Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes: life – and sometimes literature – is an illusion…

“Repetition of the same patterns, they say, provides an effective form of protective coloring. If he were to melt into a life of simple repetition, there might possibly come a time when they could be quite unconscious of him” – Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (image courtesy Goodreads)

Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of those books that leaves one feeling as if one has read a textbook on how to combine schools of literary fiction of the 20th century into an amalgam – a brilliantly executed amalgam, but an amalgam nonetheless. One has the sense of oppression and confusion of a Kafka work like The Trial; the sense of determination to hold onto sanity in the face of absurdity like Camus’s The Plague; and the sense of existentialist grimness in a Sartre work like No Exit. (For good measure feel free to consider works by your favorite existentialist or absurdist author – Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter. et. al.)

This is not to say that the work is not engrossing (in a relentlessly depressing way) or that Abe is not a fine writer (he is). For me, however, this selection  from the 2015 reading list does not have the resonance of the earlier selection I read, The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari  Kawabata. That book engages us deeply in Japanese life as actually lived, especially in the years after WWII even as it engages profound questions of national and cultural guilt; Abe’s book is a nightmarish fairy tale set in a bizarre dystopia (yes, I know, dystopias are sooo cool – but I’ve made myself clear on my lack of enthusiasm for such settings as the stuff of serious literature) that posits its hero, the only named character in the book, as a victim of – name your 20th century angst and anxiety inducing trend in human behavior.

In other words, The Woman in the Dunes is a beautifully, complexly written put up job.

The story concerns a teacher and amateur entomologist, Niki Jumpei, who is tricked by villagers in a remote seaside village into entering a deep pit where he and a woman (known only as The Woman) are forced to shovel sand which the villagers lift from the pit via buckets on a pulley of some sort. The sand is sold illicitly to cement producers (its formula is not suitable for cement, but the villagers sell cheap and unscrupulous manufacturers always want a bargain, it seems). Why people are forced to work in the pits is never clearly explained (although there seems to be some sort of punishment involved for at least some of the workers, others like Niki Jumpei are simply impressed into service as diggers by the villagers).

Jumpei rails against his captivity, plots and plans his escape, escapes, is captured and returned to the pit. He also becomes both sexually and later romantically involved with The Woman, discovers a way to extract water from the sand, and eventually embraces his captivity as not only inescapable but (in what many readers will find disturbing) acceptable. At the end of the novel Abe tacks on two documents: the initial missing person report filed by Niki Jumpei’s mother, and a later document acknowledging him as legally dead. Abe’s point seems to be that the law has no interest in the reality of Niki Jumpei’s plight; it is only interested in what has often been called “the official story.” We only exist because of the paperwork attendant to us: driver’s license, birth certificate, death certificate, etc.

Yeah, okay, fine, whatever. This is not new stuff for anyone who has read those authors noted above.

I had long ago seen Hiroshi Teshigahara’s striking film of this novel, so I knew what to expect, I suppose. And I’ve read plenty of existential and absurdist literature (multiple works by all the authors I’ve mentioned). Still, I expected something more from Abe that I didn’t get. Something made me think that Abe would take these schools of literary work and run them through the cultural experience of one who had both grown up in Japanese culture with its profound influences from Shinto, Zen, and other sources as well as his personal life experience of having lived through one of the most turbulent periods of Japanese history and that what would come out would be more like what came out of Kawabata. Instead The Woman in the Dunes feels, as I said at the beginning of the essay, rather “textbook,” as if Abe had gone through say, a creative writing program (while I attended one myself, I have gone on record about their limitations). He’s got technique out the wazoo, but the work feels contrived: he’s saying a lot from the head, not enough from the heart.

Perhaps Abe himself realizes this limitation in his novel. He does offer us this:

…it was the castle, not the enemy, that was really like the wind. The single guard, like a withered tree in the wilderness, had stood guarding an illusion.

Ultimately, for me at least, The Woman in the Dunes is like that castle – a well guarded illusion that, upon examination, makes one feel as if one is trying to see the wind.

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