The Ruined Map
by Kobo Abe
Translated by E. Dale Saunders
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1969
Originally published in Japanese 1967
A nameless private investigator takes on the case of a missing husband, a Mr. Nemuro. He goes to a small town somewhere in Japan, and tries to figure out where Mr. Nemuro went. It doesn't help that the man disappeared six months ago, and that it's taken so long for the wife and the wife's brother to hire a detective. The P.I. narrates his tale in the first person, and the names of the town and several pertinent organizations have been purposely redacted from his first person narrative. His investigation takes on an abstract quality. One gets the sense that this mystery and the people involved could exist in any small town or city.
The P.I. has a kind of knack for seeing things in minute detail. At times, he seems to focus obsessively on details of rooms and streets and people's attire to the point that he misses the big picture. Early on, he narrowly avoids running down a child in the street. Later, he meets with his estranged wife and he seems to have a rather distorted sense of why they had to part ways. Like in many marital conflicts, each blames the other for the separation, and the P.I. is tinged with jealousy that borders on the absurd. One moment he's specualting about her cheating on him, and the next he idly fantasises about her having a lesbian tryst with her young female employee in her dressmaking shop. Every statement, each exchange, every last change of mood and odd utterance is analyzed for hidden meanings and secret threats. The P.I. was suited for his profession, and doomed to failure in marriage.
Or maybe the P.I.'s hyperawareness is his weakness as an investigator as well. Each person he interrogates, he takes on a slightly different persona the better to draw out pertinent information. His theory is he must be a kind of blank slate, an actor, willing to take on the persona which best gets his given subject talking about what he needs to know. Brilliant . . . but there's always the risk that these ideal personas merely push his subjects to tell him what he wants to hear, and not the truth. Also, his suspicious nature may prevent him from believeing the truth of statements which contain vital clues.
The Ruined Map plays with the tantalizing ambiguities inherent in human communications, especially when people are trying to hide their feelings and obscure the truth. The novel is set up like a hard-boiled mystery to give people plenty of reasons to equivocate and deceive one another about hidden motives and illicit schemes, but by the end of it I was left with the impression that Abe is suggesting that all human interactions are, on some level, profoundly uncertain. We can never really know what goes on in someone else's head. How do we know if someone is lying to us? And don't we all tell little white lies now and again? Deception, at some level, is absolutely necessary for normal human interactions to proceed apace. Radical honesty would tear us apart. But what happens if our lives are entirely made up of little white lies? Couldn't the case be made that one little white lie after another adds up to a big ol' pile of deception? That might very well be the case. And there might be absolutely nothing we can do about it.
And where does that leave the P.I. in terms of identity? If he has commited himself to being a kind of protean Everyman, altering his identity to suit whatever case and whoever he is dealing with at any given moment, then who is he? Is identity something essential and unchanging? In Abe's novel, this is not the case. Identity is something you can put on, take off, and fine tune in endless variations. At least, that's how the P.I. approaches things. That's another part of the guy's particular talent it would seem.
But what happens if you lose track of yourself? Sure, the P.I.'s a pro, that wouldn't happen . . . but what if?
The Ruined Map draws you in with a genre mystery set up, but then goes on, by gradual degrees, to take you into truly bizarre territory. I found it to be surprisingly unsettling, although it is hardly sensationlistic or gruesome in any extreme sense. But it wore on my psyche, screwing with my genre expecations, and then dragging me into a wholly unexpected fictional zone. I admired it, but it was also somewhat unpleasant, and a bit infuriating. I've read a number of other Abe novels in English, and have found most of them to be much too abstracted and absurdist for my taste, although I did enjoy The Box Man and Inter Ice Age 4. I think I was hoping, as I read it, that this book would be closer to Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but instead it was thorougly Kobo Abe. Well, the man's name was on the spine. I have only myself to blame.