Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Ruined Map ~ Kobo Abe

The Ruined Map is a novel about an unnamed detective, hired by an enigmatically beautiful woman. She sets him the task of finding clues that would explain the disappearance of her husband. The only real guides he has are a map (a ruined one), that should point him in the right direction or at least suggest the existence of one, but turns out to be more of a metaphor, than a reference point; a phone number and a box of matches, which create more confusion than enlightenment.

 Right from the start the detective’s investigation is met with evasion, the wife has developed a drinking problem since her husband’s disappearance that makes her vague and unreliable, then there is the brother in law, who instead of providing the detective with whatever clues his own investigation has unearthed, insists that the detective starts from scratch. In almost every situation it seems that the detective is met with suggestion and contradiction. This was a strange book, as at first glance it comes across as some kind of hard-boiled detective fiction, some film noir with the wife as a femme fatale, this is partly helped by the fact the brother in law appears to have ties with a criminal fraternity and by the way the main character initially comes across as a street-smart tough guy wandering the mean streets of some unnamed Japanese city, slowly though things start to unravel. Slowly the detective becomes lost within the labyrinth of the city, and ends up assuming the identity of the disappeared husband, losing his own in the process.

This is the second Kobo Abe, I’ve read and like the first, The Ruined Map, appears to follow similar themes: whereas the first was about adding layers to a mask with the result of the individual losing connection with himself, with his own identity and via that with connection with the world about him, this novel takes a slightly different route. In The Ruined Map, our protagonist suffers some form of psychological disturbance, which involves him suffering from a partial loss of memory, with this he struggles to maintain the his own persona, finding his own personality subsumed within the anonymity of the city and his only point of reference being the missing husband, who is also lost somewhere within that anonymous mass. What I think clever is that by using the format of the detective novel with all its attendant clichés, Abe somehow manages to question the idea of personal identity, and also of that of national identity. The Ruined Map is at one instance a surreal take on the world of Raymond Chandler, and yet in that same instance a meditation on identity, persona.

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. This was apparent in The Face of another, with its use of the three notebooks, it is also apparent to a certain extent here, although not as pronounced, as this book is played out through the voice of the detective, but there seems to be a detachment as though there is a barrier between the detective and us, the style reminded me more of Albert Camus’s The Stranger  mainly because of that mask, that sense of distance from the world.

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, theYomiuri 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).



Brian Joseph said...

This sounds fascinating.

As i was reading the first few sentences of your commentary I was thinking that this sounded like a very cliched book. Obviously it is not. Using a tried and true base of a story and then presenting it in unique ways seems very creative in and of itself.

@parridhlantern said...

Abe, seems to like to play with perceived ideas & then turn them around, I've got sat on my shelf The Box Man by him & it is about a man who wanders the streets of Tokyo wearing a cardboard box on his head which the New York Times described as an ontological thriller

Mae Travels said...

I have only read "Woman in the Dunes" by Abe. I thought of it as totally existential, at the time (which was many years ago). Your write up of other books makes me think I should reread it and look for more. The Japanese lit challenge has me interested in reading much more by Japanese authors past & present.

best... mae at

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Mae, there is an existential element to most of Abe work, which is probably why I mention Camus, although he described himself as an Absurdist which also would make sense. I chose to highlight issues concerning identity & persona is because it's a theme that seems to run through a lot of his work such Face of Another, The Box Man & this & seems to be a theme in a lot of Japanese literature particularly postwar.

Bellezza said...

This sounds absolutely fascinating! I have only read The Woman in The Dunes by Kobo Abe, which I loved, and this novel seems like one I would love as well. Those enigmatic situations and characters are something the Japanese writers create beautifully, I think, and I like being drawn in to a story where I'm never quite sure who's reliable and who isn't. The puzzle is the most interesting part. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Parrish!

Bellezza said...

p.s. The title puts me in mind of another fascinating novel, although it is not Japanese: The Tattooed Map by Barbara Hodgson. It also is wonderfully atmospheric.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Bellezza
The Woman in the Dunes, is one of his books I've yet to read, my next will probably be The Box Man. Not heard of The Tattooed Map, will look it up.