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review 2014-12-07 01:46
The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe
The Face of Another (Vintage International) - Kōbō Abe

The world of The Face of Another is the world of Japan in the 1960s observed through Abe's highly tuned microscope; a world layered in paranoia, in which fast growing technology when not regulated, might create a terrifying nightmarish forecast of the future. Abe explores the foreign - the unknown within man, moving his protagonist in deceptive scenarios, observing his relationship with others, peeling away his external perceptions, to expose the layers within.

 

A scientist's facial vulgarization caused by a lab explosion alienates and victimizes him, spurring him to create a lifelike mask capable of human expression. In the guise of this foolproof mask, he hopes to interact with the world again without the humiliation of his scars and, more personally, to seduce his wife whom he believes has been avoiding him.

 

Man's soul is in his skin...I have come to observe with the greatest care the appearance of soldiers who have been wounded. And, ultimately, I have come to one conclusion. And it's a distressing one: serious exterior injuries, especially to the face, leave definite mental trauma. 

 

Abe's precise descriptions of the fantastic creation, constructed with the realism of a technologically sophisticated lab experiment, the structure of a suspense thriller with a science fiction theme, make for very intriguing mad-scientist material. His artfulness detail the typical Japanese obsession with faces, selfhood and social roles of the time, and perhaps, more psychologically, an experiment of the theory that man validates his ego only through others. In the novel, the narrator because of his injury, experiences isolation, loneliness, a loss of self; a monstrous outcast, questioning and uncertain of the value of his life.

 

I can hardly believe that the face is so important to a man's existence. A man's worth should be gauged by the content of his work; possibly the convolutions of the surface of the brain have something to do with it, but his face certainly does not. If the loss of a face can cause conspicuous change in the scale of evaluation, it may well be owing to a fundamental emptiness of content.

 

In his altered self, no longer hidden behind the old visage, his true nature surfaces. When the play-acting scheme with his wife backfires, he becomes blindly jealous of this 'other' self, and is driven by maniacal rage as the twisted revelation unfolds.

 

 

                 

 

 Abe's novel brings classic sci-fi thriller components into an intricate rumination on the self, ego, otherness and the accepted ideal of what is normal. Consequentially and conceptually, what is normal or alien becomes directly under scrutiny. Abe ingeniously masks some condemning messages by inventing a scientist who suffers deforming scars distinctly similar to those of Hiroshima victims. Secondly, Abe compares the scientist's fate with Japanese-Koreans who, despite indiscernible features to their Japanese co-habitants, persistently suffered prejudice.

 

 

   

 

 

The Face of Another is a story of metamorphosis from normal to monstrous, a Jekyll and Hyde story,  an ill state that is directly in opposition to an idyll one. Abe suggests that within the seemingly normal external self solemnly lurks the internal alien.

 

Is what you think to be the mask in reality your real face, or is what you think to be your real face really a mask? 

 

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review 2014-12-07 01:37
The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
The Woman in the Dunes - E. Dale Saunders,Kōbō Abe

Without the threat of punishment there is no joy in flight.

 

In Kobo Abe's fantasy world of The Woman in the Dunes, an amateur entomologist on vacation finds himself in a remote coastal village built amid deeply undulating dunes. There, he is tricked by a lonely widow and her neighboring villagers, trapped in deep pits shored by sand drift walls, to be charged with the task of shoveling back the ever-sliding banks, persistent and never-ending in its threat to entomb them.

 

Sand moves around like this all year long. Its flow is its life. It absolutely never stops— anywhere. Whether in water or air, it moves about free and unrestricted. So, usually, ordinary living things are unable to endure life in it.

 

The landscape of the dunes which Abe describes, of wood-rotted boxed dwellings built at the bottom of shifting sand hills, could not realistically exist, marking the novel as a science fiction/ fantasy thriller. In addition, its themes adopt surrealistic, dreamlike, metamorphosing features reminiscent of the works of Kafka, slowly shifting and deforming like the dunes themselves.

 

Sand...
Things with form were empty when placed beside sand. The only certain factor was its movement; sand was the antithesis of all form.

 

Abe's works are generically concerned with the human state of balance, whose fragility becomes evident in a life of pointlessness and insufferable futility. In The Woman in the Dunes, Abe presents the grotesque sadness borne from a man's oppressive, fruitless daily life; the image of a degraded human being who is isolated, trapped in the monotony of routine, unable to escape a meaningless existence.

 

What's hardest for me is not knowing what living like this will ever come to.
What was this "Hell of Loneliness"? he wondered. Perhaps they had misnamed it, he had thought then, but now he could understand it very well. Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion.

 

To effectuate some meaningfulness to his situation, whether for the choice to stay or freedom of escape, the protagonist heroically attempts to alter his circumstance, significantly going through a metamorphosis of his own, but like the true kinetic nature of sand, its waves of ebbs and flows, his fate lays ambiguous.

 

The theory had been advanced that the man, tired of life, had committed suicide. One of his colleagues, who was an amateur psychoanalyst, held to this view. He claimed that in a grown man enthusiasm for such a useless pastime as collecting insects was evidence enough of a mental quirk.

 

The Woman in the Dunes has its share of vocabulary best fitted for the field of science, reflecting Abe's background in the profession; though his manipulation of such language effectively results in a poetic blend of logic and illogic, never off-putting for the reader, simply suspending reality for a thrilling period of time, meaningfully spent. I feel comfortably balanced in recommending this to readers of both sci-fi and Japanese literature.

 

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review 2014-10-26 04:06
The Wild Geese by Mori Ōgai
The Wild Geese - Ōgai Mori,Kingo Ochiai,Sanford Goldstein

 

Mori Ōgai co-mingles nostalgia for a vanished Tokyo of the late 1900's with romanticism as he tells the story of secret longing, isolation, and unrequited love. The main character, Otama, is the subject of pathos in this Meiji- period story: a naïve heroine left with gloomy prospects after her divorce from a bigamist policeman, succumbs to filial duty to her impoverished father by becoming the mistress of a sleazy moneylender.

 

Her patron, Suezo, while shrewdly building a business on the exploitation of others, compares typically to most Meiji-men: selfish, egotistic. Already married, he secretly sets up Otama in a residence where she wiles away her days like a lonely bird in a gilded cage.

 

The story of Otama is told in flashback through the narration of a keen observer - a friend of the male protagonist, Okada, a medical student pursuing plans to study in Germany, with ill- managed finances that force him to seek the services of the calculating moneylender. During one of her days often filled with boredom, Otama takes notice of, and becomes infatuated with the handsome medical student as he passes by her balcony. Their meeting develops into unfulfilling entanglements for all.

 

Ōgai vividly details everyday life in the village from shopkeepers, street performers, housemaids, geisha, and policemen to university students and their landladies: giving a strong impression of a transitioning Japan moving into the 20th century; though his characterization of women seem less than flattering, possibly suggesting once more, a distinctive Meiji societal attitude. For example, Otama early in the story is depicted with a flaccid personality, weak and too easily compromised to be completely sympathetic to the modern reader. Suezo, on the other hand, adulterous, serpentine and slithering; unlikable from the beginning, describes his wife as 'ugly and quarrelsome.'

 

Ōgai's imagery may seem clumsy or indelicate in areas as noted in the scene where Okada accidentally kills a wild goose.

 

Among these bitumen-colored stems and over the dark gray surface of the water reflecting faint lights, we saw a dozen wild geese slowly moving back and forth. Some rested motionless on the water.

"Can you throw that far with a stone?" Ishihara asked, turning to Okada.

Okada hesitated. "They're going to sleep, aren't they? It's cruel to throw at them... I'll make them fly away," said Okada, reluctantly picking up a stone.

The small stone hissed faintly through the air. I watched where it landed, and I saw the neck of a goose drop down. At the same time a few flapped their wings and, uttering cries, dispersed and glided over the water . But they did not rise high into the air. The one that was hit remained where it was.(111)

 

The image of the dead goose linked with Otama's fate is just one of several less subtle scenes, branding the story in general with a fable-like signature.

Not all wild geese can fly.

 

The Wild Geese was my first Mori Ōgai novel; a quick read at 119 pages, I have to admit that it didn't impress me as a 'classic' piece of Japanese literature. It truly leaned more to a charming fable whose heroine disregards the coveted riches of golden eggs, and finds freedom in the spreading of her own wings.

 

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review 2014-09-02 04:01
Light and Dark by Sōseki Natsume

                         

 

Man's original sin is his ego - such is Sōseki Natsume's main theme of his unfinished novel Light and Dark, (Meian, 1917), who considered that egoism is the deep-rooted origin of all evils, proliferating like a weed in the rush of modern existence.

 

Sōseki's 'Meian' characters are ordinary Meiji people living ordinary but claustrophobic daily lives, utterly self absorbed, plagued by pettiness and selfish desires; provoked to constant streams of verbal and psychological battles: emphasizing the flaws of marriage, love and interpersonal relationships. Sōseki laid bare the human failings of pride, self-love and disingenuousness in his novel that is fundamentally about perception, a study in human relations, a satire of the artifices of the Meiji period.  He plied his characters with the darkness of selfishness, abject isolation, insincerity, distrust, egoism; contrasting those with the lightness of hope, self awareness, truth, revelation, authenticity, visualizing a more illuminating human condition.

 

At the heart of Light and Dark are Yoshio and O-Nobu Tsuda, a young educated and middle-class couple, recently married and considered to be happy. In exploring (Yoshio)Tsuda's and O-Nobu's characters (the peripheral cast are treated similarly), Sōseki tested the binds of marriage as well as the flexibility of their love (or the suffocating effect of it ).

 

Tsuda takes the stage in a plot that turns out to be disappointingly spare of action, and as the title suggests - holds a full spectrum of contrasting images. He is made to be sick, both spiritually as well as physically, opening the story with the need for surgery to remove a growth*.  An unlikable man, he embodies the typical male of the period in the old-fashioned treatment of his more modern wife. Tsuda's egoism springs from an Old World background: he views himself highly, his right to live a lofty lifestyle and have the freedom to pursue his own desires are solidly planted.

 

Men of old with an immovable sense of duty never allowed themselves to be smitten.

 

Tsuda regards his wife's complete attention to his personal comfort as his entitlement. He sees no need to be honest or giving in his relationship with O-Nubu. Sometimes he attempted to mollify her. At other times he felt rebellious and wanted to escape. In either case he was always aware at the back of his consciousness, of a feeling that amounted to disparagement:

 

I can't be wasting all my time with a woman like you - I have things to do for myself.

 

O-Nobu is a modern woman of the day. She falls in love with Yoshio ( baffling) and marries him almost immediately. She considers herself as 'mistress to her own affairs,' aiming to prove her worthiness and determined to make her marriage a success - a conviction obviously challenged by the stark reality of her marital unhappiness, and her failure to recognize her own egocentric actions as contributing factors. Her struggle to understand and connect to a man like Tsuda is a concern that plagues most relationships.

 

O-Nobu found herself thinking of Tsuda as a self-centered man. Despite the fact that she extended to him from morning to night what she intended to be the fullest extent of kindness and consideration she was capable of, was there no limit to the sacrifice her husband required?

 

Is a husband nothing more than a sponge who exists solely to soak up a wife's tenderness?

                        
The novel is a yin and yang minefield, more complex of a read than expected, unprepared as I was at the time I slugged through it. Undeniably, Sōseki possessed the masterful brushstrokes for exquisite imagery and subtle illusions, keeping true to his Zen aesthetics. His portrait of nature, full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are at once asymmetrical and yet maintain a balance, attracted me to this book. Admittedly, my own flawed vision blurred Light and Dark: for me, it was leaden with ambiguities and overshadowed by vague dialogue. Its slow moving narrative and insufferable cast fail to clearly bring to light the deeper concepts recessed in the plot.

 

An unfinished work due to the untimely death of the author, Light and Dark abruptly ended, unsatisfyingly. Surely, Sōseki's intent was to bring a resolution for O-Nobo and Yoshio, a compromise based on the knowledge of oneself, a realization of one's own limitations, and the letting go of ego.

 

* ( the translator is unsure of the nature of the illness, only that Tsuda needs surgical repair. In any case, the allegorical setting is laid ).

 

Fans of Japanese Literature would still enjoy this work which needed much more patience than I possessed ( although by the time I reviewed it, I suppose I came to appreciate it better ).

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Light and Dark represents Sōseki’s effort to put in perspective, through his unique approach to fiction, the rapidly changing dynamics of Japanese society and culture during the Meiji period (1868–1912), of a well-ordered society rushing too quickly toward a modernized Japan. Sōseki saw the erosion of fundamental truths as expressed in traditional Japanese myth and Zen Buddhist teachings as well as fundamental truths of the human condition. In his works, Sōseki constructed fictional characters to articulate his belief that modernization is necessary for Japan’s survival, but, when it occurs too quickly, such change is unhealthy and threatens individual happiness. Sōseki viewed that slower movement over time and space was critical to human development and the attainment of happiness.

 

 

 

 3.75 *'s

 

 

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