It is not surprising that readers, even if they are devout fans of Kōbō Abe, don’t take to The Face of Another in the same manner as The Woman in the Dunes or some of his other novels. It may be because of the uncomfortable feeling a reader gets being stuck in the narrator’s head for an entire novel (much like Camus’ The Stranger). The story is built on the premise of a wife finding her husband’s notebooks which are filled with solipsistic meanderings, repeated excursuses, counter-arguments directed at her, and endless musings about identity and self. But you can forgive the man — after all, he’s had his face horribly scarred and burned in a laboratory fire. He is isolated and alone, even from his wife. But he has a plan, a carefully schemed revenge, and it starts with getting a new face. Thus, Abe takes us into fascinating exploration of identity and self.
The scientist, who is as scarred psychologically as physically, has it in for his wife. The main charge being that she no longer is sexually attracted to him, in spite of her continued devotion. We find out his plans soon enough — to construct a new face for himself out of life-like artificial skin. So much of his journal is absorbed in the beginning with this quest for a new face. Like Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, we follow him step-by-step, the meticulous planning and experimenting until finally we have the entrance of The Mask. The novel then shifts into an identity tug-of-war, The Mask becoming a persona, a separate entity that wrestles with the narrator for control of the same body. And yet, and this is the genius of the book, in spite of the scientist’s new found freedom (no longer being forced to go about in bandages like Claude Rains), he struggles to act. There is an impotence, not dissimilar to his inability to provide sexual pleasure to his wife, that afflicts the narrator. So rather than running amok in his new identity, he struggles to even begin his plan. As his wife later states, “All you could manage was to wander through the streets and write long, never-ending confessions, like a snake with its tail in its mouth.” This leads to, I think, the frustration of some readers with the book. They often feel as if the novel loses its way during these chapters. But the point, perhaps, is that even with this new entity, The Mask, the narrator is still himself, still struggling inside his own skin. His identity can change, but it doesn’t give him the freedom he craves.
The pace picks up in the final third of the book and rewards the steadfast readers who stuck with the story. When the Mask finally puts the scheme into action, things only get worse for the narrator. His struggle to regain himself, absurdly through the actions of the Mask, becomes a folly. In the end, the tables are turned on the scientist. Abe does this cleverly, even turning the narrator into a witness to his own defeat, watching the Mask carry out the scheme that leads to a less-than-desired result. The point Abe leaves us with is that while our faces are an important part of our identity, they are not all.
One note: if you’re even intrigued by the story, do check out the excellent film adaptation by Hiroshi Teshigahara with Tatsuya Nakadai doing a stellar job as the scientist.