The Ark Sakura

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By rights, I should have been head over heels for Kobo Abe's The Ark Sakura. I mean, check it out: a bizarre, absurdist-yet-thoughtful plot; a strong narrative voice; a small cast of characters semi-quarantined together in a (relatively) small area; a sharp, satirical political ethos...this book was obviously written with my wholehearted enjoyment in mind. And it starts out in a hilariously promising way: our protagonist, who because of his obesity and underground dwelling-place is known as Mole, leaves the latter-day "ark" - actually a vast, abandoned stone quarry converted into a survivalist bunker - to run some errands in town. He's almost finished his ark, which is designed to withstand the coming (according to him) nuclear winter as well as isolate him from his abusive father. But he is distressed by the fact that he has yet to hand out any invitations to others to accompany him into the brave new underground world. In the course of his wanderings he encounters a shady but possibly sympathetic insect-dealer who is peddling mounted "eupcaccias": apocryphal insects whose legs have atrophied due to the fact that they never travel, instead staying in the same place and using their mouths to move in a tight circle, excreting and consuming their own excretions at the exact same rate.

(Let me just pause a moment here to note that if you're easily grossed out or don't think it's cool to read about solid waste, this is not the book for you. It shares with Joyce's Ulysses and Saramago's Blindness the dubious honor of including at least one graphic shitting scene, and its spiritual center is a gigantic, oversized toilet used for flushing all manner of things out to sea.)

Mole pretty much knows the eupcaccias are bogus (the insect dealer has concocted an entire mythology about them, in which they dwell on an imaginary island and inspire an imaginary tourist trade), but it doesn't matter: he still finds them so allegorically compelling that he's immediately convinced the insect dealer should join him on the ark. Along with a male/female con-artist team who work the craft bazaars drumming up business by pretending to be interested in the rinky-dink merchandise, they both end up back at the bunker, where Mole introduces the other three to his stash of beer, chocolate, jerry-rigged weaponry, holographic air photography, and, of course, giant, ultra-powerful toilet.

One of the real strengths of the novel, I think, is Mole's narrative voice. Despite being an abused, unattractive loser with delusional paranoia, the twisted alternate-reality he creates for himself is oddly compelling. He tends to be so fixated on tiny details - the clever mechanical workings of the booby traps he's set up throughout the quarry, for example - that he never has to acknowledge the lunacy of his entire project. (His methodical obsession with obscure details reminded me of the narrators in the works of Kenzaburo Oe and Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as Samuel Beckett - high praise indeed, in my world.) It quickly becomes apparent that Mole imagines a full "crew" for his ark - over three hundred people - and yet it floods him with anxiety even to admit three new faces to his sanctuary. At the same time, once he's committed to inviting the three of them, he can hardly let them "escape"; they might spread the word around about how to get into his ark. He's filled with adolescent fantasies about power and sexuality; he envisions everyone on the Ark addressing him as "Captain," yet even the other outcasts, like the insect dealer and the shill, have more leadership ability. And his sexual understanding has never progressed beyond that of a twelve-year-old boy with a pile of porn stockpiled under his mattress. Yet he kids himself that he's in control of the situation, that he'll continue to control the running of the ark even after hundreds of people join it, even after he's sealed off the entrances from the encroaching nuclear winter. Meanwhile, the female half of the shill-couple has absolutely no trouble manipulating him with a single tug on her fake-leather skirt.

This brings me to the reason I'm lukewarm about The Ark Sakura: the gender roles in it really just bummed me out. Which makes me a little bit frustrated with myself, because the gross, masturbatory interactions in the book were so cartoonishly over-the-top that their satirical nature can hardly be doubted. Take this passage, in which Mole and the insect dealer take turns slapping "the girl" (nobody ever bothers to learn her name) on the ass:

        "One of these would supply about enough electricity for one twelve-watt bulb, and that's it," said the insect dealer, and launched a second attack on her backside. There was the sound of a wet towel falling on the floor. He'd scored a direct hit, in the area of the crease in her buttocks. She emitted a scream that was half wail.
        "Eventually I intend to convert all those old bikes in that pile over there. With twenty-eight bikes operating at the same time, charging up the car batteries, there would be enough energy to supply an average day's needs."
        Pretending I was going to activate one to show them, I drew closer to the woman and laid a hand on her myself, not to be outdone. It was not so much a slap as a caress: that prolonged the contact by a good five times. Using her hand on the handlebars as a fulcrum, she swung herself around to the other side, bent forward, and giggled. On the other side, the insect dealer was waiting, palm outstretched. It was a game of handball, her bottom the ball.

See what I mean? It seems silly even to be offended by such an obviously absurd set of events. A little later, Mole goes from zero to creepy in three-point-two seconds when he momentarily fancies himself a sensitive guy:

Perhaps I shouldn't have said so much. But I wanted to impress it on her that I, for one, was not the sort of man who could go around brandishing the traditional male prerogatives. I was a mole, someone who might never fall into a marriage trap, but whose prospects for succeeding in any such scheme of his own were nil. Yet I was the captain of this ark, steaming on toward the ultimate apocalypse, with the engine key right in my hand. This very moment, if I so chose, I could push the switch to weigh anchor. What would she say then? Would she call me a swindler? Or would she lift her skirt and hold out her rump for me to slap?

Abe is plainly using Mole's interactions with "the girl" to point up his own ridiculously immature, even delusional, outlook on life, and the panting ease with which he lets himself be led around by his schlong. His fetishized image of the girl takes over his life and undermines his decision-making power, and yet he remains totally unable to relate to her as a person. The one time we hear her express her own reality, he immediately makes it all about himself. I think all of this is quite well-done, actually.

And yet, reading it made me feel tired. I mean, the downside of portraying Mole's inner world is that Abe HIMSELF is relieved of the need to make "the girl" into any kind of interesting character. And hey look, she's the only female in the book (if you don't count the roaming horde of junior high school girls lost somewhere in the quarry). And oh huh, how unusual, a single, fetishized female in the midst of males endowed with subjectivity. You don't say. Ho hum. Wake me after the revolution.

Despite my (possibly mood-induced) reservations, there are many thought-provoking elements in The Ark Sakura. As satirical as Abe's portrayal of Mole is, he's never quite AS nuts as a similar person would seem in America. Japan, after all, is the one country which actually has directly experienced the fallout of nuclear war, which gives Mole's paranoia a different cast. And the fact that he's reacting against the abuse he suffered at the hands of his biological father - a man of the generation that propelled WWII forward - gives the story an allegorical cast; it's addressing the experience of the children who grew up to face the atrocities their fathers committed. I'm reminded of the section of G√ľnter Grass's Dog Years in which sets of magic spectacles circulate around Germany as the children of former Nazis reach adolescence. When the young adults don the spectacles, they see the things their parents have done, and lose all faith. There's a certain similarity here, in Mole's interactions with his bestial father, and his own consequently stunted emotional growth. So too, his use of the giant toilet is significant: he condemns the actions of his father and wants to start over with a clean slate, and yet he himself survives by accepting money to flush toxic waste down the john, washing it out to sea. He's condemning the waste and selfishness of his own father, while simultaneously following in the father's footsteps by accelerating the destruction of his environment and naively imagining he can separate himself from that destruction.

So, certainly not a complete loss. In a different mood, at a different time, probably a big win. But right now, what I want is a well-drawn, realistically sympathetic female character. One not wracked into continual sobs by religious guilt, or flattened to two dimensions by male lust. One that makes me feel the author understands the plain, unadorned humanity of women as well as men. I have Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, A.S. Byatt's Possession, and a biography of Mother Jones on my to-be-read shelf, but any suggestions from you, my bloggy friends, would be much appreciated as well.

(The Ark Sakura was my book for the Japanese Literature Challenge 3.)

16 Comments

  • I've not gotten the chance to read Abe yet, but your post has me intrigued in spite of the lack of rounded female characters. I'll be sure to keep that in mind when I get around to reading him.

    As for recommendations for books with well rounded femal characters, Margaret Atwood is always reliable. Alias Grace is fantastic if you haven't read that yet.

  • Thanks for this really brilliant review-A Woman in the Dunes was my first Abe-it has similar preoccupations down to a man living in a whole in the ground-I think I will make The Ark Sakura by second Abe.

  • Emily, I think you underrate the primordial power "a single, fetishized female" can exert on the male psyche! Other than that, I can kind of understand why this book didn't really do it for you and probably wouldn't do it for me either (I was intrigued by 3 out of the 5 items Mole had stashed in his bunker, though). Better luck next time, my friend!

    • LOL! Yes, I'd have to agree about that "primordial power" :) But either way, I've long hated the idea (and the image) of a group of men collectively fetishing on one woman. Quite frankly, the underlying concept of "sharing" disgusts me, especially since the image that they'd probably be sharing in their minds (and oftentimes verbally as well) wouldn't be so nice.

      • I was just having a goof with Emily, Mark David, but I hear you about the concerns. The mentality you describe makes me think of junior high school teenagers listening to heavy metal music while their parents are away from home, but I'm guessing not all metal fans or musicians are as young as all that, you know? :D

  • Emily, "And oh huh, how unusual, a single, fetishized female in the midst of males endowed with subjectivity. You don't say. Ho hum. Wake me after the revolution." made me laugh out loud! I haevn't read Abe yet but when I do will be interested to see if I agree.

    For writing that treats men AND women as human beings, I usually fall back on my old favourite Alice Munro.

  • Stefanie: Yeah, I would even recommend it, I think. It was well-done; Abe is a thoughtful writer, for sure. I think it just hit me at the wrong time. Re: Atwood, I've actually had quite mixed opinions of the books of hers I've read (only truly loving The Blind Assassin), but I've heard from other reliable sources that Alias Grace is good. I'll have to check it out; thanks!

    Mel ulm: I'd be interested to know what you think. I actually set out to buy The Woman in the Dunes on the day I ended up with The Ark Sakura, and I'm definitely interested to try other works by Abe, despite my crankiness here. :-)

  • Richard: Oh, I don't know if I underrate it...I'm just having a snit where I'm sick to death of hearing about it. Much like my feeling toward Kristin's supposed sinfulness in Undset... :-) Anyway, let me guess: the air photography, weaponry, and beer?

    Sarah: Haha, I'm glad you enjoyed it! :-) And I was just glancing at a volume of Munro; I've not read her, but she's definitely on The List. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Ok, not my book...

    I saw your post on KL and when I read the novel, I'll be back to read your post!!

  • Emily, are you calling me a geek??? Beer and jerry-rigged weaponry are correct, but chocolate wins out against holographic air photography every time in my world. No contest!!!

  • Oh, I just lost my comment! Arg. Basically I said that I'm not sure if this book is for me. I am fine with absurdist fiction and can handle the gender stuff if the book is good, but ... I guess I don't turn to satire very much. I do like books with strong narrative voices, though, so that's a point in this book's favor.

    As for recommendations, not much is coming to mind, which tells me that I should read more of the kind of book you are looking for! What does come to mind is Mary Gaitskill's Veronica, which is definitely about male lust, but from a smart woman's perspective. Gaitskill is showing what our culture can do to women, and it's a hard read, but a good one.

  • Rebecca: Thanks for stopping by! Knowing what I know about your taste, I definitely agree that this isn't the book for you. :-)

    Richard: Haha, the air photography was totally the most interesting item of the bunch to me! :-)

  • Dorothy: Interesting - thinking back on your entries, I guess it's true that I don't remember many satirical selections. I can REALLY get into a good satire if the time is right, but apparently this wasn't it. And thanks for reminding me about Veronica - it's been on my Vague List For The Future ever since I heard Gaitskill interviewed on NPR years ago, but I keep forgetting about it. It sounds really intriguing!

  • It might interest you to know that I'm currently eating my lunch and was chewing spicy chicken pops when I was reading your account on the less-than-pleasant part of the story, LOL! Of course it's not really the kind of image I'd like to have on my mind, but it's a good thing that I'm not the type to get easily grossed out while eating :)

    Anyway, it does seem to me that this isn't the kind of book I'd like to read. I often automatically expect the strange when reading Japanese works, but based on those excerpts you quoted, I think it's just a little too quirky for me. I've read about half of Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque last year and it's got scenes that can easily be considered bordering on pornographic, but I was still impressed by Kirino's voice. I might continue reading it next year for JLC4. Have you read it, by the way? I thought the female characters in that book were rather convincing.

    The Abe book that was recommended to me by another author is The Box Man. I'm also planning on reading that next year :)

  • Mark David: LOL! You probably thought you were safe, reading lit blogs, but you were WRONG. Learn your lesson well. ;-)

    Despite my cranky reaction to The Ark Sakura, I'd be way into checking out more Abe - The Box Man and The Woman in the Dunes have both been recommended to me. I haven't read Kirino, but I'm intrigued by your description - I'll have to check it out!

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