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Book Review: Secret Rendezvous by Kobo Abe

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Kobo Abe is sort of the Kafka of Japan. One doesn’t have to look far to see the influence, and Abe himself even admitted Kafka’s influence in one of the Hiroshi Teshigahara documentaries put out by Criterion. Teshigahara directed a number of films based on Abe’s novels, and thus far Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes appears to be his best work by a mile. Other works of his, such as The Face of Another and The Box Man have their moments, but none of his works that I’ve read thus far (including Secret Rendezvous) reaches the same level of greatness as The Woman in the Dunes.

Secret Rendezvous is likely Abe’s weakest book thus far (and this is my fourth), for it tries to be funny but really isn’t and it is missing much of what makes Abe’s work so wonderful to read: his philosophical digressions. Instead, in Secret Rendezvous we have a talking horse and strange sex experiments and a woman who has been turned into a quilt. The prose at times can be dry and the description is not particularly interesting. Secret Rendezvous seems to just be weird for weirdness’ sake, for any kind of deeper resonance (such as that which occurs within Woman in the Dunes) is not really touched upon and this novel reminded me of a better-written Haruki Murakami work.

The problem with Secret Rendezvous is that there is so much strange shit shoved into one book, that the strange shit doesn’t mean anything after a while. Basically, the story consists of a man in search of his missing wife throughout an underground hospital. She is taken away in the middle of the night by ambulance and he does not know why. Add to that a horse that regularly visits him and talks about his penis. So as the tale goes on, the man learns of bizarre sex experiments taking place within the hospital walls. While it might sound fascinating to read about a bunch of crazy sex experiments where doctors and patients are masturbating and being brought to orgasm through the use of devices, it’s not very interesting at all, and nor is it erotic in the least — despite the book’s marketing. When character development is lost amid a shuffle of strangeness, the book then becomes essentially a plot driven work, rather than something carrying deeper, philosophical resonance.

Here’s an example of an insightful moment within Secret Rendezvous that is unfortunately too few in number:

“You have to treat the injured person not like a human being with a wound, but like a human wound…. To keep from arousing the doctor’s anger, the patient tries to stop being human. The doctor becomes more and more alone, his nerves go on edge, and he drifts farther and farther from humanity. I guess you could even say a prejudice against patients is one requirement for a great doctor.”

This is an interesting argument that goes against any code of ethics, but at least it is well argued. Oddly, the strange sex experiments put me in mind of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, (yes that is a great novel) when the apes have captured a number of humans and are performing experiments on them. Though what is missing from Secret Rendezvous is that sort of higher meaning, and I think Abe was just having fun, rather than trying to be ‘deep,’ which only causes me to rank Secret Rendezvous as a lesser Abe work.

Of the four books of his I have read thus far, it is unfortunate to find he is a bit repetitive and content on only dealing with allegory. Don’t get me wrong—allegory can be great and powerful when it is used at its best, such as in Abe’s much better novel The Woman in the Dunes. But when odd event after odd event occurs and one no longer cares about the characters and there are no deeper philosophies to latch onto and the writing itself is not as lyrical as could be, a plot consisting of mere weirdness gets rather dull to read.

While some can certainly argue that Secret Rendezvous presents a number of questions, such as where humanity resides and the relationship between doctor and patients — where does that line begin and end? These themes have been better expressed in other works. Secret Rendezvous is by no means a bad book — it’s a solid read, dry at times, more plot driven than typical Abe, but ultimately a disappointment.

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About Jessica Schneider