But in my fancy, the owner [of the cafe]… must surely be a man, perhaps the woman’s husband or someone she lived with. Perhaps consumed with jealousy he had shut himself off behind the wall. Imagining the eyes of the customers creeping over his wife’s body, he was surely agonizing behind the wall. Perhaps there was a peephole somewhere in the wall through which he secretly observed the customers. Otherwise, there was no need for her to be perched like a bed, her legs exaggeratedly crossed, on the high, round stool which had been installed in front of the counter… She was worth being jealous of. Even I, who had no relationship with her at all, could only be jealous – in spite of myself.

Of course, if I could remove the wall, things would be resolved at once. … Without the wall the girl’s performance would at once appear rather artificial, and depending on the man’s attitude, quite comical. Of course, the price would be high.  Her worth would be reduced by half at least. On consideration, her being worth jealousy was a part of her value, and it would be a severe loss. Regardless of who was responsible for the performance on the stool the man would never give up his own place. He is compensated in his own way by locking jealousy behind the wall with its agonizing thoughts.

– p. 281-282, The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe

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“Behind my closed eyes, all turned lemon-yellow…bright with lemon-yellow, luminous with the light reflected…”

Nemuro Hiroshi has been missing for six months. His wife, who has since become an alcoholic and no longer leaves her apartment, has hired a private detective.

A matchbox.
A phone number.
A newspaper and a raincoat.
A simple hand-drawn map of a train station.

The detective has few clues with which to start his investigation. The wife’s brother has been investigating since the disappearance, but refuses to offer the detective anything he’s discovered.

Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (燃え尽きた地図) starts as a fairly standard mystery novel, with all the usual film-noir trappings – the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale wife, the seedy criminal overtones. As the book (and the investigation) develop, however, the detective finds himself descending deeper into existential and psychological torment, as his sense of his own identity starts to blur with that of the man he is searching for.

She seated herself on the same chair as last night, although it was now in a somewhat different position, and the line of demarcation between the bookshelves and the lemon-yellow curtains now fell to the level of her right ear, as fragile as china, ruined with rough handling.  I suppose some men would feel protective toward it, while others might be carried away by the desire to break it into pieces. Which type was the husband? I wondered.
(p.  127)

The missing husband, the catalyst of the investigation, remains an ephemeral character throughout the book; never becoming much clearer than a shadow.

“He was fond of licenses. He had a kind of license mania, I guess. He even carried two driver’s licenses – one for second-class trucks. And besides that, he was a radio operator, and electric welder, and a handler of explosives…. He also had a movie projectionist’s license and a secondary teacher’s license…”
“If I could read the [husband’s] dairy, perhaps I can get some general idea of what sort of dreams your husband had.”
“Dreams?”
“For instance, did he dream of the sea, or something like that?”
“My husband is a very matter-of-fact man. When he became section head he was very happy because he had somehow stopped sliding down the slope of life.”
“But he did leave you, didn’t he.”
“It wasn’t because of his dreams. He used to say licenses were the anchor of human life.”
“Using so many anchors for such a small boat certainly puts him in the category of dreamers, doesn’t it? If he didn’t use them he’d float away.”
She slowly returned the glass, which she had raised to her lips, to the table and fell into silence as if her thoughts were someplace else.
(p. 134-137)

Like Abe’s other books, The Ruined Map is slow; fever-like and unsettling. I found myself doubling back, doubting my own understanding (perhaps Abe should be read with a clear mind, rather than over a few beers, but I certainly enjoyed prefer my way of reading!)

Abe’s books may not always be easy or comfortable reading, and will leave you with more questions than are answered. I’ve read three or four of Abe’s books so far, and none of them have had straightforward narratives, or neatly concluded endings – which I don’t consider a negative, but it can be quite unsettling if you’re expecting tidy answers. What Abe does incredibly well is unreliable narration, nightmare-ish urban landscapes, truth, the experience of time, and questions of identity – particularly the tenuous grip most of us have on our own.

The client is always right. Even if he tells a lie, for instance, if he says it’s the truth the truth it is.  But the facts were no longer necessary, it was even unreasonable to demand only motives and omit the facts….I keep circling at a distance round senseless facts, trying to explain the unexplainable.
(p.138)

“If I hadn’t clung so to my preconceptions, if I had kept myself at the same level with him without deciding from the first that he was a wall obstructing my view, he might have surprised me by changing from a wall into a door, through which he might have invited me in.

Of course, the wall was no more. And with it the possibility of a door had vanished too.”

– p. 144, The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe

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“I could not help but hear the faint clinking of glass containers among the muffled noises… that peculiar, fricative sound of air and liquid. I did not realize that beer produced such a forlorn sobbing.”

– p. 105, The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe really harshing my beer-reading buzz.

“How different it had been when I set out that other time, three months ago, in search of my death…

Even though it stands at a diminutive 91 pages, Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains packs just as strong a punch as his longer works. Set in rural Bohemia against the final days of Germany’s 1945 occupation of Czechoslovakia, the book follows Milos Hrma, a naive and sensitive young railway apprentice, as he returns to work following a suicide attempt. Like all of Hrabal’s work, Closely Observed Trains trips along at a nimble pace, stepping with apparent effortlessness from the entirely absurd and the deadly serious.

“Ghastly, the whole of Dresden’s kaput…. The whole of Dresden’s one torch. This lot climbed into my vans,” he [the train chief] said… And those Germans stood… staring at the ground; maybe they were seeing those last moments when they had leaped out of their windows into gardens and streets, everything cut off from them by falling trees and walls and beams. All those Germans had long arms, hanging now almost to their knees, and all this time not one of them blinked, as though horror had cut off their eyelids. And I had no pity for them, I who had wept over every kid that ever was slaughtered, and everything that suffered distress, I could find no pity now for those Germans. (p. 82)

The war is in its last days and the Germans have lost control of all Czech airspace, but the railway line that passes through the town remains a highly strategic one. Young Milos’ experience of war is distanced, and somewhat secondary to his personal troubles, but there is no glory to what he witnesses – hospice care for fatally burned soldiers; the victim of an aerial dog-fight; German citizens displaced following the firebombing of Dresden; the life-threatening pressure on Milos and the other railway staff to keep the trains running on time; a bullet-ridden, blood-stained train standing by as augury.

There was another close-surveillance transport running through the main line. All the fellows sunning themselves there on the tanks were young boys, just like myself, some of them even younger… but when they passed by that strafed train on the fifth line they froze, struck motionless. As each wagon came into the vicinity of those shattered coaches, consigned to the workshops for repair, every person aboard it froze, even the cooks stopped peeling potatoes, though these soldiers must surely have seen worse things at home, shattered towns, houses, heaps of dead. But just here, and now, and this, they hadn’t been expecting… (p. 56)

No review of Hrabal’s books can ever do his writing justice, or ever adequately express how much I adore his work.  To so seamlessly blend antics worthy of Benny Hill with the personal trauma of a failed suicide with the tensions of the humanity/inhumanity of an invading, all in the kind of casual narrative style you’d find chatting with a chap three beers deep at your local bar, and to make it all engaging is truly a unique feat. The ending is typically Hrabal – it may not leave you feeling happy, but it will leave you feeling.

And the captain’s eyes were gazing now at my wrist, where I too, had a scar; my sleeve had slipped down, and the captain looked at that healed wound like a man reading a book. Perhaps this captain had already learned much more, perhaps he was looking at everything now from the opposite viewpoint… And now they were all staring at my wrist, and the captain stretched out his little whip, and with it drew back my other sleeve, too, and looked at the second scar.
Kamerad,” he said.
And he made a sign, and the close-surveillance military transport slowed down, and the two pistols were withdrawn from my back…
“Go”, said the captain.
“Thank you,” I whispered. (p. 35)