervasive) of Becket with his characters out of the wastes of the world, and Camus.   I think it also has to be seen in part as an "anti Yokio Mishima work" with Mole as a farcical version of his heroes trying to reclaim days of glory.

A very important theme in much post WWII Japanese literature concerns finding a way to live an authentic valuable life in a world in which all of the values you were taught to believe in have been exposed as hollow lies.

Mel u


Bellezza said...

What an interesting description of the book, and I have to admit that it did make me a bit squeamish. Even his picture reminds me of one of those children in class who's poking around in things he shouldn't be...I can't say the premise sounds that enthralling to me, but I did learn a lot from your post. I especially like your last few sentences as I didn't have such a clear idea about post WWII Japanese literature. You're always teaching me something new, Mel!

bokusenou said...

This sounds pretty interesting, although I'm not sure how squeamish I'd be reading about some of the things mentioned, still I think I'll put this one on my "to read" list.

Fred said...

Mel u,

Good review. Thanks for posting it. I have _Woman in the Dunes_ in my TBR bookcase and think I will move it up a bit.

I'm not sure whether I'm squeamish about reading about human waste or just not that interested.

Jeff Rivera said...

Someone once told me that one of the worst thing a person can feel is when you're told that the one thing you've told yourself to be authentically true your whole life is suddenly a lie and it makes your self-identify fall into pieces.

@parridhlantern said...

The idea of this with its absurdists ideals sounds like,my kind of book, thanks for the info

@parridhlantern said...

Have since this comment read The Face Of Another & this writer is now one of my writers to read all of.