You can’t go home again—especially when you don’t know where home is.
In a scenario reminiscent of European contemporaries Wolfdietrich Schnurre and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, eminent Japanese novelist Abe (1924-93) imagines a liminal and forlorn compatriot who has grown up somewhere in Manchuria, the child of colonists who now, as Japan’s Asian empire crumbles into dust at the end of World War II, must somehow find his way to a homeland that is alien to him. As this slim novel, originally published in 1957, opens, Kuki Kyuzo, still a teenager but now without parents, is in the hands of not unfriendly Soviet occupiers in a kind of no-man’s land between Siberia, Mongolia, and China. He tucks away matches, a little food, a bottle of vodka to make good an escape. But from what, and to what? The months pass, with one Soviet emerging as a gruff guardian angel, though he refuses to let Kyuzo leave for Japan: “Outside there are fascists with bared teeth roaming about.” When China breaks out in civil war, the Soviets finally withdraw, and Kyuzo crosses into another frontier, now in the company of a multilingual “communications agent” of mixed ethnicity and shadowy background who declares himself “more like a newspaper reporter” than the spy Kyuzo figures him for. His new companion seems a godsend in some tough scrapes, but his motives are as murky as his identity. Though fearful that he’ll wind up like one of the unfortunate soldiers of whatever side whose insignia eventually come forth from “the bellies of wolves,” Kyuzo eventually finds his way onto a refugee ship out of B. Traven—but even so the wolves are still at his heels, so to speak, as if to suggest that the war and its torments will never end and the uprooted will never find a homeland after all.
With subtle echoes of a samurai classic, Abe’s autobiographical novel is a memorable portrait of statelessness, exile, and wandering.