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photo of Kobo Abe   Ruminations on Kobo Abe's The Ruined Map
Kobe Abe's The Ruined Map has haunted me since I first read it over twenty years ago. The book, first published in Japan in 1967, has had a lingering, disquieting effect that has colored my fiction, and to some extent, my view of the world.

The story starts out traditionally enough in the vein of the hard-boiled detective story: a private investigator meets with a young, beer-swilling woman at her home. Her husband has been missing for six months, vanishing on his way to a train station to deliver some documents. All her efforts to find him, and those of her brother, have been futile. The only clue she presents is a book of matches from a local coffee shop.

Like most PIs, the nameless narrator tries to dissuade her from spending money she doesn't have looking for a man who likely ran off with a bar hostesses. She insists that he was really going to deliver documents, because he came back a few minutes after leaving to get a paper clip to secure them. The PI is not convinced it wasn't a ruse, and, watching her open another beer, starts to wonder about her motives.

The matchbox clue, of course, leads to other clues about the missing husband's life: blackmail, amateur pornography, and assorted illegal activities dealing with secondhand cars, fuel, and trucking. Along the way we encounter intriguing and repulsive characters at an automated sake bar where the blood sport is killing cockroaches, or at a nightly caravan of unlicensed food stalls that regularly turns violent, or at a "nude encounter" establishment. As the PI investigates, making copious written and mental notes on the case, he becomes entangled in the lives of those he investigates. Always a fatal mistake for a PI.

Kobo Abe (1924-1993) is best known for his 1962 Woman in the Dunes, made famous as much by the movie of the same title. Many of his stories deal with the theme of descent, sometimes in a physical sense (as in Woman, when the main character is tossed down into the bottom of a sand pit, and in The Ark Sakura, when the main character is held captive in an underground cavern), as well as psychological descent, as in The Ruined Map. Kobo Abe's work has become so entwined with my fiction sensibilities as to make it impossible not to be influenced by him at nearly every turn. I hope that is not a fatal mistake for a writer.

Like most aspiring writers, when I first started writing seriously I read many books on the fiction process, as if there were a magic formula. The only such book I have read more than once, and still go back to on occasion, is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. It was in this book that I first heard of Kobo Abe's The Ruined Map. In his book, Gardner claimed that "All great writing is in a sense imitation of great writing." No matter how oddly constructed (and he put The Ruined Map in that category) or innovative, a great novel will leave the writer with the feeling of "that was a novel."

I read many of the books Gardner recommended based on that feeling: Under the Volcano, Moby Dick, those by Italo Calvino and John Fowles. But it was The Ruined Map that captured my imagination, and it is still the only novel I have read more than twice. My first reading of The Ruined Map was a couple of years before I went to Japan for the first time. Arriving there in the mid-80s to teach English and edit technical documents, the Japan I found most intriguing, most seductive, was the Japan in The Ruined Map.

The ancient soaring temples, the neonic urban landscapes, the beauty of the gardens and tea ceremony, did little for me. The Japan I wanted to find was that of dingy coffee shops with surly waitresses, tiny hole-in-the-wall joints serving sake and shochu (a grain alcohol), and food stalls set up under railroad tracks. I wanted to meet a few of the homeless men who lived in boxes. I wanted to run into urban street thugs and the occasional yakuza. And I did find that Japan--it wasn't hard--and that's what I reveled in during my stay.

Whenever I read The Ruined Map again, I find bits and pieces of the novel that have crept into my own fiction. Of course, when I was writing it, I don't recall that I consciously picked up Kobo Abe's world and dumped it in my fiction, rather it's become my world too. For example, in my novel The Fourth Treasure, one of the characters lives in an old, eccentric apartment building that has the same eerie feel of the wife's apartment in The Ruined Map. Also, one of the main characters is a private investigator who becomes entangled in the case of a missing calligraphy student (although he manages to avoid it being a fatal mistake.)

The ending of The Ruined Map is still somewhat mysterious to me, even after many readings. But I think a clue to the ending, which begins with a word-for-word repetition of the first page and a half of the very start of the novel, is found in the first chapter. The wife of the missing man tells the PI: "a single map for life is all you need…The world is a forest, a woods, full of wild beasts and poisonous insects. You should go only through places where everyone goes, places that are considered absolutely safe." But what if that map is ruined?

Upon finishing The Ruined Map, the feeling is always there: "that's a novel."



Todd Shimoda is the author of 365 Views of Mt. Fuji and The Fourth Treasure, forthcoming from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in April 2002.


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