Of all the major twentieth-century Japanese writers who are well represented in English, Kōbō Abe is probably the one whose work I’ve explored least. He’s best known for his off-beat, Kafkaesque works (among them The Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another and The Ark Sakura), but there is another side to him, and today’s choice, an early work, displays that realist tone. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot here to ponder as the writer focuses his thoughts on identity, and what it means to be Japanese, in a time and place where a step in the wrong direction might have fatal consequences.
Beasts Head for Home (translated by Richard F. Calichman, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is the story of Kuki Kyūzō, a Japanese youth we find assisting Russian soldiers in the north of China in the late 1940s. Hearing news of the troops’ impending withdrawal, he decides it’s now or never if he ever wants to make it to his mother country. The escape doesn’t quite come off, but the generous Russians decide to let him go anyway, putting the youth on the train heading south towards a new life.
During this first leg of his trip, Kyūzō meets Wang, a man claiming to be a journalist, and as they head into disputed territory, a train incident leaves Kyūzō having to rely on the mysterious stranger (who actually turns out to be Kō Sekitō, a half-Japanese ne’er-do-well). What follows is an epic journey of the body and the mind, with both of the unlikely companions (for different reasons) desperate to make it to Japan. The closer the goal gets, however, the more Kyūzō wonders how Japanese he really is.
The setting of Beasts Head for Home plays a key role in the novel. Kyūzō is the son of a pair of Japanese settlers in Manchuria, and having lived his life on the continent, he has no real knowledge of Japan. With his parents both dead, and the other Japanese settlers gone, the youth is drifting, rootless – as is the country. In 1948, China is in the midst of a civil war, and it’s a rather dangerous place to be, especially as there’s no knowing who is in control of any given region at a certain time.
In many ways, though, geography and politics are less important than psychology. A major section of the novel describes a long journey the two main characters undertake across a frozen wasteland, with the pair stunned by the wide open spaces they’ll need to traverse on the road to safety:
In walking by the railway, one could somehow still sense the presence of people, even if this were only the tens or hundreds of coolies who worked here building it years or decades ago. In wandering further into the wasteland, however, one’s very breath changed weight, making one dizzy with an unbearable loneliness. Shortening the space between them, the two hurried along as if fleeing despite the fact that they had only just started off. Yet the landscape was so vast!
p.64 (Columbia University Press, 2017)
The book abounds with mentions of animals in a landscape that isn’t exactly hospitable for humans, and after several preliminary glimpses, there’s even a stand-off in which the exhausted travellers must use the last of their energy to survive.
Another frequently occurring idea is that of borders and boundaries, most of which are difficult to perceive:
“Isn’t there a village nearby?”
“No, there’s not. And we wouldn’t be welcome even if there were.”
“No welcome is given to someone who can’t be determined as friend or enemy.”
“I’ve got a certificate.”
“Certificate? Plenty of people have them. This area marks the very border between friend and enemy. What good is a certificate if you haven’t yet decided who is an ally?” (p.54)
These borders aren’t just physical; later, when hunger sets in, reality begins to blur, making it difficult for the two men to know what’s actually in front of them. In fact, this concept of borders occurs on many levels as Kyūzō and his companion must grapple with nature and civilisation, the real and the imagined, as well as the different powers in control in the areas they pass through.
Much of the novel works around the symbiotic relationship between the two men. Once their train journey is (literally) stopped in its tracks, they’re forced to work together, and the younger man must trust the elder one, hoping his connections and know-how will pull them through. This is all part of Kyūzō’s learning curve, knowing his companion is not a man he can trust fully, but realising that he’s the best chance there is of making it across the wasteland and onto a ship. Of course, there’s a limit to how far Kō will indulge the boy, and we’re left to ponder whether Kyūzō has the ability to carry on if and when he’s left alone.
The big question, though, is whether Kyūzō really knows what he’s doing, and why. Having never been to Japan, he’s unlikely to find anything in a country shattered by war, but the truth is that he’s looking more for himself than for a home. In Calichman’s introduction, we are shown shades of Abe himself in the character of the young traveller. Abe was raised in Shenyang and would have visited many of the places described in the novel (hopefully in the course of more comfortable travels!).
Beasts Head for Home is a fairly realistic novel, but with large parts of it spent inside Kyūzō’s head, there are definite links to Abe’s later, more abstract works. As the young man wanders in seemingly unbounded spaces, we sense the fluidity of boundaries whenever he slips between the real world and his fevered thoughts, fearing that his quest for identity is doomed to failure – we’re just not sure where the poor traveller is destined to end up. While it never had me completely hooked, I enjoyed my trip across China, and the novel makes for both an interesting look at the post-war situation on the continent and an excellent introduction to Abe’s work.