What greater metaphor for the existential crisis than Kobo Abe’s novel The Woman in the Dunes? After having watched a number of films by Hiroshi Teshigahara (each of which were adopted from Abe’s novels — the most recent one being The Face of Another) I sought out a number of Abe’s books. I thought that the film The Face of Another was better than the book, though The Woman in the Dunes is not only an excellent film, but it happens to be an excellent novel as well. In fact, one of the best I’ve read.
Abe’s prose (translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders) is spare, poetic, and disciplined. The story involves a man (Niki Jumpei) who wanders into the desert in search of insects — he is an amateur etymologist, and so he stumbles upon a group of men who offer him a night stay in a woman’s house who happens to be located at the bottom of a giant sand dune. Since there is nowhere else for him to go, the man agrees, but he soon learns he was tricked. The woman’s home is falling apart, and each night she is forced to shovel sand, lest her home will become buried by it. There is so much sand that life has to be adjusted accordingly. She is dependent upon receiving “rations” which are delivered via way of an above ladder. Those from above have control of both their lives, and the man learns quickly that if he wants to receive his share of water, he must learn to cooperate.
The unnamed woman claims to have been married once before, but that her husband and child were killed in a sandstorm. Abe sketches her character very well, for she comes across as excessively passive, strange, and whenever the man mentions his wish to escape, she either avoids the comment all together or answers with benign, open ended questions. When he asks why she stays, she doesn’t really give an answer, save for the fact that it is “cheaper” for the village if she stays to shovel the sand. She also mentions having some attachment due to the deaths of her husband and child, but when the man questions why she doesn’t crave freedom, she merely tells him there is nothing on the outside for her. Then he proposes the notion that she’d have the freedom to at least “walk around,” but the woman answers him strangely, questioning what would be the point to just walking around with no reason for it? She answers this while she is in the middle of shoveling buckets of sand that keep pouring down into the pit.
There are a number of times the man plans his escape, thinking of ways in which he can outsmart those around him — from pretending to be sick, to tying the woman up, to eventually creating his own rope and pulling himself out of the dune, only to then be brought back by the villagers after having been chased by wild dogs and falling into a giant pit of quicksand. The narrative moves quickly, and the conversations and scenes never get repetitive. The book, while on the short side, is the perfect length.
Eventually the man and woman engage in sex, and one can’t be sure if it is due to loneliness or just boredom, though she seems to crave him and he more or less is just going though the motions. And just to give a sample of Abe’s prose, here is his description of the man’s ejaculation into the woman:
“Finally a white flash squeezed his writhing body dry…a meteoric swarm spurted out, piercing the limitless darkness…rusty, orange-colored stars…an alkaline chorus.”
Abe manages to make a familiar event and turn it poetic, all the while avoiding excessive sentimentality. The Woman in the Dunes is a novel about many things: one’s purpose, freedom and imprisonment, and really, what is it that is imprisoning us? Surprisingly, by the end of the tale, the man is not in any rush to escape, for he has become accustomed to his way of life. This sort of realization puts in mind the idea of larger themes both in life and in art: how many of us get the chance to make a change but can’t, due to circumstances beyond our control? And, furthermore, once that opportunity for change does arise, how often is it that we’ve grown accustom to our situation, and more or less continue to put off making that needed change until it is too late?
By the end, we learn that the man has been missing on the outside for seven years. There are no real answers in the book — much is left unexplained and ambiguous for that very reason. When the man asks the woman why she, or anyone, would want to live this way, the woman has no answer to give him. She is someone who has grown complacent with her situation, as many in life do, and even the idea of wanting to escape or crave something greater or higher, simply does not occur to her. And the man, eventually, falls into this very trap, though the ironic thing is that should he continue to put off his escape, it is his own mind that has become the trap, not merely the sand that’s around him.
The Woman in the Dunes is a flat out great novel. The film is also great, but both the book and film offer their own fulfilling experience. Abe has certainly carved his niche along side the likes of Kafka and Beckett with this one.