“Beasts Head for Home” by Abe Kobo

Japanese awaiting repatriation, from LIFE magazine Japanese awaiting repatriation, from LIFE magazine

When the end came, it came quickly and, for most of the Japanese inhabitants of occupied Manchuria, unexpectedly. Kiku Kyuzo, protagonist of Beasts Head for Home, was of one of the great many Japanese left behind when Manchuria fell to the Soviet Army in August 1945.

Accounts, fictionalized or otherwise, of this period seem, at least in English, rarer than they ought to be. This 1957 novel, available in English for the first time in a gripping, staccato translation from Richard F Calichman, goes some way to filling this hole. Author Abe Kobo (or Kobo Abe as he is more commonly known in English) grew up Shenyang; the result is a work of considerable verisimilitude.

As riveting and as unforgiving as the frigid Civil War wilderness in which it is set.

Kyuzo is a teenager when Soviet forces arrive. His already widowed mother was accidentally, and ultimately fatally, wounded by a stray bullet; in caring for her, Kyuzo is left behind while the other Japanese relocate. After her death and improvised burial soon after, Kyozu is adopted by a pair of minutely-observed Soviet soldiers for whom he becomes a sort of servant.

Two years later—as the novel opens—he escapes, intending to head south for repatriation to a Japan he has never known and only “imagined from his textbooks”. The Russians catch up with him hiding out in a freight car but rather than taking him back, give him a laissez-passer and a wad of red military currency before sending him on his way. But Kyuzo’s journey is ill-fated: his train is intercepted and derailed. Kyozu falls in with a multilingual renegade of undetermined ethnicity, sometimes known as Wang and at other times as Ko, who might be the sort of “newspaper reporter” he claims to be, or the spy Kyozu suspects, or perhaps a drug dealer. Together they make their way south through a frigid winter wilderness during the height of the Chinese Civil War. The bulk of the book documents this terrible, terrifying journey filled with cold, hunger, pain, fear, bullets, betrayal, drugs and danger.


Beasts Head for Home, Abe Kobo, Richard F Calichman (trans)
Beasts Head for Home, Abe Kobo, Richard F Calichman (trans)

Abe’s language is, at least in the translation by Richard F Calichman (who also edited The Frontier Within, a collection of Abe’s essays), both sparse and pointed. A veneer of matter-of-factness tries and of course fails to conceal the turbulence and tension in the narrative.

I am myself only familiar with one other Abe novel, The Ruined Map, from which one might conclude that Abe’s fortes were crime fiction with elements of surrealism. Beasts Head for Home, however riveting, is almost unrelentingly brutal, and was unexpected.

The introduction, presumably penned by the translator (although this isn’t entirely clear), is a rather detailed literary discussion of the work which argues that in Beasts Head for Home, Abe is “reconceiving the notion of border” and its relationship to “home”. This may well be true—and certainly, the novel deals not just with the fluidity of actual physical borders, but also in matters of identities real and imagined—but it seems overly complex for the lay reader who may instead find in Beasts Head for Home a dose of existentialism. Although Ko betrays him, Kyozu makes it to a ship and to the shores of Japan, only to find he is unable to disembark: all was for naught. First Ko and then Kyozu, buffeted by fate, become the beasts of the title.

This is a book in which good and evil seem hard to disentangle. Nominal enemies may befriend, while allies and compatriots may betray. The protagonists’ humanity may overcome certain obstacles only to be stripped away by others. Things are, Abe seems to be saying, the way they are.

Beasts Head for Home is as riveting and as unforgiving as the frigid Civil War wilderness in which it is set. However, if there is a silver lining of a message in the dark cloud of this unhappy book in which Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Nationalist and Communist Chinese all mix, it is perhaps that enmities between peoples are all pointless in light of the broader vagaries of fate. Kyozu’s post-War Japanese identity may be central to him, but for others, it seems more a fact of life than a determinant of explicit consequences.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.