Kōbō Abe (1924-1993) was a Japanese writer known for such postmodern novels as The Face of Another, The Ark Sakura, The Box Man, and his masterpiece, The Woman in the Dunes. The latter was made into a film by the great Hiroshi Teshigahara, with a screenplay by Abe, the second of four collaborations between the two. Kōbō Abe, or Abe Kōbō as he is called on the cover of this novel, was Japan's post-World War II international literary star, their Kafka, Beckett, or Camus. He also wrote poetry and experimental plays and was a photographer and inventor. For many years, it was rumored that he would win the Nobel Prize, but he died before that could happen.
His sensibility was neoteric, often absurd, and his sense of displacement and disorientation was Kafkaesque. Yet, his mid- to late-career novels are also playful, and easy to read, even when challenging. Beasts Head for Home is an earlier novel, his third, and is more realistic and more rooted in place (where the later novels seem to take place in dreamland, with unnamed locations and more surreal elements). It is also, apparently, autobiographical and perhaps explains the author's sense of being displaced. This translation, by Richard F. Calichman, is available for the first time.
The story concerns a Japanese soldier named Kyuzo, who witnesses the end of World War II and the beginning eruptions of the Chinese Civil War, as he makes a trip home to Japan, a place where his people live but from which he has mostly been estranged. It is this trek from Manchuria, where he's been stationed for years, that takes up most of the novel's narrative. He travels by train, until it is derailed amid a skirmish, and then he travels by foot with an inscrutable companion, a man initially nameless but who creates his own identity, Ko. Identity is fluid when the world goes pear-shaped. This long march seems more Dostoevsky (one of Abe's heroes) than Beckett. He trudges on, heading for a home that may not still be his home. The world has changed utterly, more so in Japan, perhaps, than anywhere else on Earth.
In an essay on Abe, Colin Marshall wrote, "The Typical Abe Protagonist (TAP), perhaps a shoe salesman or a schoolteacher, gets swept up, by little fault of his own, into potentially alarming circumstances. Maybe he's importuned to find an unusual missing person; maybe he misses the last bus home; maybe leaves begin growing from his flesh." There are no fantastic elements like leaves growing from flesh in Beasts Head for Home, but our TAP is an average man overwhelmed by unusual circumstances, in this case the destruction of his country.
Even if more true-to-life, the world of the novel is still nightmarish. Kyuzo is a prisoner of horrors, man-made, irrational, and murderous. War is hell. Other people are hell. Kyuzo himself, during the privations of his trudge through a desolate landscape, is transformed into one of the beasts heading home. And the ancestral home he seeks, Japan, is a place unknown to him, eventually, perhaps, unknowable. Abe is asking if home is one way we identify ourselves, one way we become ourselves.
Ko, the enigmatic fellow traveler, tells Kyuzo, "For me, the towns where the two-legged beasts lurk are far more dangerous than the fields where the wolves roam." But to survive their treacherous journey, each man must become more feral. And later, with their goal seemingly within sight, Kyuzo says to an Army officer, "Please help me. I've walked such a long way without food." And the officer answers: "But, really, nothing can be done. It's not the same as before, you see." Nothing will ever be the same again, of course.
As Kyuzo continues his slog down the road that goes nowhere, the book itself becomes a bit of a slog. Beasts Head for Home is a good novel, but it feels like a preparation for the greater novels to come. Abe seems to be licking around the edges of the surrealism that would characterize his later work, the way some of Nabokov's early novels feel like a preparation for Lolita. Still, this is a necessary part of Abe's important body of work, a book of vivid scenes and strange characters, a book that feels like the hollow terror after a nightmare passes.