The Woman in the Dunes (1962): Kobo Abe


This was an impulse loan from the library, which caught my eye because I’d started looking through the shelves alphabetically, hadn’t read it and thought the cover was rather elegant. I’m fond of Murakami‘s particular brand of magical realism and wondered whether this book, with its stylised and rather otherworldly story, might offer a similar experience. The short answer is that it didn’t. The longer answer is that I really wish I hadn’t bothered, and that I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m simply not cut out to read existential fiction.

Junpei Niki, usually described as just ‘the man’ or ‘he’, is an amateur entomologist with a particular interest in insects which make their home in a sandy environment. He’s also fascinated by sand itself: this finely-ground substance is apparently innocuous and yet, in its inexorable advance across the face of the planet, destroys everything in its path. He takes a few days’ holiday from his job as a school-teacher and sets out for the coastal dunes, where he searches for insects hoping to discover some new strain or species.

Losing track of time, he realises that he has missed the return bus, but there is a small village nearby – apparently a fishing village – where the inhabitants offer him a place to stay. The village is already in the process of being swallowed by the dunes, which tower up over the houses, some of which are already half-buried at the bottom of deep pits, dug out as a last resort against the encroaching sands. The man is lowered into one of these pits, where he is welcomed by a woman who has space for him to stay. He has only been there a few minutes before he realises the curse of living in such a place: sand drifts through the roof timbers, fills the air and gets into his eyes, his food, his water. Anything that remains still becomes covered in a film of sand. This is a place where humanity is in the midst of a primal and bitter war against nature, doomed to failure.

But the worst is yet to come. Spoilers follow, so if you think there’s any chance of you reading the book, do be careful. When the man awakes the following morning he discovers that the rope ladder which led down into the pit the night before has been removed. At first he believes this is an oversight, but it rapidly becomes clear that he is a prisoner. His task is to help the woman, every night when the temperature is bearable, sweep up the encroaching sand around the house and send it up in buckets to the teams of villagers on the surface. It is a task of Sisyphean magnitude and pointlessness and at first the man rebels, until he realises that the villagers have the upper hand, for they control access to the only supply of water.

And what of the woman? Is she an accomplice of the villagers, the man’s gaoler, a fellow prisoner longing to escape, or one who has accepted this as her appropriate position in life? The man’s attitude to his imprisonment becomes bound up with his relationship with the woman, and yet even this doesn’t mean that we grow to understand either of the characters as rounded people. They are little better than archetypes, Everyman and Everywoman enacting a drama for which neither of them has any real spirit. Even when their enforced companionship acquires a sexual element, it is devoid of all emotion beyond a mechanical need.

Eventually the man concocts a plan to escape – a plan that only allows for his escape, mind you, not that of the woman, whom he still sees as one of the others. But all does not go to plan. And the book ends on the question of whether, with time, the man will lose all effort to try to escape again; whether he will choose to be happy with the dim shadows of a life rather than seeking out the real life he knows exists (it’s like Plato’s Cave all over again). It’s similar in feel to the end of 1984, when Winston accepts the propaganda of the state and loses the will to fight it. Here, like the woman before him, the man shows signs of internalising the conviction that this is all the meaning there is to his life.

So what is the moral? There are several possibilities. Our lives are futile and, though we may wish to escape them, we grow to love our familiar surroundings too much to make that break for freedom. Society makes workers of us all, turning us into little more than slaves for the public good. If a man is sufficiently downtrodden he will lose the will to fight. A man may keep his independence of mind at the beginning of a period of imprisonment, but all too soon he succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome. Is it an allegory of life and death, freedom and imprisonment, the working and the ruling classes? But where in the story is the heart or humanity that should make me care about any of this?

I do not have the temperament to read a book like this and feel anything but wild frustration. Perhaps, if I’d read it as a pretentious fifteen-year-old, I would have found some profound simmering truths about the pointlessness of life – but one can afford to be superior in that way at fifteen. Now I find that I grow too fond of life, too absorbed by its variety and beauty and appealing quirks, to find anything satisfying in existentialism.

I understand of course that this is a particularly subjective post and that others, who have more appreciation of existentialism as an art form, will probably consider this book a minimalist masterpiece. So in all fairness you should consider their views as well before deciding whether this is the kind of thing that might appeal to you. It’s certainly considered a Japanese classic. There is a 1964 film, too, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, but I’m afraid I won’t go out of my way to watch it.

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