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Kōbō Abe: 密会 (Secret Rendezvous)

You know when you read a Kōbō Abe book you are going to get something weird but, even by his standards, this book is very weird. Our unnamed narrator (generally just referred to as the man in this book) is the sales director for jump shoes (sporting shoes with special elastic body—air-bubble springs—built into soles)). The shoes will play a role on this book as they enable the wearer to run faster than normal. He is seemingly happily married. The couple have no children. One morning at 4 a.m., they are woken up by the sound of a siren. The ambulance with the siren stops at their house. The ambulance men inform them that they have come to take the wife (also unnamed) to hospital. The couple are mystified as they had not summoned the ambulance and the wife is perfectly healthy. Nevertheless they wrap her in a blanket, put her on a stretcher and take her away. When she arrives at the hospital she says she is healthy . The night guard does not formally register her. However he will not let her use the phone to phone her husband, as it is only for official use. He suggests she goes to the waiting room and use the phone there. However she does not have the necessary ten yen coin and nor does the guard. He half-jokingly suggests she check the floor to see if anyone has dropped a coin. She heads to the waiting room and, from that point on, seemingly disappears.
Meanwhile the husband is at a loss as to what to do. Eventually he tracks her down to a distant hospital and makes his way there by public transport . The hospital is apparently closed when he arrives but when it finally opens, we find that it is more than a hospital as there are all sorts of stalls offering a variety of services, including how to manage the hospital bureaucracy. By using one of these services, he gains access to the night guard who is, not surprisingly evasive, but tells him about his wife going to the waiting room. There are two hypotheses, according to the guard. The first is that the emergency doctor on duty, a notorious womaniser, may have abducted her. The second involves the waiting room For visitors. It is a dead end in that the doors are locked and can only be accessed from the other side or from the waiting room side with a key. The guard surmises that someone came from the other side to take her, perhaps the person responsible for a pill theft which also took place. Perhaps his wife and the pill thief were in cahoots.

Our narrator, at the suggestion of the guard, decides to follow the emergency doctor, who is just going off duty, and pursues him through a maze of corridors, then outside with the doctor going to his rundown flat. When our narrator soon hears both male and female moaning his suspicions are aroused and, being fit and agile, climbs up to the room where the sounds are coming from. Both he and the doctor are in for a big surprise. Even more of a surprise is that an ambulance arrives within seconds without being summoned.

We now learn that the events at the hospital are being told in the past. They come from tapes as our narrator and many other people have been fitted with a transmitter and their actions are closely monitored. For both men and women, the rate of illicit intercourse among hospital patients was said to be something like 3.5 to four times that among ordinary people. Yes the hospital is moitoring and recording the goings-on and then selling the tapes.

Our narrator is being tracked by a man called the horse – we and he learn the reasons only later for his name – who turns out to be the assistant director. Our narrator is soon involved in a complex plot involving a lot of sex. We have impotent men and the exact opposite, women who cannot orgasm and the exact opposite. We have a hospital which is very much more than a hospital with a massive warren of abandoned rooms, corridors, storage areas and so on, some of which our narrator finds, sometimes linked to some decidedly unmedical activities. We have a hospital staff, many of whom are involved in decidedly unmedical activities. it is never clear who is in charge of what and why.

Our narrator phones home once but never returns home or, indeed, leaves the hospital complex, abandoning his job in his search for his wife. He gets involved with a girl suffering from osteolysis whose mother died of watafuki (cotton starts to come out of the pores in the skin) and whose father is the head of security. Our narrator is constantly having to deal with the assistant director’s secretary who was a test tube baby and born after her mother had died. As she has no father or mother (she has no familial feelings whatsoever. Her sense of human relationships, shall we call it, is entirely missing). There is even a competition to decide which woman has the most and the longest orgasms.

As for our hero, as the secretary says nobody really gives a hoot about you and your problems at all but he still keeps wandering round the hospital precinct looking for his wife and hiding out in his secret rendezvous.

This is, as mentioned, a very weird novel. Much of the time it is not always clear what is happening – not clear to us nor clear to our narrator. We do learn that he is caught in something of a Kafkaesque nightmare, though one that, in theory at least, he could exit at any time but he stubbornly persists in his search even though his search takes on a variety of added dimensions. Abe’s world is strange and none stranger than in this book.

Publishing history

First published in 1977 by Shinchōsha
First English translation in 1979 by Random House
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter