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 Günter 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.)