Friday, December 2, 2011

The Face of Another - Kobo Abe

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”.

drama, 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.

face mask

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).


Kobo Abe(Wiki)

ibiblio /abe kobo/      drama mask


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.

Kaori Nagai U' of Kent

School of European Culture and Languages (Kaori Nagai)


*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, ................


Unknown said...

Wow! That's a very complete review :) The only Abe I've read (apart from a short story) is 'The Woman in the Dunes', and that is very Kafkaesque. This is defintiely one I want to read once I get back into a J-Lit phase!

Mel u said...

This is a really interesting post-I have read two of Abe's works-Kenzaburo Oe said Abe should have won the Nobel Prize instead of him-I hope to read all of Abe's translated work eventually.

gina said...

Oh, interesting that Oe said that Abe should have received the Nobel. I've read neither! said...

So thoroughly articulated and written. I learned so much. I like the art, never owned one of the masks or even a replica. Nor have I read any of Abe's work.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Tony, my next will be The Box man, which has names like Kafka & Beckett, thrown out it.
PS, will the coach get you to J-lit or are you changing transport?

Hi Mel, yes Oe reckoned he should have won it & he was nominated several times. After this my aim also is to read more (all) of his work, next being The Box Man.

Hi Gina, of the two I'd suggest you'd get on with Abe, better than Oe, but it's just my umble opinion.

Hi Lena, I have no masks, well beyond my social one, as for reading one try the J-lit challenge next year & try one.

Anonymous said...

I ve yet to read his works thanks for the enlightening post about this book and his work ,all the best stu

Novroz said...

Great review. I have sen this book on my library for months but I have no intention of picking it up because I know nothing about it. Your review makes me curious now.

thank you for the review, Parrish :)

Tom Cunliffe said...

Fascinating stuff and a fascinating review - the concept of what who we are when our physical image is replaced with another. I was reminded of Beautiful image Beautiful Image by Marcel Aymé in which a man wakes up one morning to find he has acquired a whole new face.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Stu, You've not been to Japan recently & this has all the ideas you like, it's written in the form of a series of notebooks, it deals with identity, it has psychological aspects etc & the authors known for his Avant-garde writing.

Hi Novroz release that curiosity & give it a go, or one of his other books.

Hi Tom, this has echoes of a few books in it, because of the idea of persona & how we project or perceive it.

Unknown said...

Funnily enough, I am currently alternating between two J-Lit books, swapping between rickshaws and taxis to get around. Stay tuned :)

me. said...

I recently saw the film adaption of this which was by the sound of it a close rendering of the novel, I think Abe wrote the script for it. Abe's novels never cease to fascinate, thanks for a great post.

@parridhlantern said...

I believe you're right as he scripted two other films, based on his books "The pitfall &" The Woman in the Dunes" both directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

Col (Col Reads) said...

This is an amazing review. I have never heard of this author, but I find the idea of watching your own "performance" to be one of the most intriguing parts of the dramaturgical view of sociology. I think I would really enjoy this!

Unknown said...

I enjoyed The Woman in the Dunes and this sounds even better. I'll ensure I get a copy. Thanks for the review!

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Col, thanks for the comment, I'm also fascinated by the idea persona & how it relates to perception on an individual or societal level, years ago I had a series of characters that represented different aspects of my poetry, now the subject still bubbles under my other obsessions.

Hi Jackie, I want to read Women in the dunes, at some point, although my next is The box man, probably followed by Ark sakura.

Bellezza said...

Oh my goodness, what a fascinating post. I'm so intrigued by the idea you spoke of, basically "the layers and barriers through which he peers" because we (I) have so many barriers. They're not intended, of course, they're not even self-erected. Yet, they are formidable. It's hard to be human, with or without a mask. It's hard to get along in society, part of why I'm an introvert I'm sure. I love my job, I love being a blessing to people when I can, but it requires so much effort. This whole post makes me wonder what kind of 'mask' I wear...

Now, like you, I want to read all of Abe's work.

Bellezza said...

I wrote a whole long involved personal comment...and it disappeared. I can't even reconstruct it except for the gist which is: I wonder what kind of mask I wear. I don't mean to, I'm not even sure if the wearer puts it on herself or if someone else fits it to her face...but surely, we present different sides to one another, even to our own selves, and surely we are difficult to see. We are so many motives, so many barriers, so many wounds.

This isn't what I wanted to say at all, your post just has my mind whirling around at all the facets involved in being human.

Now, like you, I long to read all of Abe's work.

@parridhlantern said...

Ciao Bellezza, it's amazing how my facets there are to human communication, how many variant masks we have depending on who we are dealing with, whether friend, friends,colleagues, strangers etc. to count the masks is peeling layers from an onion. from Parrish (one of many masks)