The Face of Another, Kobo Abe, transl. E. Dale Saunders (1964)
This challenge, hosted by Dolce Bellezza, runs through the end of February, but I really wanted to read my entry by the end of January, and I’ve managed to slide just under the wire here with The Face of Another! It’s a very odd book, which I was at least expecting—Abe has been described as a precursor to Haruki Murakami in his surreal fictions—but even so, getting through it was a bit of an effort, and has left me wondering whether Abe is really an author for me.
I don’t believe it’s possible to “spoil the plot” of a book that has been publicly available for nearly sixty years, but be advised that this review makes details of the plot explicit, as the Penguin Classic introductions sometimes say. The basic plot is simple: an industrial chemist has a laboratory accident which leaves his face covered with what he calls “scar webs”, raised keloid burns that have completely disfigured him. His wife’s sexual rejection leads him to build a lifelike mask for himself, which he wears over his ruined face and which begins to develop what seems like a personality of its own. Allegedly led on by the mask, he plots to seduce his own wife, and succeeds in carrying on an anonymous affair with her for several months. The book we are reading is comprised of his three notebooks (black, white, and grey), in which he narrates his proceedings, complete with interjections and marginalia, plus the letter he writes to his wife as a final “reveal” of his true identity, and the letter his wife writes back.
There are moments in which The Face of Another is extremely successful: when our unnamed narrator discusses how his “roadway” or “path” to other people—his ability to make meaningful human connections—has been damaged by the damage done to his face, for example, it is poignant and affecting. The late appearance of a woman, a character in a film the narrator watches, who is a hibakusha—a burned survivor of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—speaks to the complexity and the cruelty of human aesthetic ideals, and her retention of a quiet dignity in the face of street harassment suggests a way of living with disability that our narrator can’t grasp. (I suppose, in some ways, you could argue the toss on whether this is a novel about disability or not. I very much read it that way. Whether the narrator, or indeed Abe himself, intends it or not, The Face of Another seems to me a clear dramatisation of the social model of disability. The disfigured face is not the problem, per se; the public reaction to it, and the profound social disadvantage at which it places the narrator, is.)
At other times, the novel seems to trip itself up. It contains a lot of pondering, all in the first-person narrating voice, on questions of identity, loneliness, selfhood. These aren’t without value, but they are repetitive and difficult to wade through; that could be down to the translation, but it seems, taking the book as a whole, as though Abe really does want to give us a claustrophobic insight into the narrator’s thought processes, circular and self-lacerating as they are. It struck me how little the protagonist talks to anyone else: he doesn’t seem to have friends, he doesn’t take his wife into his confidence and ask her honestly for help, he has no family. It makes for sad and painful reading, and the repetitiveness takes its toll. The descriptions of the process by which he makes the mask are also extensive, and one’s interest does flag a little as the details roll by.
The ending is fascinatingly ambiguous: the narrator’s wife, having had this months-long affair, discovers the notebooks in their usual meeting place and reads them through. He has left them there for her on purpose, wanting to reveal himself and shame her for her “infidelity”. Instead, she replies to him in a note that clarifies that she’s known his true identity all along. Humiliated and defeated, he stalks her through the streets of their city, and in the final image of the book, he is hiding behind a wall with a pistol, listening to footsteps coming closer. They might be hers—he thinks they are—although the reader knows they might not be. It is no doubt unsophisticated of me to wish they had simply discussed things together in person.
So: an odd book. My first introduction to Abe, and a mixed bag. It was made into a film by Hiroshi Teshigahara and apparently is more successful in that medium, which makes perfect sense to me; it relies so heavily on creating a psychological atmosphere, and I can see film doing that more efficiently than fiction. If anyone out there has read more of Kobo Abe’s novels, do tell me: are they all like this? Is there a particular title I might move on to from here?