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Kōbō Abe: 方舟さくら丸 (The Ark Sakura)

Our hero is nicknamed Pig or Mole – he prefers the latter of course, not least because fror the last two years he has been living underground. He is obese, weighing two hundred fifteen pounds ( fifteen stone, five pounds, 97.5 kg), five feet eight inches tall. He lives in a former quarry for architectural stone, with vertical walls and level ceilings and floors, with over seventy stone rooms piled up every which way. He anticipates the forthcoming cataclysm and is building an what he calls an ark, i.e. a secure hideout in the quarry. We learn that he has developed this area, building various facilities, installing booby traps against intruders and hiding away food and other supplies. Part of the area had been owned by his abusive father (Mole was conceived when his father raped his mother) and Mole had discovered it when he been chained up there by his father for an alleged rape. The quarry had been abandoned by the owners.

He has not got a crew, though he has created boarding passes, complete with a key accessing the ark. He has not found anybody to crew but has always hoped that the suitable people would gravitate to him.

We first meet him going to a large store which has a bazaar on its roof where people sell a variety of odd items. He finds an insect seller, selling Eupcaccia, aka clock bugs. This is an entirely fictitious insect though Wikipedia has a page on it.Since its head always points in the direction of the sun, it also functions as a timepiece. He is fascinated and buys one. I couldn’t help marvelling at the uncanny resemblance that the eupcaccia bore to me. It was as if someone were deliberately making fun of me. He sees a couple buying one and follows suit. It is not the only fictitious insect we will find in this book.

Later when getting something to eat, he meets the seller who is fed up with the business and is thinking of moving on. Mole offers a boarding pass in exchange for the remaining insects. The seller also reveals that that the couple who bought the insect before him were shills – sakura in Japanese – and were there to encourage others to buy. While waiting for the insect seller he again meets the couple and they manage to get hold of a boarding pass and run off with it.

With Komono, as we now know the insect seller is called, they hurry to the ark, sure that with Mole’s jeep and his knowledge of the short cuts, they can beat the sakura to the ark. They are wrong. The visitors are impressed with what Mole has done and want to stay. Both Mole and Komono are happy to have an attractive woman there.

Several things now happen that the four of them are there. Firstly, Mole is not used to having people around – he enjoys his routines – and he now finds that all four have to adapt to one another, which, not surprisingly, is not always easy. He has declared himself the Captain, not least because we do not know his first name, nor do we learn the names of the two shills. Neither Mole nor Komono are quite sure what is the relationship between the two shills, nor, indeed, their relationship with Komono, which turns out to be more complicated than we and the Mole first thought.

The next issue is whether they are to stay or not. Clearly Mole is torn. If they leave they may well reveal his secret to others. However he readily admits that had he had any choice these three would not necessarily be his ideal companions to spend the rest of his life with when nuclear Armageddon happens. Matters are made more complicated when we and he learn that one or both of the shills may have cancer.

Clearly the three have ideas of their own as to what should happen. The male shill, for example, has ideas for the huge space – a place to make porn movies or even a mental hospital. Mole is, of course, opposed. The male shill also has suggestions for further recruitment. The success or failure of life aboard the ark hinged on how well people cooperated though he later adds a shipload of respectable people would be dull as hell.

The male shill disappears at one point and the others go looking for him which gives Abe an opportunity to show what the area is like and all the many things – and there are many things – that Mole has done. Quite a bit is stolen, including the electricity and much of the furniture. We learn a bit about Mole’s past life which, like that of his father’s. was not exactly honest and legal.

However they do find the male shill hiding but worryingly for Mole, his various booby traps have been disabled but not by the shill. The shill also claims to have seen, more than once, someone else in the caverns. Mole admits he has been up to dirty deeds with the Broom Brigade and one man in particular, who may or may not be the man the shill saw. Mole also discovers that his father may be involved. It all gets worse when they fear an attack by the Broom Brigade and Mole’s father threatens to blackmail them.

From here on, it gets very convoluted as we and our heroes realise that there is a lot going on in the tunnels that they knew nothing about, partially involving Mole’s father but with others involved. It seems that though Mole thought he knew the caverns well, there is much that he does not know.

This is certainly an interesting idea, though it seems to get a bit lost at the end, with the various parties standing around arguing and seemingly going nowhere. The huge caverns which have been used and reused and illegally used (well before Mole came along) provide an excellent and complex setting for much of the novel as we, like the various characters, can only wonder at their immensity. Most of the characters are somewhat odd, however, and it is their sometimes irrational behaviour that drives the novel along.

Publishing history

First published in 1984 by Shinchosha
First English translation in 1988 by Knopf
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter