Abe Kōbō (1924–1993) was one of the most prominent literary figures in Japan after World War II. Leading the avant-garde in the postwar Japanese literary scene, he explored new realms of expression through his often experimental novels and other forms of arts, forging paths for such other writers as Ōe Kenzaburō, Murakami Ryū, and Murakami Haruki. His novels, with their complicated story-lines, unusual and heterogeneous styles, and baffling imagery, have invited varied reactions and interpretations. Although Thomas Schnellbächer’s book on Abe1 focuses more on the political aspects of his essays, Christopher Bolton’s work attempts to shed new light on Abe’s often abstruse works by examining their relations to science and technology and thereby exploring the relationship between literature and science, a subject rarely examined by scholars of Japanese literature. As a historian of science interested in the relations between science and other forms of culture in Japan, this reviewer finds Bolton’s work extremely useful.
Bolton describes how science and technology occupied a major [End Page 436] place in Abe’s life and work. Originally trained in medicine, Abe was a lifelong technophile who maintained a love for cameras, automobiles, and other technological gadgets and was among the first major authors to use a digital word processor for writing. His works, as exemplified by Inter Ice Age 4,2 sometimes resemble science fiction, and, having scientists, engineers, and doctors as their main characters, they are often in the hybrid style of technical and other writings.
Reflecting the complexity of Abe’s works and activities, Sublime Voices is without a simple conclusion and difficult to summarize succinctly. As the title suggests, the book’s main analytical concepts are the aesthetic category of “the sublime” and the notion of multiple voices, which Bolton ties up with the problematics of the relationship between science and literature. Bolton gives an interesting twist to his analysis by drawing on both Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary theory, in particular the notion of heteroglossia, and the notion of the sublime from Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant to Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Frederic Jameson. In Abe’s work, he argues, the sublime is less the classical sublime about the awe of divine creation or natural wonder than the postmodern, hysterical sublime of nervous overflow generated by technology. Examples are the overwhelming power of science and technology, and the resulting fear and anxiety depicted in Inter Ice Age 4, or the series of outrageous but not shocking images depicting sexual perversions driven by information and biotechnology in Secret Rendezvous. At the same time, Bolton teases out the different voices that Abe uses in his novels; the heterogeneity of these voices stem not just from Abe’s different writing styles but also from multiple and conflicting identities of the characters in Abe’s novels.
From this perspective, Bolton offers appealing, if not altogether convincing, readings of some of Abe’s generally baffling novels, including The Crime of Mr. S. Karma, Inter Ice Age 4, The Face of Another, The Woman in the Dunes, Secret Rendezvous, and The Ark Sakura.3 In light [End Page 437] of its relative popularity, I will discuss The Woman in the Dunes as an example. In this novel, the protagonist, a science teacher and amateur entomologist, visits a village, which he finds threatened by the prospect of being buried by shifting sands. Along with a village woman, he is trapped by the villagers in a sand pit and forced to shovel out the sand. In the last chapter, he has a chance to escape from the pit but decides to return to it. The novel ends with a court document that declares his legal death, indicating that he never returned to his original home. Scholars and literary critics have debated how to interpret this ending. Is it the tragic story of a man trapped in the conventions of a traditional community? Or is it the happy story of a man finding his true home? Bolton...