BOOK REVIEW: Revisiting Abe’s Classic in the Sand

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The Woman In The Dunes
by Kobo Abe
Vintage International
241 pages, $14.95

By JOHN F. MATSUYA
RAFU CONTRIBUTOR

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Author Kobo Abe’s 1962 classic “The Woman in the Dunes” is akin to a weekend excursion to the beach. Make no mistake; this isn’t light beach reading fare. It is simultaneously a taut, suspense driven thriller, a psychological reflection of one man’s emotional regression, and a metaphor on modern society. Abe’s novel might veer on the strange side, but he deftly guides the reader towing the fine line between narrative and psychosis.

Jumpei Niki, bored with his job as a teacher, takes a holiday to a seaside village to indulge in his hobby as an entomologist. He digs and sifts through the sand in hopes of finding a new species and being immortalized (even if on a small niche scale) in an encyclopedia of insects. Abe does not shy away from describing the minutiae of the sand; In his hands, it becomes more than an element. It becomes an elemental god, an omnipresent character constantly shifting from being a helpful or hurtful form.

When an insect captures Jumpei’s interest, he traverses through the hilly shore until he finds an odd village. Cliffs seem to rise around the houses, like Petra in Jordan. Needing a place to stay for the night, Jumpei accepts the offer of the villagers. They direct him to a small house at the bottom of a high dune with a woman. The next morning, he finds that they will not allow him to leave.

Jumpei’s journey becomes a nightmarish struggle for survival as he is held hostage by the villagers. The woman, anomalously, seems to have accepted her life as a digger–a task that the villagers expect Jumpei to undertake as well. The mundane task of shoveling the sand seems useless, as Jumpei protests, and schemes to find a way back to his “boring” existence. His only companion amidst the towers of sand, a strange woman, who is resigned to her existence.

In such a monolithic setting (a dune), the descriptions could quickly become repetitive, however, Abe is a master at drawing out the moment. Jumpei’s entrapment is communicated by the sometime monotonous pages of inner dialogue—don’t let that scare you. It is part of the author’s strategy and technique to lull the reader in the same sense of routine as the prisoner, only to shatter the sense of security with plot twists and complications. Abe captures the unease in Jumpei’s futile task and expertly transfers that same unease to his audience.

Jumpei’s seemingly petty state seems to be much more than a task of digging and re-digging. It is a metaphor, questioning his very existence.

Unhappy in his repetitive nine-to-five, the teacher goes for a quiet retreat, only to find himself locked in an even worse routine. Abe questions the reality of a soulless occupation, and what one sacrifices to fit into the norms of society.

Or does he? The final pages of “The Woman in the Dunes” may suggest a different fate for our protagonist. Abe’s skill as a writer parallels his skill as a juggler, as he is able to craft a somewhat ambiguous meaning to Jumpei’s troubles and resolutions. Does the metaphor attack the status quo of the nameless bourgeois drone? Or does it encourage that same drone to embrace the ever shifting sands and the nuances of his environment? Abe leaves the answer open ended.

Jumpei Niki (Eiji Okada) discovers the futility of digging in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film adaptation of Woman in the Dunes.

Woman in the Dunes was also made into a film in 1964 (starring Eiji Okada, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, with a screenplay written by Abe), garnering such accolades as the Cannes Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize, Best Foreign Language and Best Director nominations from the Academy. The story is simple, yet poetic and recalls stories such as James Dickey’s Deliverance and The Wicker Man a film by Robin Hardy; a narative of an outsider’s interaction in a strange, isolated, community. But under the layers of plot and action, there is a social metaphor, commenting on the role of an individual within society.

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