Illness as Simile
Secret Rendezvous By Kobo Abe Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter Alfred A. Knopf, $8.95
IF, AS MANY CRITICS have claimed, Kobo Abe is the best living Japanese novelist, it may only be because so many others (most notably Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata) have committed suicide. The irony, however, is that for the leading literary figure in Japan, Abe's writing has a remarkably Western flavor. Except for place names and a few distinctly oriental metaphors ("his thoughts shrank like a piece of fat meat plunged into boiling water"), Secret Rendezvous. Abe's sixth and most recent book could pass, like his others, for a Western novel.
His style has much in common with the fantasy of Kafka, Borges, Stanislaw Lem and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; as in Kafka's The Castle and Lem's Memoir's Found in a Bathtub, Abe's new novel presents a protagonist thrust into an absurd, alien environment with a mission he must accomplish. In the former, a gentlemen K., claiming to be a land surveyor, sets out to reach the castle, while Lem's memoir-writer must wander through endless corridors to escape from a vast underground military complex. In Secret Rendezvous, the labyrinth is an enormous hospital, and the unnamed protagonist's obsession is to locate his wife, who has been mysteriously carted from their home by an ambulance that no one summoned. The narrator, a salesman of jump shoes, a kind of sneakers with springs built into the soles, tells of his investigation through three assiduously-kept notebooks compiled from his own memory and from conversations taped by microphones hidden throughout the hospital. Although intending to conduct an investigation into his wife's disappearance, the salesman is told that he must instead investigate himself. Without challenging orders, he concludes that this may simply be a more tactful and precise way of filing a complaint--and so he justifies his task. The narrator's tacit acceptance of what strikes the reader as illogical and absurd--investigating himself because of his wife's mysterious disappearance--accustoms the reader to the eerie, macabre atmosphere that persists throughout the entire novel.
Yet this is little indication of the truly morbid turn the novel will take as the narrator's investigation carries him further and further into the recesses of the subterranean hospital. During his quest he encounters a veritable circus sideshow of diseased cripples and sexual freaks: the building's assistant director, a character called- "the horse," who cured his impotence through an operation turning him into a kind of centaur; the secretary who was born a test-tube baby, and so lacks any sense of human relationships; & couple who determined to safeguard their marriage by subjecting every conversation to a lie detector test; a preadolescent nymphomaniac who suffers from a disease that reduces her bones to liquid; and her mother, whose skin slowly turned to cotton and who was eventually made into a quilt.
Of course, there are patients and doctors--but the patients are exhibitionists, and the doctors are voyeurs. What is the hospital administration doing during all this? Sponsoring orgasm fests and tape-recording the prodigious sexual activity taking place throughout the building, in order to market those tapes as aphrodisiacs for the public. This is no ordinary hospital. But then, this is no ordinary book.
What, indeed, is the point of all this? Why does Abe depict people as freaks and reduce their motivations to a series of mechanical and sexual impulses? If, as the author once said, this novel is "a parable of city life," then it appears that we are a society of sick helping the sick. Abe, who holds a medical degree but has never practiced, breaks all human relations down into physician-patient relationships where, as "the horse" acknowledges, "Doctors are cruel, and patients endure their cruelty...that's the law of survival." It is not an appealing view of human nature.
Alone among a gallery of Hieronymous Bosch portraits, only the narrator does not suffer from disease. Yet as he becomes more and more entangled in the recondite workings of the hospital, he loses sight of his mission--to rescue his wife--and begins to accept the wild illogic of his new environment. In the end, he is driven to reconciling himself to his condition, and, as he embraces the poor, diseased nymphomaniac melting in his arms, he embraces his own disease. It is only in this affirmation of his loneliness and illness that the narrator affirms his human identity.
Secret Rendezvous is a gruesome book, and a grueling book, but not a great one. Many of its ideas are not new; the existential themes of man's isolation and sickness date from as far back as The Woman in the Dunes (1964), Abe's first novel and still his most popular in the West. The weakness of Secret Rendezvous lies not in its ideas, which were presented successfully in Abe's first book but in its format. In adopting the medium of fantasy, an author hopes to convince the reader not with the poignant accuracy of his images and characterizations, as in realistic fiction, but with the subtle, subliminal--but equally poignant--truth underlying the fabrication of plot and character. Kafka, Borges, Lem and Marquez succeed on this secondary level by treading a thin line between fantasy and realism--in The Castle, for example. Kafka's careful use of language preserves this ambiguity: the reader is never quite sure of what to accept as plausible, and what to reject as implausible, so that such a distinction ultimately loses all significance.
But unless a lot is lost in translation, Abe's new novel is closer to outright farce: the crudeness and grotesqueness of its images entirely alienate the reader. Apart from the initial shock of meeting Abe's characters, there is little else besides some black humor; the reader is left stunned, unable to identify with the narrator or to place the story in a familiar or meaningful perspective. Secret Rendezvous leaves the reader provoked, but unmoved, and while he must respect the profundity of Abe's vision, the novel does not convince him to share it.