Review: The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

Kobo Abe The Woman in the Dunes The Woman in the Dunes [1962] – ★★★★★

In this deceptively simple tale, Kobo Abe paints a quietly disturbing picture of one man who finds himself in an unusual situation when he ventures to look for insects in sand dunes. The man, Niki Jumpei, misses his last bus home upon finishing his one day trip to the dunes, and some local villagers do him a favour and put him up for one night at one woman’s eccentric dwelling at the bottom of a sand pit (the only exit is by a long rope to reach the surface). Jumpei is an entomologist and a school-teacher, a man of science and reason, but nothing could prepare for him for what he is about to experience in his new strange dwelling (which has more complex arrangements that he has ever imagined). But, he will only be there for one night; right? or will he be? The man soon discovers that his innocent trip to the outskirts of one village is about to take a very absurd and horrific turn. The plot may be straightforward, but the merit of this novel still lies in the subtleties and (horrific) realisations – in the consequences which are revealed slowly to the reader (as well as to the character), enhancing the suspense and the final impact. The reader will suspend disbelief when the main character meets a woman and a community he never imagined existed, which prompts him to meditate on the meaning of life, relationships and the human nature. The Woman in the Dunes is Kobo Abe’s existentialist masterpiece.

It is best to start reading The Woman in the Dunes without knowing too much of its plot or even without reading the synopsis. There is not much “action” in the novel, and, rather, the focus is on the unusual situation in which the main character finds himself in, on his reaction to it and on his relationship with another occupant of his new sandy dwelling – a very eccentric woman. Firstly, what can be more mundane than a man taking a trip to sand dunes to collect some insect samples? What possibly can go wrong? And yet, something is not quite right. Maybe it is the arrangement of the house he is in or maybe it is the strange behaviour of this nomadic-appearing woman-owner. The man soon has his doubts and his imagination takes giant leaps because of his close proximity to one lonely woman. Can the man control his natural instincts and take the situation under control? After all, much work is needed around the house to clear it from the accumulating sand if they are not to suffocate beneath it. The story soon gains its momentum, which comes from the realisation of the main character’s predicament. When the man realises his true situation, it is already too late.

The Woman in the Dunes is an existentialist novel with an introspective, sympathetic main character. There are themes here of the possible meaning of futile work and the battle with the inevitable. Upon arriving and settling in his new dwelling in sand dunes, Jumpei is forced to fight both the absurdities of the house’s “arrangement” and of his new existence. He is a living and breathing human being who would like to voice his desires and despairs, but he is being confronted with “a silent and indifferent…universe (or a community at large)”. There are references in the novel to a “meaningless existence” [Kobo Abe, 1962: 94] and to the idea that “work seem[s] fundamental for man, something which enable[s] him to endure the aimless flight of time” [Kobo Abe, 1962: 158]. Since Niki Jumpei is a man of science, it is interesting to see how he tries to “rationalise” the “absurd” that he is facing, the “claustrophobia” all around him and his inability to escape the position he willing led himself into.

When Niki Jumpei starts to live with the woman in her hut he immediately forms a rather curious relationship with her. If at first he does not feel attracted to someone who is so odd and unlike him, Jumpei also soon notices that his male instincts take an upper hand in the matter and erotic images start to flood his brain: “Yet, in spite of himself something not to be denied was welling up in his veins. The sand which clung to his skin was seeping into his veins and, from the inside, undermining his resistance” [Kobo Abe, 1962: 34]. At this point, Kobe underlines that Jumpei and the woman are close to the state of nature, and the book only refers to them from then on as “the man” and “the woman”, never their first names, as though they are now devoid of their social (given at birth) identities and they truly become just “the man” and “the woman” to themselves and others. The man is contrasted with the woman along the lines that he represents “science” and “rationality”, coming from a civilised society, and she represents “irrationality”, instinctive behaviour and “primitive” style of living. The two concepts/ characters go head-to-head in a confined space. The curious thing is that if the man in the story longs for water, the woman is portrayed as being comfortable with sand, which now reminds of the reversal of the male and female “roles” in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient [1992], where it was the woman that loved water and bathing, while the man belonged to deserts and sands. In both novels, the two try to adapt to each other, being some kind of explorers on the voyage to uncover lands, but probably finding something more profound and dearer to them within themselves rather than outside.

The danger and horror in The Woman in the Dunes appears at first barely perceivable, then unbelievable and then almost too real. Like in masterful Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura, where a village played the main character role, in The Woman in the Dunes, it is sand that takes the central stage. Sand is everywhere in the tale – first it is a joy for the man who likes to think about different properties of the matter, then it is a surprise to him, and then, finally, – sand becomes an enemy. Sand is a menace which is ever-present and whose continuity and dangerous pressure is unrelenting and merciless. Sand stands for something formless and ever-moving, like time. It is through sand that the author injects a sense of complete claustrophobia into his story: there is a feeling that the “normal…. world [is] outside” of the woman’s hut [Kobo Abe, 1962: 82] and that something unusual is going on in the sand pit where our character is confined. The fear of sand is something that our main character learns the hard way: “sand, which didn’t even have a form of its own – other than the mean 1/8-mm, diameter. Yet not a single thing could stand against this shapeless, destructive power” [Kobo Abe, 1962: 31].

Kobo Abe’s story has certain philosophical depth to it, making it strangely contemplative, despite its simple premise. The “hidden”, unexpected and uncertain horror and danger, the claustrophobia, the suspense – Kobo Abe slowly lets us face, through the character, the unimaginable nightmare and we will not even realise we are facing it until we are right inside of it. In this way, The Woman in the Dunes is an exhilarating and unforgettable read.


20 thoughts on “Review: The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

  1. Interesting book. Your review makes it sound fascinating. The way you describe it reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing style. I’ll have to check this book out, especially since it’s so short.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will be interested to know your opinion on this book. I love existentialist fiction – books that in one way or another touch on the philosophy of existentialism and that may explain why I loved this book so much. You are also right about Kazuo Ishiguro. All Japanese or Japanese-books inspired literature have things in common, sometimes it is a simple plot that actually slowly reveals a lot of depth and complexity.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice review. One of my favourite works by any Japanese writer. The ending is so calm on the surface and yet it carries devastating truths about the interrelation between freedom and confinement, and the invisible shackles that tie a man to a certain kind of reality or material condition.

    On another note, I once read in a interview with Haruki Murakami that Kobo Abe is his most favourite Japanese writer (And Kenzaburo Oe his least favourite!).

    Liked by 1 person

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