Saturday, 7 September 2013

Kobo Abe- The Face of Another

The Face of Another
Penguin Modern Classics

Kobo Abe
1964 (Japanese)/1966 (English)

“Of course, according to one theory a mask is apparently the expression of an extremely metaphysical aspiration to give oneself a kind of transcendental disguise, for the mask is not simply something compensatory.”

Apologies, these reviews recently all seem to start in the same way; I first read a book by insert-name-here a long time ago, and because I'm very haphazard it took me five years to read another one. This one isn't going to be any different, I'm afraid, though it should be a lot shorter than recent efforts because I just didn't care enough about this book to put in any more effort than that. On to the next paragraph;

Anyway, I first came in contact with Kobo Abe about six years ago, in the legendary Aberystwyth Town Library, not long after I'd read my first taste of Haruki Murakami and was enthused enough to pick up anything remotely Japanese-looking (which, thanks to the unfortunately limited range, led to just Ryu Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguru). That first Abe book was the memorable The Woman in the Dunes, a short novel of a man trapped against his will in a strange desert town. I liked it so much I made a mental note to read more from the author. About five years later, I ordered The Face of Another from our overlord the great Amazon, and about six months after that I started reading it.

Part of the delay included confidence that I was going to really enjoy it. It comfortably hit all of the hipster bookmarks I needed, and promised to further entice me into the lengthy bibliography of a well-regarded twentieth-century author. The novel's plot ticks all of the boxes too, with a potentially chilling and intricate plot; a distinguished scientist suffers extensive, horrific facial burns in a laboratory accident that makes normal every day life impossible. After contemplating his fate, he endeavors to create a detachable, indistinguishably perfect mask to allow him to live a normal life. Though successful, suddenly he begins to learn of the real-world possibilities that come with the mask, and of the imminent identity crises that inevitably comes with his new face.

 While this idea intrigued me in concept, in practice I found The Face of Another to be unfortunately dull and meandering. Though there's nothing wrong with self-analytical, perhaps existential and deconstructive character analysis in the face of an incredibly unlikely possibility, in the world of the unnamed scientist it far too quickly becomes laboured and self-indulgent. I enjoyed the early parts of the book, before the character has his mask, especially as he discussed aspects of his plan with disbelieving doctors, once he begins to experience his identity shift it became very boring. It's possible to compare the concept to Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but it's a world away from the drive and dynamism of that. A more modern comparison could be to Paul Auster's City of Glass (from The New York Trilogy), but where Auster's incredible tale of confused identities felt vivid and alive against the backdrop of a shifting parallel New York, The Face of Another feels stagnant and dull.

So, no recommendation for this book from me. Though published as a Penguin Modern Classic, the novel flatters to deceive, not taking full advantage of the premise and mistaking self-indulgent self-analysis for interesting philosophical musings. I would like to re-read The Woman in the Dunes at some point and hopefully it's as good as my simple memory recalls, but until then I'm in no rush to jump into Kobo Abe's bibliography.