Monday, 7 September 2009

Beyond the Curve

Trying to get over just how good the 'The Word Book' is, I felt that I wanted to keep going with short story collections, so I thought I'd go with Kobo Abe's 'Beyond the Curve', which includes stories that span from 1951-1966, so covering mainly stories from his earlier output. Abe is well known for his collaboration with film director Hiroshi Teshigahara, who adapted four of Abe's novels. This collection has twelve short stories, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, with illustrations by Shiro Tsujimura, and published by Kodansha International in 1991.

Abe is an author that I feel very comfortable to read, maybe I also mean reliable, the abstract and metaphoric in his writing has always fascinated me. I've not read all of his books yet, but I can't recall any that have let me down or failed to 'deliver'. I think I'm deliberately not reading all of his books in order to leave me something of his to read later on. Starting with, 'The Irrelevant Death', where a man returns to his apartment to find a corpse splayed out on his living room floor. Abe drops us in the middle of the conundrum, is this man someone he knows?, how did he get here?, was he murdered here or did the murderer dump him here?, maybe he's being passed from apartment to apartment, around the block. As the man begins to question his links with the deceased, Abe's fascination with a Kafka like enquiry into innocence and guilt, the proof of innocence, incrimination by association, the man hatches a plan to move the body to another apartment, but will it work?.
'Dendrocacalia' is the the story of a man named Common, who after suffering a seizure slowly starts transforming into a plant. He receives an invitation card from the mysterious K, who he thinks could possibly be an ex-girlfriend. After arriving at the coffee shop where they are to meet, the only person to arrive is a suspicious looking man. Common doesn't wait around to talk to him and runs away with the man in pursuit, after loosing the man, Common turns to the local library to do some research into his condition. The assistant at the library miraculously turns out to be the man that gave chase, and Common resigns to the fact that he won't be able to escape him, the man hands Common some books, including Dante's Divine Comedy and then Common consults various figures from Greek mythology, Hyacinth, Syrinx, Clytie, maybe his condition is punishment of some wrong doing that he had committed in the past but he can't think of anything. Time passes and Common receives another letter, this time from the Director of the Botanical Gardens informing him that he should read Timiryazev's book 'Life of Plants', which states that scientifically speaking humans and plants are basically the same, and he offers Common, (or by now as he is known Mr Dendrocacalia), a place in their exhibition as day by day Commons transformation is nearing its completion. Common after some consideration, after being told that he is becoming a sort after specimen, and thinking about his own welfare takes him up on his offer.
Another element that reappears through Abe's writing is his use of science fiction, but not in an explicit science fantasy way, but uses to illustrate the absurdity of the age that we live in, and I guess you could add to this the absurdity of the planet we live on too!, he also exposes the fact that human beings have quite a small understanding of what makes the universe tick. In 'The Special Envoy' Professor Jumpei Nara is delivering a talk on the 'Outlook for the Space Age' to a group of uninterested students, so uninterested that they walk out of the hall, a man approaches the professor and informs him that he is indeed a Martian, the professor believes that he's just a madman, but carries on listening to the man. The man continues to tell the professor that he is looking for someone to help accomplish his mission, as they want to start constructing landing stations on Earth. He needs someone from Earth to return to Mars with him on a fact finding mission, and then submit their report to the appropriate authorities back on Earth. The man tells how dangerous it has been for Martians in the past to make contact with people from Earth, many of their kind get dragged to insane asylums. After a while Professor Nara's temper caves in, pushing the man aside runs away and phones for the police who come ten minutes later, and take him away. Nara is left thinking, was he or wasn't he really a Martian?.

Characters in these stories seem to be in search of some concrete evidence of existence, be it a name, or an identity. Or some irrefutable piece of reason that they can fall back upon to prove their purpose or existence. Abe seems to return to the theme of identity throughout his books, questioning what it is, why do we need it?, what would the world be without it. The experimentation in his fictions always succeeds in pulling me into the world as seen by his characters, a place I'll no doubt return to.
The stories in Beyond The Curve -
An Irrelevant Death
The Crime of S.Karma
The Life of A Poet
Record of a Transformation
Noah's Ark
The Special Envoy
The Bet
The Dream Soldier
Beyond The Curve


James Duncan said...

I'm trying to find out if Totaloscope (Kanzen Eiga) by Kobo Abe has ever been published in English. At first I thought it was included in Beyond The Curve but your blog refutes that.
I'd be grateful for any information.
James Duncan

me. said...

Hello James,

Thanks for the message, I've not got a copy of Beyond the Curve at hand to double check, although I'm pretty sure that the contents that I've listed here are correct, I listed them because I couldn't find anywhere else on the internet that actually listed them.

I've had a look through the internet and can't see that Kanzen Eiga has been translated, I did discover the collection Four Stories, by Kobo Abe translated by Andrew Horvat which I was previously unaware of. It is though in, either volume 18 or 19 of Abe's collected works, published by Shinchosha if you are a Japanese reader.