Monday, May 7, 2007
Kobo Abe's 'The face of Another' (1966) is one of the most fascinating novels about identity: identity construction, the loss of identity, the dissociation we experience when 'faced' with one another. A massive bestseller in Japan (though it's hard to think of this novel -any of his novels- as mainstream literature, or commercial-friendly, easy to digest literature), Abe's novels have received wide reception in the English-speaking world, but not many in the Spanish one. In this novel a scientist focuses on an improbable and fantastic project: creating a mask for himself, after being dramatically scarred in a laboratory accident with an explosion of liquid oxygen. Because he was wearing his glasses, he was able to protect his eyes, but the rest of his face is totally eaten away. At the beginning he wanders in the streets with his head entirely bandaged... while he works assembling the materials for his mask. Although his wife is sympathetic and helpful, he begins to deteriorate psychologically and one of the most shocking moments of the novel happens when he decides to seduce his own wife with his 'mask' that he has been keeping as a secret. However her sixth sense proves more powerful than he expected...
Abe has been compared to Kafka (in the novel, the character 'K' couldn't be more intertextual) and to Samuel Beckett, for his drastic sense of humor verging on the grotesque. This is a phenomenal novel that catches your attention from the first line: "At last you have come, threading your way through the endless passages of the maze. With the map you got from him, you have finally found your way to my hideaway..." (3). And by the end, the attention is shifted to an allegorical setting, through the figure of a girl walking in the streets and young men whistling at her. She walks without showing her right side of her face, then, surprising the men she stops and faces them: "The right side of her face, which she revealed for the first time, was pitifully disfigured with keloid ridges and distorsions, and was completely transformed. (No full explanation was given, but the name 'Hiroshima' was constantly repeated in the following dialogue.)" (230). Abe's novels have been reprinted by Vintage books.