Richard Calichman's Beyond Nation: Time, Writing, and Community in the Work of Abe Kōbō analyzes a tightly curated selection of texts by the postwar Japanese author best known for his representations of the urban individual's alienation from society and his scientific spin on the philosophy of the absurd. It is, above all, a book intensely committed to rereading Abe as a thinker along the lines of the twentieth- century European philosophy and critical thought espoused by Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Etienne Balibar. [End Page 337] At the same time, it goes against the grain of a conventional Japan studies that teleologically stages the answer to all matters as a return to Japan. Calichman's understanding of Abe is predicated upon overcoming the limitations of an essential Japaneseness and in turn attacking the persistence of orientalism and racism he believes still pervade Japan studies.
Although Beyond Nation strives to make a radical departure from the norms of scholarship on Abe and modern Japanese literature, in actuality it hews to the most conservative format of the single-author monograph on a canonical male figure. The book includes three chapters that address, respectively, the novel Woman in the Dunes, the collection of essays The Frontier Within, and the novel Face of Another and a fourth chapter that purports to survey American approaches to Abe, but in fact concentrates exclusively on criticizing work mostly done by Donald Keene in the 1970s and John Treat in the 1990s. Calichman insists from the outset that this book marks the first sustained intervention into studies of Abe beyond the frame of Japan. However, Abe has long enjoyed an international reputation that exceeds simple binaries of East and West. He has achieved recognition as a director of experimental theater, an accomplished photographer, and a wide-ranging cultural critic. Abe's best-known works have been translated into over twenty languages, while three novels, including Woman in the Dunes and Face of Another, were adapted into internationally acclaimed films in the 1960s, directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi.
It is inconceivable that Calichman is unaware of these well-known facts, so what, then, drives his agenda for Abe and his critique of japanology? It is not simply that he discounts biographical considerations such as Abe's birth and upbringing in prewar Manchuria or the interdisciplinary range of Abe's oeuvre; he also eschews reference to any recent scholarship. Five books and a doctoral dissertation on Abe in English are listed in a single sentence in the fourth chapter (on page 202) before Calichman goes after Keene and Treat. These and other relevant works such as the chapter "Rinjin and Tanin: Abe Kōbō" in Fuminobu Murakami's Ideology and Narrative in Modern Japanese Literature (Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1996) and Atsuko Sakaki's excellent article "Scratch the Surface, Film the Face: Obsession with Depth and Seduction of the Surface in Abe Kōbō's The Face of Another" (Japan Forum 17:3 ) are otherwise studiously ignored. Japanese-language scholarship is given the same treatment. Moreover, the taut scripting of the first three chapters is such that even the European thinkers Calichman champions get short shrift, while others one might expect to encounter—Emmanuel Levinas, Gilles Deleuze, and Paul Ricoeur readily come to mind—are conspicuous only in their absence. Here, too, the book misses valuable opportunities for comparativism, and again one wonders why.
The central premise of the first chapter, on Woman in the Dunes, is that writing is resistant "to any subjective appropriation" (p. 14)—i.e., that no act of writing can fully approximate experience, memory, or being in the world. Calichman bases his argument primarily on a dialogue in the novel between the protagonist, Niki Jumpei, and an imaginary friend as Niki seeks to escape his imprisonment by the villagers. [End Page 338] The dialogue revolves around a notion of the man as writing his own future once he is beyond the present predicament, from which...