‘An Irrelevant Death’ by Kōbō Abe, trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter

Something about the corpse was vaguely irritating. Although perfectly still, it gave an impression of subtle but incessant movement, rather like the hands of a clock. Probably this was because of the way it was lying. It had an artificially posed look, like snapshots of dancers in midleap.

Abe is up there with Kafka as one of the great writers of 20th-century existential horror. His work exists in that terrifying sweet spot where the mythic and the mysterious manifest absurdly in the modern world. David Remnick wrote of Abe’s writing, “There are no samurai warriors, as in Mishima, no tea ceremonies, as in Kawabata.” Abe told Remnick, “I get a little tired of hearing about tea ceremonies. I think tea ceremonies are for tourist brochures and the propaganda put out by Japan Air Lines.” Instead, Abe gives us ghosts and corpses, queer disappearances and Sisyphean tasks, metamorphosis and alienation, overwhelming bureaucracy and deteriorating ipseity. In ‘An Irrelevant Death,’ a man comes home from work to find a dead body in his apartment. The act of locking the door behind him sets off a series of thoughts and actions that progress naturally, if horrifyingly, toward a conclusion that may or may not actually be a conclusion. 

First published in 1961 and collected in 1964, with the Carpenter translation first published in the Abe collection Beyond the Curve, 1991, Kodansha USA

‘The Magic Chalk’ by Abe Kōbō, translated by Alison Kibrick

I read this story years and years ago when I first lived in Japan. I haven’t re-read it since, but I remember it blew my socks off. A guy finds a piece of magic chalk and draws a door to another universe on his apartment wall. A bit like that cartoon Penny Crayon.

First published in Japanese 1950. Collected in The Shōwa Anthology: Modern Japanese Short Stories, Kodansha 1992. Available to read online here