A “persona” in the standard vernacular, refers to a social role or character performed by an actor. The word is thought to have derived from Latin, where it’s original meaning referred to a theatrical mask. The Latin word probably has it’s roots in the Etruscan word “Phersu” which had the same meaning*. In the study of communication, persona is a term used to describe the versions of self that all individuals possess, with behaviours selected like masks according to the impression an individual wishes to project when interacting with others. Therefore, “personas” presented to other people will vary according to the social environment a person is engaged in and the persona presented before others will differ from the one an individual will display when they happen to be alone. According to Carl Jung whilst a child is growing, the development of a viable social persona is a vital part of adapting to and in preparation for adult life in the external social world - 'A strong ego relates to the outside world through a flexible persona; identification with a specific persona (doctor, scholar, artist, etc.) inhibits psychological development'. For Jung the danger was that people become identical with their personas (the doctor with his stethoscope, the conductor with her baton ) resulting in what could be a shallow, brittle, conformist kind of personality which is "all mask”.
The Face of Another (1964) was Kobe Abe’s first major novel after the success of The Women in the Dunes (1962) and like that book follows the theme of the modern individuals alienation with the society they live in. The novel tells the story of a scientist so hideously disfigured by Keloid* scars - the result of a failed laboratory experiment - that his whole face is covered in bandages and his wife finds his image disgusting. He comes up with a plan of creating a mask, with the aim of seducing his wife as another man, all the while documenting everything in a series of notebooks. The first part sees him planning and building the mask, which is so realistic that it appears to fool everyone, save for one girl who, although we are told is intellectually challenged, still recognises that the man in the mask and the man in the bandages are one and the same.
The narrative is expressed in first person through three separate coloured notebooks, although we are told that there is no reason behind this beyond a means in which to distinguish them apart. It is through them that we follow this faceless individual viewing what seems to be a dissection of his every thought, or the peeling away of layers of his psyche, but is actually multiplying the veneer on his mask, removing himself further from his expressed aim and building more masks in which to confine himself. As the tale progresses it’s as though the mask takes over, this starts slowly as his confidence in the mask grows, until it becomes a force that isolates him far more than his scarred face ever did. He, or the mask, finally get confident enough to meet his wife and is soon dismayed and angered by how easy it was to seduce her, in fact so convinced is he in his role as “mask” that he believes her sexual act with him, places her in the role of the unfaithful spouse who was so easily seduced from her marital vows and as such can be written down, catalogued and defined, before being rejected.
As I stated before, this is all played out through the three notebooks in which the scientist records and dissects minutiae of his existence, where every sentence, every page adds more layers to his mask, thereby transforming his face into a shield with which to protect himself, an anonymous faceless eye observing without being seen, reduced to a voyeuristic gaze living among millions of strangers, who although close neighbours, are faces he does not recognise – symbolising the fundamental facelessness of contemporary man lost in an ocean of complete anonymity.
“Just a minute! The plans for the mask were not the only thing. The fate of having lost my face and of being obliged to depend on a mask was in itself not exceptional, but was rather a destiny I shared with contemporary man, wasn’t it? A trivial discovery indeed. For my despair lay in my fate, rather than in my loss of face; it lay in the fact that I did not have the slightest thing in common with other men. I envied even a cancer victim, because he shares something with other men. If this turned out to be untrue, the hole into which I had fallen was not an abandoned well provided with an emergency escape; it was a penitentiary cell, recognized by everyone but me”
Towards the end of this novel, the impressions of his wife, are replaced by another beautiful face, seen in a film the protagonist saw whilst hiding out in a cinema - this girl has one side of her face an ideal of perfection, the other a mass of keloidal scarring. Here is a face of Hibakusha*, a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Although half-destroyed by this scarring, her face is striking, displaying a beauty which the scientist could observe protected by the darkness of the cinema from the gaze of others and only through this visage does his own scarring cease to be a personal tragedy and can become an emblem of post-war Japan, which had not yet found a way to escape the memories of war.
This book is also a love story – a man trying to reconnect with his wife and yet is lost amongst the masks he has built around himself, the layers and barriers through which he peers, searching for a pathway back to when there was a connection, a point when the masks although not totally removed, were slid to one side and one glanced at the nakedness of the other. By the final pages of this book we are left with an image of this individual alone amongst millions, trapped by his own creation, left trying to rationalize a way forward and yet still adding layers to his mask.
Kobo Abe through his work as an Avant-garde novelist and playwright, has been compared to the likes of Franz Kafka and Alberto Moravia and like Kafka there is an apparent clinical detachment in the writing, as though Abe’s medical background has had a direct influence upon his writing style and yet with this there is also an elegance that makes this novel an immensely enjoyable and also an incredibly satisfying read – on all levels.
Kōbō Abe (安部 公房 Abe Kōbō), pseudonym of Kimifusa Abe (安部 公房 Abe Kimifusa was born on March the 7th 1924 in Kita, Tokyo, he grew up in Mukden (now Shen-yang) in Manchuria during the second world war. In 1948 he received a medical degree from the Tokyo Imperial University, yet never practised medicine. As well as a writer, he was also a poet ( Mumei shishu "Poems of an unknown poet" - 1947) playwright, photographer and inventor. Although his first novel Owarishi michi no shirube ni ("The Road Sign at the End of the Street") was published in 1948 which helped to establish his reputation, it wasn’t until the publication of The Woman in the Dunes in 1962 that he won widespread international acclaim. In the 1960’s he worked with the Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara on the film adaptations of this novel, plus The Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes and The Ruined Map, in the early 1970’s he set up an acting studio in Tokyo, where he trained performers and directed plays. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977.
Among the honours bestowed on him were the Akutagawa Prize in 1951 for The Crime of S. Karuma, the Yomiuri Prize in 1962 for Woman in the Dunes, and the Tanizaki Prize in 1967 for the play Friends. Kenzaburō Ōe stated that Abe deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he himself had won (Abe was nominated multiple times).
Kaori Nagai graduated from the University of Tokyo and obtained a doctorate in Postcolonial studies from the University of Kent (UK), where she teaches to this day. She is the author of Empire of Analogies: Kipling, India and Ireland and co-edited a collection of essays with Prof. Caroline Rooney entitled Kipling and Beyond: Patriotism, Globalisation and Postcolonialism.
*The Latin word probably derived from the Etruscan word "phersu", with the same meaning, and that from the Greek πρόσωπον (prosōpon). Its meaning in the latter Roman period changed to indicate a "character" of a theatrical performance.
* Keloid is a type of scar, which depending on its maturity, is composed mainly of either type III (early) or type I (late)collagen. It is a result of an overgrowth of granulation tissue (collagen type 3) at the site of a healed skin injury which is then slowly replaced by collagen……......
* The surviving victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are called hibakusha (被爆者?), a Japanese word that literally translates to "explosion-affected people". Many victims were Japanese who still live in Japan, ................