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.