Short Story Review: Kōbō Abe’s “The Flood” (1950, trans. 1989)

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Today I’m joined by Rachel S. Cordasco, the creator of the indispensable website and resource Speculative Fiction in Translation, for something a bit different!

We will both offer our reviews of one of Kōbō Abe’s first published speculative short stories, “The Flood” (1950). Over the next few months, we’ll post reviews of speculative fiction in translation from Romania, Chile, Austria, Poland, France, and the Netherlands. Depending on the story and our thoughts, I might also include our responses to each other’s review.

Also if you haven’t checked out Rachel’s website, you must. Not only does she review the global phenomena of speculative fiction but gathers lists of translated fiction by language. Also check out her reference monograph Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium (2021). In 2016, she contributed to my site reviews of three French SF stories in translation.

We read Kōbō Abe’s “The Flood” (1950) in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, ed. John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenberg (1989). Translated by Lane Dunlop. You can read it online here.

Now let’s get to our reviews!

Rachel S. Cordasco’s Review

A philosopher attempting to study the laws of the universe looks into the night sky through a telescope, but when he doesn’t see anything special, he turns the lens onto his own neighborhood. Then he sees something quite special—a poor laborer walking along and…liquefying.

Pretty soon, the lower classes are liquefying at an astonishing rate, but they’re not just turning into water and draining away. Rather, they seem to be forming some sort of collective liquid blob, sabotaging buildings and killing upper class people who try to take a drink. Amid this chaos and obviously worsening flood, the government and media proudly proclaim that absolutely nothing is wrong, what flood? There’s
no flood. But when scientists start liquefying and their attempts to experiment on the “water” can’t be carried out, everyone’s out of ideas.

Oh, except for Noah- yes, that Noah. He once again builds an Ark, loads all the animals onto it, and tries to set sail. The human liquid blob stops him, though, and that’s it for Noah.

The last image of the story is of a “glittering substance” crystallizing under water, “probably around the invisible core of the supersaturated liquid people.” Is this some sort of new evolution? Was this liquefaction driven by an alien invasion? Is this a commentary on pollution or radiation? Or perhaps this is an extended metaphor about the lower classes rising up to overtake the rich and powerful (given Abe’s embrace and then rejection of the Communist Party)?

Abe skewers the upper class, media, and government officials, as these people try to shape a narrative that is obviously, demonstrably untrue. Those who liquefy first seem to be those who lead simple lives, which perhaps allows them to form a collective more easily than those with complex jobs and a vested interest in individualism. The blob, though, soon flips the power dynamic, due to its sheer size.

The inclusion and inversion of the Noah story is fascinating, as if the author is signaling that, along with humanity, religion, culture, and history, too, are melting away and reforming into something else.


Joachim Boaz’s Review

3.5/5 (Good)

The Lens of an Honest Philosopher Sees….

A philosopher of the heavens turns his telescope on the Earth. His magnified eye follows a tired worker coming home after the “night shift at a factor” with ‘nothing in his head but fatigue” (22). His casual interest is transformed into fright when the worker “unexpectedly grew blurred” and melts into “a mass of fleshy liquid” (22). The liquified worker flowed into a pothole before somehow, in “defiance of the laws of hydrodynamics,” crawled out of it (22). The philosopher proclaims the coming of a great flood!

All bodies of knowledge weaken under the mass liquification. The science devolves into ludicrous confusion, the machines in factories suddenly stop, factory owners drown in the liquid, the religious, ready to build a new ark and repopulate society, are washed away, and the rich contract “hydrophobia” (24). Eventually, forced to acknowledge the change afflicting all, the politicians start to issue proclamations for the sake of proclamations (26). Newspapers admit the effects of the flood but ignore its causes. But the flood cannot be stopped.

An Explanation?

Without context I found it a challenge to pin down Abe’s position and purpose in writing “The Flood.” With that in mind, I tracked down a bit about his early writing career and political views that would flesh out the strange transformations of the story.1 After WWII, Abe left Manchuria for Tokyo to resume his medical studies and started writing in his final years of study. His life of hardship might have laid the the foundation for his interest in “the cause of revolution.”2 According to Mutsuko Motoyama, Abe’s affiliation with Hanada Kiyoteru’s avant-garde group Yuro non Kai had a stronger influence on him initially than the Japanese Communist party, which he joined in 1949 (and left in 1962).3 Hanada’s group wanted to unify surrealism and Marxism. In a Japan with traditional values undermined by the post-War occupation, Hanada and his followers, including Abe, wanted to craft a “new art” that depicted the changing world deploying both the real and unreal i.e. “a synthesis of opposites.”4 Abe’s early fiction puts Hanada’s ideas on art into textual action in which humanity is turned into another substance.

One of the notable features of the story is the inability of traditional institutions and forces to comprehend or respond to the societal transformation of the liquifying people. The viewer, representing old philosophical and political values, accidentally sees what has already started and cannot be stopped. Until the end, the newspapers report the effects and events of the flood but do not pause to understand its causes. The final sequence, the new ark to rescue the survivors and repopulated society with the old order, hammers home points that the old religious institutions and their ways of knowing will no longer have power. The mass mobilization of humanity, as a veritable liquid, breaks the Marxist historical cycles of class exploitation and oppression.

I think this story will mostly appeal to those interested in Abe’s political and intellectual development in the first moments of his writing career. I feel a bit out of my league identifying his exact political positions and its relation to the larger post-WWII Communist and avant-garde movement in Japan. Regardless, “The Flood” is a strange little gem in its telling.

Check out my favorite of Abe’s speculative works so far — Secret Rendezvous (1977, trans. 1979). I hope to include more Abe — perhaps his novel Inter Ice Age 4 (1959, trans. 1970), the first Japanese novel to be translated into English–on the site this year.

Notes


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