“Secret Rendezvous” opens with an ambulance in the dead of night: The narrator’s wife is taken to an underground hospital from which she vanishes. The connections to Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” in the absurdist, comical and sinister world of Kobo Abe are unmissable, but Abe characteristically takes his narrative in directions that establish this milieu as uniquely his own.
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Abe depicts a phantasmagorical hospital, a modern-day labyrinth with a quasi-Minotaur at its center. The hospital’s deputy director is obsessed with swapping his flaccid lower torso for that of a horse to gain a stallion’s phallic prowess. In the post-Kinsey world of sexual analysis, Abe locates the roots of social frustration in deep-seated sexual needs.
While Kafka saw the individual as isolated, alienated and controlled in the face of baffling social and political forces, Abe perceived that the heart of loneliness lies in the enigmas of interpersonal relationships. It is the terror of knowing, and not knowing, our life partners that gnaws most acutely at the agonized psychology of Abe’s protagonists.
Abe was not the first pre-Facebook writer to imagine a world of constant surveillance, but there is extraordinary prescience in showing how the inmates of Abe’s hospital — coping with their own existential ignorance — are overly keen participants wishing to expose every aspect of their private lives. “Secret Rendezvous” reveals a primeval, self-destructive urge for both knowledge and sexual satisfaction — twinned concepts as old as the Book of Genesis.
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