Everyone knows that in Japanese society there's hardly anything worse than losing face. Kobo Abe starts with this cultural taboo and amplifies it to its logically nightmarish extreme as he explores the existential horror experienced by a scientist who literally loses his face in a laboratory accident. Hideously disfigured and shunned even by his former friends and colleagues, the narrator of *The Face of Another* describes in harrowing detail the totality of his isolation from human contact--especially from his conventional, well-meaning wife--and his desperate plan to create for himself a life-like mask that will reopen the `doorway' between him and the community of others.
The novel itself is written as an extended address to the aforementioned wife and meant to be read after he carries out his intention of seducing her as the `stranger' the mask allows him to become. Between the elaborate preparation of the mask and the ill-fated seduction, Abe's narrator travels a zig-zag path between cynicism and self-loathing, psychological breakdown and philosophical speculation as he confronts the elusive nature of human relations and personal identity. His mask gives him a passport to cross the border forbidden the faceless and to re-enter society. Even more, it grants him the radical freedom to be someone else, to be anyone else...to be everyone else. But at what price? If he must wear a mask has he really accomplished anything? Is he really being seen by others or is his `true' self as invisible as before--and just who is he, anyway? How does he choose his mask? Does a mask ultimately reveal or conceal? Which mask will his estranged wife be seduced by? And if she is seduced, has she been unfaithful? Has she betrayed him with himself? As he contemplates these labyrinthine questions, Abe's narrator comes to understand how even people with undamaged faces are also wearing a mask when they're with others. Is the face itself nothing but a mask made of flesh?
This eerie, thought-provoking novel operates on several different levels. But what makes it more than just another Jeckyll & Hyde tale of evil doubles, shadow-selves, and dual identities is the profound philosophical dialectic that Abe engages in throughout. A mystery, thriller, horror novel all in one, *The Face of Another* is a sophisticated meditation on that most enigmatic question of all: who exactly are we?
At times Abe's story drags, at other times his musings are difficult to follow, almost as if some vital connection between his observations had been lost in translation, and, therefore minus one-star, but, the last fifty pages or so are as powerful as anything you're likely to read. For the most part, *The Face of Another* is a riveting and disturbing work that, like Abe's classic *The Woman in the Dunes,* I won't soon--if ever--forget. You probably won't either.