Kangaroo Notebook, by Kobo Abe. What we talk about when we talk about Nightmares.
Kobo Abe was one of the seminal writers of Post-World War II Japan. Born in Tokyo in 1924, and spending much of his childhood in Manchuria, Abe initially studied medicine at the prestigious Tokyo University, before dropping out to write fiction. His first real literary acknowledgement came in 1951, for his short novel, The Wall: The Crime of S. Karuma, for which he won the Akutagawa Prize, (a prize that comes with a one million yen cash prize and is considered to be Japan’s most sought after literary award).
Eleven years later, his novel Woman of the Dunes, (which won the Yomiuri Prize, another prestigious Japanese literary award, which also comes with a one million yen cash prize), would propel him into international fame. An author’s note from Kangaroo Notebook describes his work as thus: “The typical protagonist of Abe’s stories is an “outsider” who is haunted by a sense of alienation and by anxiety over the fragility of individual identity. He seeks freedom from the oppressiveness of communal reality, yet yearns futilely for emotional connection.”
Kobo Abe is often described as the Japanese Kafka, and he was also an important playwright and essayist who was nominated numerous times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 1993 at the age of 68. Later, when fellow Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe, (who will likely be a subject of one of my reviews in the near future), was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, Oe said that Abe had deserved the award more than he himself had.
Which brings me to Kangaroo Notebook—originally written in the 1970s, and published shortly after Abe’s death—it is a very difficult work to describe. It takes its title from an idea that the protagonist submits to his company’s “idea-pool” as a joke, namely, a slip of paper with “Kangaroo Notebook” written on it. Much to his surprise, it is picked up as a catchy, marketable product and they ask him to develop it further. Amusingly enough, this section from its Wikipedia page captures it best:
Hooked to a penile catheter and an IV bottle, the narrator begins a harrowing journey on his hospital bed through the underworld that seems to lie beneath the city streets. Here, he seeks health not so much as he seeks simple explanations for what is happening to him and the strange people he meets: abusive ferrymen, waiflike child demons, vampire nurses, and a chiropractor who runs a karate school and works a sideline as a euthanist.
Essentially, the story’s unnamed narrator, wakes up one morning to discover small radishes sprouting on his shins. It should give you a good idea about this novel when I say that this is the normal part of the story. Because after this he goes to the dermatologist, and after that point nothing ever makes sense again. The Doctor, after vomiting his lunch of radishes out, has the narrator put in a bed, and hooked up to a catheter, then declares there is nothing he can do but send him to a strong sulfur spring. With a tag placed at the end of his bed, he’s pushed out onto the nighttime streets.
Irony often fills Abe’s writing, which can be surprisingly funny at times. Such as this passage from shortly after the characters departure onto the streets, (on a psychically powered hospital bed):
This bed was made by the Atlas Company, the number-one manufacturer of hospital equipment in the world, so apparently it’s in a class of its own when it comes to high-performance precision functions. It’s equipped with every feature imaginable—electric, continuous reclining; a sixteen-hour battery that operates during power failures; a wireless alarm system on the head panel; an oxygen mask that’s activated automatically in emergencies…But this is strange; how can I know so much about hospital equipment? Am I just imagining all these things? If not…This is a more dire possibility, but am I actually a medical equipment salesman, and have forgotten this? (Pg. 20)
What is most poignant about Kangaroo Notebook is the eerie sense of verisimilitude that fills each page—wherein lies the nightmare. On the surface appearances seem normal, but as the scene develops the logic disappears. Kobo Abe’s strength, (and weakness to some degree), lies in his sharp, plain description of everything, turning the strange and macabre into the ordinary and mundane. Within the dream world are references to our own; streams of ads, pop culture, bits of history and the like, that serve to make the work that much unsettling, (which made me appreciate these connections much moreso than I do in postmodernist works, like Murakami, where such referencing often appears to be an ends to itself).
However, as I alluded to earlier, Abe’s matter-of-fact attitude is a strength in places, but it also becomes his weakness. Kangaroo Notebook begins to drag underneath its own formula; the narrators lackluster and passive response dulls their effect and after awhile leaves the nightmarish quality lost in the mundanity. The effect of this tendency does make the novel seem to drag in places. For instance, imagine coming across your dead mother, sitting eyeless, and playing a Shamisen with a sharp metal pick, and then watching as she fights off a vampire nurse, and saying, in a slightly more literary fashion, meh.
The nurse, (the same who serviced him at the dermatologist), is a member of the Dracula Society, (based in Romania, where, according to her, Count Dracula the VII is attempting to take over the government since the fall of the Ceausescu regime), and happens to be living with an American studying the prospects of population control through traffic signals, (and the operator of the aforementioned Karate School/Chiropractic Center, whose name, by the way, is Master Hammer Killer).
The problem with these is that when the same formula repeats itself over and over again it becomes boring. The narrator’s passivity becomes boring, with it, at the worst moments, turning him into a literary vehicle that is there just to make phantasmal observations. At some point, the work begins to lose its focus. I would say that this occurs after he leaves the demon-children, (the aforementioned Wikipedia "waifs"), who sing for tourists visiting the River Sai. Their song, in classical Japanese 5-7-5 Prosody, is one of the most memorable moments of the book:
This is the tale of the Riverbank of Sai
The lonely limbo for children’s souls,
Nestled beneath the mountains in the netherworld.
Just to hear it wrings the ear.
Youngsters of two and three, four and five,
Little ones, all under ten,
Gather on the Riverbank of Sai.
‘How I miss you, Father! How I miss you, Mother!’
The voices wailing these laments
Are voices from another world
Whose sadness pierces flesh and bone.
The task these children must perform
Is collecting stones on the riverbank
And building memorial towers.
‘I set down the first stone for my father,
I set down the second stone for my mother.
I set down the third stone in memory of
My brothers and sisters in my hometown.
During the day I can play alone,
But around the time when twilight nears,
Suddenly a demon from hell appears.’
‘What are you kids doing?’ he growls.
‘The father and mother you left in the world
Don’t perform rites for your repose.
From morning to night they only moan
Of cruelty, grief, and misery.
Your parent’s laments are your punishment.
Don’t blame me!’ The demon swings his iron club
And topples the children’s little towers.
Just then the stones on the shore turn red;
The flowing river bursts into flames
That burn all creatures to the bone.” (Pg. 67-68).
After this point things seem to be falling into a rut of formulaic surreal interactions, however, as the short novel approaches its end, it regains its posture to large degree. While the work still suffers from its lack of focus and active engagement, it is salvaged enough at the end to still warrant a Four Star rating, (out of five of course). I’m particularly fond of these two interactions:
“I understand your research topic is ‘Accidental Death.’”
“That’s right.” Killer smiled. His eyes drooped slightly and he looked positively ecstatic. “In short, ‘Accidental Death’ is the supreme symbolic expression of contemporary death. ‘Accidental Death’ is obviously suicide, and at the same time, it is obviously murder. The assailant and the victim are intimates. To delay death by hastening death is to balance the bankbook that we call ‘civilization.’” (Pg. 129)
Or this one, between the narrator and a young student, still scarred from the murder of an old man in the hospital whose wheezing had kept him from sleeping:
Suddenly his voice rose to a shrill pitch. “But I’m not ordinary anymore. Because I’m a murderer.”
“I told you to forget it. That was a group decision; you weren’t the only one who wanted to kill him.”
“What’s the point of human life.”
“We’re alive because we’re alive. There’s no particular purpose.”
“That can’t be. There has to be some meaning.”
“Even if there’s no meaning, people eagerly pile up life insurance. We’re alive because we don’t want to die.”
“That’s awful, that way of thinking…” His voice caught and he sniffled noisily. “Once a person dies, he can’t die again.”
“Obviously. If you could commit suicide in hell, it wouldn’t be hell.” (Pg. 169-170, bolding done by me).
In the final pages, the nightmare reaches it crescendo. The very end of Kangaroo Notebook is one of the scariest things I have read. It’s a moment of illogical fear, an unnerving sentiment, that nothing Stephen King has ever written can come close to matching. With a chorus of other children singing along, (with the chorus, “Help me, help me, help me, please. Please, please, won’t you help me, please.”), the lone girl whose manifestation, in some form or another, has haunted him throughout the story, begins singing as well:
Long ago kidnappers hunted for children,
But every maze was marked with a number
And there was nowhere left to hide them.
So now all the kidnappers have retired
and children roam in search of them.
Now children hunt for kidnappers. (Pg. 180-181).
Beneath the little window facing north,
At the base of the bridge,
At the foot of the mountain path,
The kidnapper who arrived too late,
The kidnapper I could not meet,
The kidnapper I loved.
The kidnapper who arrived too late,
The kidnapper I could not meet,
The kidnapper I loved. (Pg. 182).
I read this section late at night, by myself, and it left me too disturbed to move on for some time. Everything, to the final line “It was dreadful. Pg. 182.”, are all too disturbing and original. Abe’s brilliance truly shined through in his ability to transcribe such an unusual novel, with such a discombobulating and surreal ending that inspires terror in the reader. And to insert, as an epilogue, a newspaper clipping…which makes us wonder how much of the story is actually real, he hits the perfect note.
Kangaroo Notebook is an ambiguous story, and one with tremendous power. I’m not sure what idea Abe is exploring here, and I don’t think that there necessarily has to be a specific undercurrent of thought in his novel. I will resist the urge to over-analyze, that flaw that dooms most of Academia these days. For me, the story is a vague and powerful pondering of death and reality, and, I suspect, capitalism, (Abe was a devout Marxist, in still very traditional Post-World War II Japan). It’s a work that rivals anything of Kafka’s in its alienation and both its humor and eerie terror make it well worth reading. Four Stars, (my little symbols aren't working here unfortunately).
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