Monday 6 January 2014

'The Frontier Within' by Kobo Abe (Review)

After a short novel to kick off my January in Japan reading, it's time for something slightly different today.  I'm not a big one for non-fiction, but when Columbia University Press told me about the book you can see in the photo, I was very keen to give it a whirl.  Let's see what we can learn about a famous Japanese novelist when he steps outside his fictional comfort zone...

The Frontier Within (edited, translated and with an introduction by Richard F. Calichman, review copy courtesy of the Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a collection of essays by Kōbō Abe, the author of such novels as The Face of Another and The Woman in the Dunes.  While Abe is mostly known in the West for his bizarre novels, Calichman argues that we need to read his non-fiction to fully understand his ideas.  The essays collected here cover a range of topics from philosophy to literary theory, politics to education, the military to the role of the state - and he has some very strong views too...

The first essay, 'Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and the Unconscious)', is not exactly the best start to the collection.  After Calichman's clear introduction, Abe's confusing, meandering style had me wondering who was responsible for my not really getting anything - me or Abe.  The next few essays, where he talks about what he understands by Literary Theory (quoting Stalin and Mao along the way...), didn't really make things any better...

For anyone used to a clear, logical Anglophone style of exposition, Abe's circular argumentative style might cause some headaches.  His writings appear to be more a set of connected musings, at times arranged in a loose question and answer format, and the effect is often clunky to my western ears (I'd certainly be down on my students if they came up with a similar style).  Occasionally, he comes out with sweeping claims, with no evidence to support it:
"It is well-known throughout the world that Japanese reportage writers are not very observant..."
'Possibilities for Education Today', p.86 (Columbia University Press, 2013)
Hmm.  I can't say that was a fact I'd come across before...

Thankfully, after reaching a nadir in his ramblings on education, a topic I know a little too much about to fall for his unfounded claims, the writing, and the ideas improve.  In 'Beyond the Neighbor', Abe sets out some of his views on writing and tradition, and after a brief discussion about the importance of military uniforms in fascist (and democratic...) states, he moves on to a final trio of essays about society in general, probably the most interesting ones in the collection.

In 'Passport of Heresy', the writer takes us on a journey into the far past, discussing the habits of early humans, before explaining how the split between nomadic hunters and sedentary agriculturalists is still evident today in our urban structure.  While this short piece initially seems like a pleasant diversion, it actually serves to introduce the final two essays of the collection, 'The Frontier Within', in which Abe, as an outsider, ponders the trials and tribulations of the Jewish race.  Abe declares that most societies regard the farming community as the 'real' natives, treating urban dwellers with suspicion; this means that the Jews, bound to cities both by mediaeval laws and their own statelessness became natural scapegoats for unscrupulous politicians.

It's an intriguing idea (even if you constantly feel that Abe is carefully treading the line between dispassionate observer and prejudice), and in his follow-up talks, entitled 'The Frontier Within, Part II', he pretty much goes over the same ground.  It's a shame this isn't another essay as it would have been interesting to see him expand on the ideas outlined in the first part.

Overall, though, I'd have to say that this book just didn't do it for me.  The writing is fairly clunky, with several repeated formulaic expressions, and I was expecting something a little tighter and much more logically arranged.  I remember reading some non-fiction by Virginia Woolf a few years back, and I loved the way she laid out her arguments with sparkling prose.  On the evidence of this, Abe is no Woolf - and this is certainly not A Room of One's Own.

Abe himself perhaps explains my feelings in a pithy one liner:
"It is difficult to convey one's intentions, but it is easy to be misunderstood."
'Does the Visual Image Destroy the Walls of Language?' (p.61)
It's very possible that there's more to this book than I got out of it, but I suspect that it would take someone a lot more versed in Japanese literature than myself to find it.  If you're a die-hard Abe fan, or a PhD candidate in modern Japanese literature, this might be one for you.  However, I suspect that the casual J-Lit fan might not enjoy it quite so much...

***Footprint Books say that this book is available in good Australian bookshops and directly through their website :)