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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Face of Another

Abe Kobo

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To purchase The Face of Another

Title: The Face of Another
Author: Abe Kobo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1964 (Eng. 1966)
Length: 237 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Face of Another - US
The Face of Another - UK
The Face of Another - Canada
The Face of Another - India
La Face d'un autre - France
Das Gesicht des Anderen - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: 他人の顔
  • Translated by E. Dale Saunders
  • Made into a film in 1966, directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit heavy on the philosophizing, but quite compelling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 10/1966 Phoebe Adams
The Japan Times . 7/4/2018 Damian Flanagan
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/9/1966 Thomas Lask

  From the Reviews:
  • "These are interesting concepts, but are often laboriously strung out, leaving you wishing that they were more intensely conveyed. But, in an age in which the politics of identity attract such heated passions, this contemplation of the interaction between personality and appearance suddenly seems strikingly prescient and topical." - Damian Flanagan, The Japan Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Face of Another records his story in a series of notebooks. A scientist, he has keloid scars covering his entire face as the result of a terrible laboratory accident, an explosion of liquid oxygen. His loss of face -- which is what it essentially amounts to -- has become defining. He now walks around with his face entirely bandaged. And his relationship with his wife has suffered because of his disfigurement as well.
       With no hope of a medical cure, he decides to make a mask -- one so life-like that it is indistinguishable from a real face. He's almost the typical mad scientist in his obsession once he starts on the project, working in a small apartment he rents. His colleagues criticise him as "more of a technician than a scientist", but that serves him well here. He works intently for months, relating the technical difficulties the undertaking poses, as well as the choices that have to be made -- including that of choosing the visage he wants to present to the outside world.
       The Face of Another is very introspective novel, as the narrator constantly has to face what his loss of face means:

I can hardly believe that the face is so important to a man's existence. A man's worth should be gauged by the content of his work; possibly the convolutions of the surface of the brain have something to do with it, but his face certainly does not. If the loss of a face can cause conspicuous change in the scale of evaluation, it may well be owing to a fundamental emptiness of content.
       Questions of identity and how the world sees one are dissected and considered from a variety of angles. And it gets more interesting when he finally finishes the mask, in which he places extraordinarily high hopes:
Thanks to the mask, everything would change completely. It was not only me; the world itself would appear in completely new garb.
       And it's with that attitude that he faces the world:
     Well, let's go out ! Let's go into a new world, someone else's world, through someone else's face.
       He's obviously someone who was never completely comfortable in his own skin; the mask allows him to be an anonymous everyman -- or an interchangeable invisible man. The mask gives him a new sort of freedom -- but he also finds that it takes on what amounts to a life of its own. The freedom and potential it offers are exhilarating, but he is also wary of them.
       He spins out fantasies of all that might be possible, including committing a variety of crimes. Among the most amusing sections are when he allows his imagination to run wild with the idea of mass-producing his masks and the havoc that would create, as well as the new laws that might be instituted (copyright protection extended to the faces of famous actors and the like, etc.)
       The notebooks are written to his wife, and they are a sort of confession: what he eventually sets his mind on is to seduce his wife, in his new guise, without letting on who he actually is. The seduction (which is also a betrayal) is what the novel builds to -- though his apparent initial success, easily achieved, turns out not to quite be everything he thinks.
       The mask is a hell of a metaphor, of course, and Abe milks it for all it is worth. With Marginalia and Excursus-notes elaborating on the narrative, he even takes it a few levels deeper, making for an existential-speculative work heavy on the philosophizing. But it is cleverly tied into the action: not that much happens, but Abe does build considerable suspense as to how things will play out.
       Things don't turn out quite as he had expected:
I had made the mask for the purpose of recovering myself. But it had wilfully escaped from me and, taking great pleasure in its evasion, had become defiant
       Abe's lessons aren't Frankenstein-obvious, but it is a fascinating novel built around identity-issues
       In a time when life-like face-masks are no longer unthinkable, and where the first face-transplants have been undertaken, Abe's novel doesn't read quite as convincingly any longer, but many of the issues he raises, specifically regarding identity and the extent to which how we see (and relate) to the world depends on how it sees us, are still as relevant as ever. The translation feels a bit wooden, but it doesn't work too badly, given the narrator's voice and attitude. Worthwhile.

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The Face of Another: Reviews: Tanin no kao - the film: Abe Kobo: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Abe Kobo (安部 公房) lived 1924 to 1993.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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