Review: The Ark Sakura by Kōbō Abe

translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

first English translation: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988

my version: Penguin Classics Science Fiction, 2020

384 pages

grab a copy here or or through your local independent bookstore or library


I’ve read much about the great Japanese speculative author Kōbō Abe, but I hadn’t read anything by him. Thanks to Penguin Classics Science Fiction and the copy of The Ark Sakura that they sent me, such is no longer the case.

This meandering, bizarre, funny-and-very-much-not-funny tale reminded me of Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (whose protagonist roams endless corridors and meets the strangest people) and Yasutaka Tsutsui’s collection Bullseye! (in which characters find themselves in the most absurd and unlikely situations). The Ark Sakura, however, tricks you in the beginning into thinking that you’re reading a story with a distinct arc (pun so intended!).

We first meet the protagonist, Mole, on one of his frequent jaunts downtown. Since he lives deep inside a quarry, which he refers to as his ark or ship, Mole doesn’t get much human interaction, a situation that suits him perfectly well. And yet, Mole has realized that at some point, he really must start recruiting others who will live in his ark with him once the nuclear apocalypse hits. Because it will hit…one day. And why not prepare for the worst as soon as possible?

Downtown at a market, Mole encounters a man selling eupcaccia–a small, legless insect that feeds on its own excrement. Mole is entranced and buys one, but then offers the seller a pass to his ark. After a run-in with two shills (sakura) who also stop at the eupcaccia dealer’s stall, Mole decides to scurry back to his quarry and think more about who else to invite. Despite booby-traps and wild dogs, the shills (a man and a woman of uncertain relationship) get to the innermost part of the quarry before Mole and the insect dealer, and before he knows it, Mole has a small crew assembled. This group will be responsible for repopulating the Earth once the planet has recovered from nuclear devastation.

And here’s where the whole plot starts to spiral downward, like the objects that Mole throws into the gigantic toilet in the main room of the quarry. By “downward” I don’t mean to suggest that the text becomes boring or unreadable; rather, I mean that we dive from the heights of ideas and expectations down to the bottomless pit of greed, jealousy, and a lust for power that characterizes human nature.

More and more people enter the ark over the course of the novel, displacing Mole (whom others are calling “Captain” at this point) and transforming the entire enterprise into a picture of authoritarianism. The imagined threat of a nuclear disaster that could happen at any time is subsumed by the human desire to control that which can be controlled.

It’s no surprise that Abe influenced many of Japan’s greatest speculative (and non-speculative) writers. I intend to read more of his work in the near future.

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