The Ruined Map, Secret Rendezvous and The Box Man by Kōbō Abe – review

Satire meets mystery and sexual exploitation in three exceptionally strange novels by the late, great Japanese author

If, as writer and poet Mieko Kawakami says, Japanese literature is filled with books that are “odd, cute and a bit mysterious”, then Kōbō Abe’s novels score two out of three. There’s nothing cute here, but they go right through odd and mysterious – stopping at sinister, strange and discomfitingly sexual – and out the other side. Abe, who died in 1993, is best known in this country for his early novels, The Woman in the Dunes (1962), about a man imprisoned in a pit of sand, and The Face of Another (1964), in which a disfigured guy creates a new identity beneath a mask. Despite the descriptions, they are entry level by his standards. Now we have three later novels that can only be described as deep cuts.

All share recognisable strands of DNA, which they twine around Abe’s central themes of isolation, identity and the inability to know even oneself, let alone other people. The Ruined Map (1967), translated by E Dale Saunders, which feels like a transitional work, takes the most naturalistic approach – up to a point. The narrator, a detective hired to find a missing man, gets tangled up with the man’s wife, her brother, and mysteries involving shady businesses. But our man uses an obsessive attention to objects – papers, matchbooks, patterns of traffic – to try to solve the mystery. Of course he gets nowhere, reducing a firm knot to a mess of loose ends – people are not a puzzle to be solved – and loses even himself along the way.

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