Friday, 18 September 2015

The Ark Sakura by Kōbō Abe

The Ark Sakura/Hakobune sakura maru first appeared a little over thirty years ago, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter the novel displays a number of motifs that can be seen in much of Abe's writing, although laced in places with absurdist humour the novel addresses a number of sociological issues, although chiefly among these is the prospect of nuclear armageddon, told with a particularly Abe-esque vision. The novel opens with it's narrator Pig or Mole as he prefers it, buying an eupcaccia, an insect invented by Abe which back in pre-internet days must have convinced many readers that it was a bona-fide insect, Mole identifies with the insect through numerous instances of the novel, (the fact that the insect feeds on it's on faeces is a slightly disarming one), which gives the novel an entomological strand, similar to that perhaps also felt in The Woman of the Dunes, through the bug's purchase at a rooftop sale he comes into contact with three other principal characters of the novel, the insect dealer, the shill and his girlfriend, whose real name Abe, I'm certain doesn't let slip throughout the book. After buying the insect Mole learns that the previous purchasers, the mole and his girlfriend were in actuality fake buyers, shills, employed by the market to entice customers into making purchases, they're are also known as sakura and later refer to themselves as decoys, which goes some way in being an initial driving pin Abe utilises in beginning to separate reality and appearance, which one might be real?, later in the novel this concept is added upon when we are presented with the scenario that it's protagonists are happier to live in a world of supposed nuclear destruction than existing in the world that they had known previously to it. In some ways The Ark Sakura could be seen as Abe's end of the world novel, the only one Abe wrote during the eighties it's evocative of it's own age, appearing a year before Murakami's Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World it feels at times like there are a number of overlaps in tone between the two writers, although where as Murakami leans to use magical realism in his writing it feels that Abe's writing presents the imagery but leaves the reader open to ponder on what is being presented. Amongst the political satire and at times coded commentary the novel studies some serious concerns, notably that of the concept of collective fear in the nuclear age, when reading the novel we have to remind ourselves of the proximities of these fears in the age it was written, the tangibility of nuclear Armageddon.

A good first portion of the novel is taken up with following Mole persuading the insect dealer, the shill and his girlfriend into signing up in being crew members to board his ark built in a disused quarry, once owned by his father, the exact dimensions of the ark remain uncertain, and as they wander the labyrinthine tunnels of the ark we're reminded of the winding corridors of the hospital in Secret Rendezvous, Mole and the insect dealer are uncertain as to whether they've made it to the ark before the shill and his girlfriend, as they are separated en route, there's an epiphanic scene in the darkness after they arrive when Mole switches on the light, via one of his strange gadget inventions, that throws the novel into a light that somehow doesn't feel was on before, we begin to learn of the shades of Mole's character, his estranged father Inototsu, and that Mole was the product of a rape committed by his father. Once inside the ark the narrative, usually conveyed via Mole explores various philosophical and social subjects, at one point the notion of national sovereignty is examined and the conclusion arises that on the whole it's a rather limp concept which exists in order to allow the state to remain free reign do as it wishes. Whilst in the ark we learn that other factions operate within the quarry, an octogenarian group of cleaners called the Broom Brigade have formed their own quasi political group, which it could be said resembles a certain faction that drive around in darkened vans, this portrait feels similar to Abe's continued coded commentary of the right as in The Ruined Map the criminal gang are all wearing yamato badges, it's not too obvious, although it is there. As well as the political ruminations there is the background subplot of the quarry being targeted to dump toxic waste illegally for profit, which is the point of contention between Mole and the varying factions, and also of the quarry being a place to despatch the bodies of unwanted persons who find themselves in the way. Abe's metaphors seem to resonate and become more cohesive after coming to the end of many of his novels, they sometimes come into focus later, which leads us to contemplate his use of perspective in his narratives. Another group referred to is the Olympic Preventive League, which has perhaps a renewed relevancy in light of future events, Mole contemplates the event noting it's absurdity and the means of what it represents.

As with some of Abe's later novels it feels that at times the plot line of The Ark Sakura unfurls in a scattered way, there is subterfuge and digressions, the flow of the narrative is pockmarked by allegorical incidence and odd angled diversions. As well as the serious line of the narrative this feels like it is threatened to be subsumed by Mole's observations of his attraction to the shill's girlfriend although this goes someway in exacerbating the sense of his solitude, another aspect of his character alluded to is the inherent criminality passed between father to son. Off centre in the later half of the novel a death occurs whose circumstance Mole can't unfathom, it's left there, a dark knot in the novel that even the narrator cannot seem to undo, it's interesting also to contemplate that the novel has two exit points to speak of, Mole's escape and of those that stay behind. It's also interesting to contemplate that the novel appeared in 1984, obviously a significant year in literature, which provokes the question of Abe's thoughts on Orwell's novel, surely he must have read it?, did he write on it?, another further point of interest is that 1948 was the year that Abe's first piece appeared, curious observations that probably have no connection.      

The Ark Sakura at Penguin Random House 



Parrish Lantern said...

Not read this Abe yet, not long finished The Ruined Map which I thoroughly enjoyed.

me. said...

Really enjoyed The Ruined Map as well, not too sure which of his I'll move onto next, either The Box Man or The Face of Another.

Reading Abe makes me want to turn to the novels of Čapek, seems like there are a number of comparable themes and styles to his writing.

Parrish Lantern said...

ead & thoroughly enjoyed Face of another & have box man sat on my shelf so likely to be that.čapek looks interesting

me. said...

Shame to find I'm running out of the novels, think I've also got a copy of his play 'Friends' in an anthology to read, there's a few collections of his drama in translation, so there's those to consider perhaps at some point in the future.