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Kōbō Abe: 燃えつきた地図 (The Ruined Map)

The book opens with an unnamed detective from the T______ Detective Agency assigned a missing person case. The missing person is Hiroshi Nemuro, a section head for a fuel wholesaler. He has been missing for six months. He has a wife who nominally reported the case, though, in practice, it was her brother.

The detective’s journey to visit the wife is auspicious as he almost runs over a boy roller-skating in the road. When he arrives he sees a series of housing blocks which, to him, look like rows of giant filing cabinets. The wife (who, oddly enough is referred to as a girl in this book) is not very forthcoming. She drinks two bottles of beer while he is there, which does not help. All she has to offer him is a half-used box of matches from some coffee house found in her husband’s pocket. She tells him that her brother did some investigation of his own but found nothing. He checked with the names in his brother-in-law’s diary but they had nothing to offer. Oddly, it seems difficult to contact the brother. He normally contacts her. The missing man was last seen by a neighbour standing beside a manhole near where people wait for the morning commuter bus. He normally drove but had had problems with car for a couple of days so took public transport. The day of his disappearance he was to take the metro and hand over some papers to a contact.

The detective speculates. Another woman? Involvement in a gang and killed by them? Some blackmail? She offers no help

The next day, by chance (or is it by chance?), he meets the brother who says he has found nothing and the only information he can offer is that his brother-in-law was a skilled mechanic who bought cars in bad condition, repaired them and sold them for a profit. He also learns that the missing man is very careful, always carrying his driving licence with him, so he would have been easily identified in case of an accident. Does that mean he chose to disappear? The missing man’s boss confirms the missing man’s reliability and states he is absolutely honest. Moreover, he had only just been promoted.
As the brother-in-law seemed to have done he picks up a few minor clues but they do not lead anywhere.

The city is rapidly expanding. This means that, briefly, the propane gas suppliers, like the one the missing man worked for, do very well for a while but when the area is fully developed, the city lays down mains gas. However the propane gas supplies then move to a new area as there is more and more development taking place. It seems the papers the missing man was to hand over related to a newly developed district and Nemuro, the missing man, was to meet his assistant, Tashiro at the station. Tashiro offers the detective more information about Nemuro.

The detective is struggling and is sure something is being kept from him.He wonders whether the missing man is in the flat all the time, hiding in another room. When, again by chance, he meets the brother once more, he becomes more suspicious, especially when he learns the brother is up to dirty deeds.

Our detective is something of a lost soul. He drinks, he has marital problems and admits that his powers of observation are not brilliant. However he does seem to be dogged in his pursuit of what happened to Nemuro. As is perhaps normal for a detective, he feels, with some justification, that he is not being told the truth by the various key players – the wife, her brother, Nemuro’s boss, Tashiro and others he meets and that information is being withheld. What becomes increasingly clear is that in the area where the Nemuros live, a whole host of dirty deeds are going on, including prostitution (male and female), pornography, blackmail and various illegal activities that the authorities either do not know or do nor care about. At one point it all breaks out into open violence. However, it is not clear how much, if at all, the disappearance of Nemuro is linked to these activities. Our detective has his theories but can confirm nothing.

The detective’s boss is not helpful (a client’s not a person; think of him as food to stuff our craws. We’re a bunch of syphilitic curs) and seems more concerned with getting the fee and keeping the police out of any investigation, so our man is very much on his own.

I have to say that the title of the book mystified me. There is a key map. Tashiro draws a crude map for the detective of the station at S where he was to meet Nemuro which he gives the detective, who uses it for his meeting with Tashiro. It turns out to be inaccurate. However it is not ruined. Can a map be ruined? According to Google Translate, a literal translation of the title is Burned Map but the map is certainly not burned. Of course, this may be a metaphor for the novel. The detective and, indeed, several of the characters seem lost, unsure of what is happening in their life and where it will all lead. As mentioned, this is particularly the case with the detective but by no means only him. The detective more and more seems to be drifting away from reality. It was as if I were trapped in a landscape where the painter had forgotten to put in the people.

This is certainly an unusual book in that it takes a standard plot – a missing person case – and makes it into a psychological novel, where we are far more concerned with the detective and his mental state than the missing man and his family.

Publishing history

First published in 1967by Shinchosha
First English translation in 1970 by Tuttle
Translated by Ernest Dale Saunders