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The Frontier Within: Essays by Kobo Abe

by Elliott Samuels

Staff Writer

Kobo Abe was one of Japan’s greatest postwar authors, with his works of science fiction and existential plays on alienation and absurdity drawing comparisons with European writers such as Franz Kafka and Alberto Moravia. However, he also wrote theoretical criticism that merged literary and philosophical perspectives into insightful examinations of consciousness, linguistics, creativity and militarism.

The Frontier Within: Essays by Kobo Abe, Edited by Richad F. Calichman, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS

Some of these insights appear in his critically acclaimed novels. “The Woman in the Dunes” (1962), for example, addresses the hierarchical relationships that serve to legitimate social formations, a theme Abe discusses in more detail in several of the essays included in this collection.

Many of the works contained here remain firmly focused on the absurd. An essay on the definition of literature is titled “The Hand of a Calculator with the Heart of a Beast,” and traces an attempt by Abe to “write about how to write fiction when there are no methods to write fiction.”

And yet it ultimately all makes sense. When examining whether a writer can answer the question of whether he is writing while thinking or thinking while writing, Abe cites a passage of prose from Vladimir Mayakovsky: “About 1913, returning from Saratov to Moscow, I said to a woman traveling in the same carriage, in order to prove my respectability, that I was ‘not a man, but a cloud in trousers.’” One can only hazard a guess to know what that means, and yet Abe appears more than comfortable discussing such material at length. And all of a sudden, the absurd doesn’t quite seem so insane to us after all.