"PEOPLE DISAPPEAR every day," says the nameless female character played by Maria Schneider in Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 film, The Passenger .

"Whenever they leave the room," replies the film's central character, Locke, played by Jack Nicholson. Antonioni's use of a suspense melodrama to carry deep existential themes worked extremely well in that film, but the idea was not original. The tradition goes back to Sartre and Camus and, it could be argued, even to Kafka. Kobo Abe's new novel continues that tradition.

The protagonist in this instance is a 32-year-old sporting-goods salesman, whose existential quest begins immediately after an ambulance arrives in the middle of the night and takes away his wife. Needless to say, in keeping with the conventions of this kind of fiction, no one has called for an ambulance, and it does not occur to the salesman to question its arrival or his wife's departure until it is too late. The wife disappears, and the salesman goes in search of her. His pursuit takes him to a huge and somewhat amorphous hospital, where interviews with various individuals (the hospital's assistant director, the guard who admitted the wife as a patient, the chief of security, the assistant director's secretary and others) all lead him nowhere. Instead, he is drawn into a world where displacement behavior is the norm and sexual disorder -- "traumatic interpersonal relations neurosis" -- is rampant. It is a place where staff members and patients, like prisoners and their jailers, have more in common with each other than they do with anyone or anything in the world outside.

None of the characters is named. The salesman is identified as code number M-73F, and we know very little about him beyond what we learn at the start: that he once worked as a nude model; that he smokes less than 10 cigarettes a day; that his hobby is tinkering with machines. There is one character, called "the horse," who seems to control a great deal of the action, much as an espionage chief does in a spy novel, but the plot, in this respect, is quite incoherent. Fortunately, the novel does not depend on plot for its momentum. It depends much more on the ever-expanding circles of the salesman's nightmarish experience, as Abe propels his main character to the outer perimeters of his existence, where he is confronted with the terrifying absurdity of his life.

Abe allows himself to indulge in some fine, evocative writing. Here is a brief example: "The crumbling of his relationship to the outer world, based formerly on his sense of sight, brought on a dizziness like that caused by fear of heights. A time mosaic; moments that exist simultaneously, yet were impossible to experience simultaneously. It was like utter darkness."

Sometimes the writing is more impressionistic, sometimes it is much plainer, but Abe's basic vision is clear throughout: The hospital is a metaphor for modern Japanese life, in which disease is a fundamental condition.

Kobo Abe is one of the few modern Japanese novelists who have achieved great success in the West. Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima were his two main rivals in that domain, until their deaths (Kawabata died in 1972, Mishima in 1970, both by suicide). It is possible to view Kawabata as having represented traditional Japanese life in his work, and Mishima as having represented what he saw as the decay of that life, partly due to Western influence. Kobo Abe, certainly in his current fiction, can be seen as illustrating the full-scale effect of Western influence on Japanese life. The world depicted in Secret Rendezvous is as similar to a severely distorted picture of American urban life as it is to anything we might associate with Japan. In this respect it is far removed from the world of the novel with which Abe first achieved widespread recognition (in 1946), The Woman in the Dunes . This also was the story of a disappearance, but the world it portrayed -- a man trapped in a sandpit with a young widow who has no desire to leave, but wants to keep the man there with her -- was much more elemental, both literally and psychologically. Abe's themes, however, remain universal. It is always in the unfathomable depths of the human psyche, rather than in the social fluctuations and pressures he describes, that he locates the causes of our absurdities and our failures.

Rendered into precise and very readable English by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Secret Rendezvous takes the form of notes and diaries. The form has resonance in Japanese literature: It goes back to the 10th century and The Pillow Book Of Sei Shonagon . Abe's narrative style, though, is very modernistic and much closer to that of certain auteurs of the cinema (Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, and Wim Wenders, for example), than to most writers'. (Hiroshi Teshigahara's film version of The Woman in the Dunes added considerably to the book's success.)

Secret Rendezvous does have some weaknesses: Minor characters tend to blur into one another; the geography of the hospital is vaguely defined; action sequences are slightly confused. We are more aware of the hospital as an existential metaphor than we are of it as a physical entity. Otherwise, Secret Rendezvous is very convincing. There is passion in it and a great deal of very bleak humor. Abe's view of things is not a pretty one, but it is well worth our attention.