It’s difficult to know where to start in talking about Kangaroo Notebook by Kōbō Abe. If I were to condense my impression into some blurbesque phrases, I’d say, a surreal journey, a dark interpretation on the border between life and death, imaginative, unlike anything I’ve read. If I were to stray away from cute phrases, then I might describe the novel in this way.
Kangaroo Notebook starts in a bland setting that many readers can identify.
“It should have turned out like any other morning.
I was munching on a crisp slice of toast, thickly coated with liver-and-celery pâté. I had one elbow pressed to the corner of an open newspaper; my upper body tilted slightly to the right. My eyes skipped here and there among the headlines as I sipped some strong coffee. I popped three tiny tomatoes into my mouth and squelched them together, for good health.
A tickling sensation ran up my shins. I rolled up on pajama leg and scratched. What felt like a thin layer of skin peeled off. Is it grime? I held it up to the light. It isn’t grime or skin. It’s scratchy, like dry beard bristle. Is it leg hair? Leg hair grazed by a flame would probably look like this, but scorched hair would give off a foul odor. I rolled up both pants legs and placed my feet on another chair, with my knees drawn up. There was no longer a single hair on my legs; if it weren’t for the dotlike pores, the skin would have been smooth as a boy’s. I had never had much hair, so I wasn’t too concerned. Besides, with my pants on, the area didn’t show.”
The scratchy area turns out to be “cleft-leaf radish sprouts” growing out of the narrator’s legs. From here the narrative departs from reality and enters a surreal landscape. Along the way, the narrator meets a recurring character he calls Damselfly. She seems to appear when he’s in need of help, and knows more than he does about what is happening.
After being treated at a dermatology clinic, the narrator leaves by a hospital bed he controls with his thoughts. Or, does the bed have a mind of its own? As the novel continues, the bed, much like Damselfly, returns when the narrator needs help. Oddities that follow include being towed to a mine, following an underground tunnel, which leads to a boat, fending off the collision of two squids (one of which is attached to the narrators neck like medical tubing) from exploding, drifting to the Riverbank of Sai (limbo/hell) where the Help Me! squad of demon-children sing and collect money, meeting his dead mother, staying briefly with Damselfly and her American friend Mr. Killer, who performs an intense massage move that sends the narrator back to the hospital, conspiring with patients to kill a man who is sick and annoying them, escaping the hospital and meeting up with a younger version of Damselfly or her lost sister at an abandoned train platform.
The novel ends with this on the last page.
“Excerpt from a newspaper article:
A corpse was found on the premises of a train station no longer in service. On the man’s shins were several slash marks that appeared to have been made by a razor. The wounds, evidently made with some hesitation, seemed to have been self-inflicted. It is unlikely that these were the cause of death. The incident is being investigated both as an accident and as a criminal case. Despite intensive efforts, the victim’s identity has not yet been established.”
Some questions I have is whether or not this is the narrator, Kōbō Abe’s inspiration for the story, or something in the paper that caught the narrator’s eye? Is the novel all in the narrator’s head while he’s having coffee and reading the paper? If you’ve read the novel, what do you think? How do you interpret the ending of Kangaroo Notebook? Personally, I like the idea that this article inspired the novel.