The Ark Sakura has all the makings of a novel I’d love. It has a Murakami-esque weirdness to it, and I could certainly see where Abe has influenced my favorite author, but the story itself never really comes together. Maybe it’s not supposed to. Regardless, it has sparked my desire to read more Abe, and let’s face it: even Murakami doesn’t have a perfect record (just kidding).
The story of The Ark Sakura revolves around a man named Mole. His true name is never revealed, a common theme throughout the narrative, and he lives alone in an abandoned underground quarry near Tokyo. He calls this quarry his ark, and intends to launch this ship, with an able-bodied crew, once the inevitable nuclear holocaust destroys humanity. It’s immediately clear that Abe, in-part, wrote this novel in response to the Cold War and people’s decades-long fear of being blasted into atomic oblivion. The book was published in 1984, at a time when the threat of world destruction was still very real. Mole is a recluse, having no friends or close family, and so occasionally will venture out to nearby social gatherings in order to recruit his needed crew. He rarely finds anyone worthy, until one day while visiting a flea-market he comes upon Komono, a smooth-talking dealer of various weird junk, who sells Mole a eupcaccia bug. The eupcaccia is an impossible creature, who subsists by eating its own excrement. This is where the book starts getting weird.
At the same flea market, Mole accidentally gives away an ark ticket to a couple of shills, or sakuras as they are dubbed. A sakura in this novel is someone who tricks someone else, usually for money. Sakura is also the meaning for cherry blossom, which it is more widely recognized for. The shills, a man and woman whose relationship is never clearly defined, steal away to the ark ahead of Mole and Komono, and pretty soon the novel morphs into a bottle-story, and the majority of it from then on is the complicated relationship that these four characters have. They bond, fight, and get strange with one another.
The four characters themselves are pseudo-archetypes. The woman seems only to represent sexuality, a fact that continued to bother me throughout the story. Mole and Komono continually objectify her in the crudest manner, and even when she makes attempts to show her intelligence and utility, they can’t seem to see past her skirt. This obviously characterizes them, but I couldn’t quite see Abe’s intent in writing her this way. Mole is the loner and outcast, someone socially inept but who craves companionship. Komono is charisma, able to talk himself in and out of anything, which lends him skills in both sales and leadership. The male shill, who is referred to as simply “the shill” for the length of the novel, is maybe the most complicated character. He changes, is maybe the only character who does evolve, and seems deeper than the rest by the end despite being characterized in the harshest ways at the beginning.
There are other characters who weave into the story, mostly at the end, and they seem to serve more as catalysts for the final few chapters than anything. An exception to this is Mole’s father, Inototsu, a rapist and murderer who defines much of Mole’s character and existence.
I feel like I should like this book more, and maybe it’s the kind of novel I’d return to for a second reading. Part of me thinks that re-reading it is necessary to fully comprehend it. Another part of me thinks I fully comprehended it and found it lacking. Another part (there’s lots of parts of me), wonders if the entire novel isn’t an allegory for Japan, with each of the four characters acting as part of the country’s ruling history in some way. I could be interpreting it this way because of my recent introduction to pre-modern Japan, but there were some interesting power struggles happening inside the ark that made me think of shoguns and emperors and aristocratic families. The last part of me wonders if the entire novel is Abe’s attempt to free-form write, without editing, and that he didn’t really care if anything made sense or appealed to anyone. I can respect that.
I’m not disappointed that I read The Ark Sakura, and plan on tackling Abe’s supposed masterpiece, The Woman in the Dunes, in the near future. It’s an odd way to end my curriculum, at least the literary part, but that’s also what I expect out of Japan. Thanks for keeping it weird!