Milan Kundera, writing about the novel, says that its purpose is to tell a truth that only a novel can tell–I’m paraphrasing, but the point is that a novel is a complex, non-linear vehicle for revealing complex, non-linear insights about the world that can’t be gotten at any other way. If you can relay the “point” of a novel is in a single pithy sentence, it probably didn’t need to be written, Kundera says.
So hold onto your horse penises my friends, because this is a novel.
The Secret Rendezvous, by Kobo Abe is a the tale of a “jump-shoe” salesman and former nude model whose wife is taken away in an ambulance by mistake one morning. When he goes to look for her, he stumbles from the mundane world into a vast, half-submerged, increasingly surreal hospital complex where the patients are semi-prostitutes and a man who thinks he’s a horse is running the show. The hero slowly loses track of his quest to find his wife and becomes enmeshed in sexual jealousies and subplots surrounding the horse-man’s attempts to co-opt a functioning penis (he’s impotent) and use it on a 13-year-old nymphomaniac with an incurable bone disease. The ending is one of the creepier and more awful bits of surreal body-horror freakout I’ve read, and leaves the reader in an interesting frame of mind, denied “meaning,” but with a lot to think about.
I absolutely loved it.
I love anything that is hilarious, bitter, absurd, fetishy and breaks all the rules. Something this weird could really never be didactic, but the hospital-run-amok theme has rich enough parallels to the real world. And it also occurs to me that the plot is driven, in essence, by the head hospital bureaucrat’s hard-on. Isn’t that what drives all bureaucracies?
Many of the fireworks are structural. In the first parts of the book, present-tense action (involving the hero writing a surveillance report on himself, in notebooks) alternate with segments containing the notebooks’ contents. He’s been ordered to write about himself in the third person. But sometimes “the man” forgets. As he says after describing himself, “This report contains the results of an investigation of the above man. Since it is not apparently meant for publication, I won’t adhere strictly to form.” And then throughout there are various nesting complexities of when and where he’s writing, that devolve into what I think they’d call “a singularity” in sci-fi terms, getting so wrapped up that the book only sorta ends.
There’s cleverness and sweetness in “the man” and Abe’s meticulous, scientific approach to the mounting insanity. The man gets upset from time to time but he is, as he describes himself in his surveillance report “extremely mild-tempered.” He pursues his increasingly irrational quest rationally, even when he has to admit that his own actions make no sense. The writer has the same kind of understatement, calmly describing the halls, hills, graveyards and tunnels of the monstrous hospital as if it were mappable… as if any of it is.
The same friend who recommended Abe also recommended The Ark Sakura, which is supposedly Abe’s masterpiece of twisted genius. I look forward to reading it soon.