Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another (1966) has a better cover than The Woman in the Dunes, but that cheap thrill is soon forgotten when ploughing through this turgid tome.
The blurb makes it sound almost thrilling, like an updated Invisible Man:
The narrator is a scientist hideously deformed in a laboratory accident – a man who has lost his face and, with it, 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.
But where The Woman in the Dunes (which immediately preceded The Face of Another in publication) managed to combine some fairly knotty metaphysical concerns with a driving storyline, this falters and trips over its own quasi-philosophical musings. These take the form of the narrator’s diary and additional notes thereon, and while the story begins to take a linear form after a confused opening, it pretty soon gets mixed up again and grinds away to little effect.
The main engine of the plot is when the narrator – who has suffered horrific slug-like lumpy scars to his face when splashed with liquid oxygen – decides to use the realistic mask he has created to disguise himself and seduce his wife. A great deal of time is spent on his attempts to get the mask right, but it gets lost in rather waffly stuff about the nature of one’s face affects the personality and psyche. Eventually I was glad to be rid of the thing.
The best thing about it are the forty-eight little iconic illustrations which begin each section, and which look like meaningless patterns to begin with, and then resolve themselves into different stylised faces and masks. One could profitably flick through and enjoy them, however, without wading through all the words in between.
I too found this dreadful, and gave up near the end. Haven’t read Woman in the Dunes but loved the film, particularly the music by Takemitsu. His short stories are worth a read, if I remember them correctly, with a heavy nod to Gogol (particularly one entitled ‘The Business Card’ or somesuch, where a man’s identity is stolen by his card).
Thanks for resurrecting this one, Joshua! It’s a shame, as I liked The Woman in the Dunes. I wouldn’t mind reading more Abe; and part of me thinks that even though I didn’t like it, such strangeness has its own qualities when set against the vast mass of run-of-the-mill fiction.
OMG, i didn’t know you had reviewed this. I was so moved by this novel! Really! The narrator is just so direct, paying a lot of attention to detail and description; and all those encounters with her own wife, while pretending to be another person. Yes, it’s true that it may have some philosophical digressions, but then again, if you think of those japanese authors, Kenzaburo Oe comes to mind (with these deformed child), they keep coming back to this kind of nihilistic vision. But still, i liked this novel a lot, especially the final part, with this girl walking in a cool way, but then, somehow it happens that we see her face that’s been concealed, and it’s a disfigured face.
Ah, nico, I do wonder if I would like The Face of Another more today than I did when I read it. I think my tastes have shifted somewhat in the last few years, toward more unusual stuff like this. So maybe I will revisit it – or at least not rule out trying more Abe in the future (as I more or less did after finishing this).
Woman in the Dunes remains one of my all-time favourite books since I first read it 30 years ago (and saw the film, which is also fantastic.) I went on to track down everything I could find by Abe in secondhand bookshops and managed to read just about everything he wrote. None of them are remotely as accessible as Woman in the Dunes, but I would recommend The Box Man or The Ruined Map as the best of the rest, weird as hell but more enjoyable than The Face of Another.