Friday, February 17, 2012

"The Face of Another" by Kobo Abe ( a short review by Liviu Suciu)

Kobo Abe at Wikipedia
Order The Face of Another HERE

INTRODUCTION: Originally published in Japan in 1964, and translated in English by John Saunders in 1966, The Face of Another has been reprinted in 2003 and released in electronic form in 2011. While before this one, I have read only Kobo Abe's most famous novel "The Woman in the Dunes" quite a few years ago, I have always kept (some of) the author's books nearby as they seemed to be precisely the kind of novel that appeals to me - "interesting" would be the short hand, though the author's style (and the translation of course) also needs to match my sensibilities. Here is the blurb:

"Like an elegantly chilling postscript to The Metamorphosis, this classic of postwar Japanese literature describes a bizarre physical transformation that exposes the duplicities of an entire world. The narrator is a scientist hideously deformed in a laboratory accident–a man who has lost his face and, with it, his connection to other people. Even his wife is now repulsed by him.

His only entry back into the world is to create a mask so perfect as to be undetectable. But soon he finds that such a mask is more than a disguise: it is an alternate self–a self that is capable of anything. A remorseless meditation on nature, identity and the social contract, The Face of Another is an intellectual horror story of the highest order."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Face of Another is a difficult novel to talk about in a "review style" post and it is one of those books that really benefit from a deeper critical analysis that presumes one is familiar with it. Its main idea is simple - a scientist gets burned by liquid nitrogen and his face becomes ruined so he starts trying to get an artificial one as close as possible to lifelike; in the process he splits his identity in two - the "original" and the "mask" and they start to compete for the affections of his wife.

However the novel is much, much more than that, as it is a meditation on identity, on what it means to be human, on what visual impressions - including skin color for example - mean and how they ultimately shape our destiny.

"Of course, I intended to try. Rather than run aimlessly away, it would be best, I suppose, to face the situation squarely and get used to it once and for all. If I made nothing of it, then surely no one else would either. With this thought in mind, and of my own accord, I had made my face the subject of conversation at the Institute. I had compared myself, for example, to the masked monsters of television, deliberately exaggerated. I had stressed the advantages of seeing-without-being-seen—since my expression was inscrutable to others—and appeared amused by the whole thing. To accustom others to my face was the best short cut to getting used to it myself.

The stratagem seemed to work. I was then able to get along at the laboratory with no sense of constraint. There is more to those popular masked monsters, too, than appears; I began to understand why they turn up over and over again in comic books and on television. My mask itself—were it not for the scars underneath, spreading like webs—was comfortable enough. If covering our bodies with clothes represents a cultural step forward, there is no guarantee that in the future masks will not be taken equally for granted. Even now they are often used in important ceremonies and festivals. I do not quite know how to put it, but I wonder if a mask, being universal, enhances our relations with others more than does the naked face."

Structured as a three notebook tale told to his wife - and with lots of additional notes that have been added to the notebooks "later" and are generally written using italic, so adding to the sense of immediacy and authenticity - and a prologue that needs rereading at least once, when you get a feel for the book - the novel takes place in a Japanese city in the 1960's but outside of a few details - apartments, workplaces, transportation - and of course the available technology/knowledge about skin cells and the like, it is really timeless and place-less.

There are moments of utter brilliance and moments where you feel the book goes towards the deep end in self-pity and even madness; worth reading if only for the meditations on the subjects above - you will come with a deeper appreciation of how much our physical appearance defines us - but I found it a superb read overall and I highly recommend it.

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