Alfred E. Knopf (in English), 1963, 241 pages
One of the premier Japanese novels of the twentieth century, The Women in the Dunes combines the essence of myth, suspense, and the existential novel. In a remote seaside village, Niki Jumpei, a teacher and amateur entomologist, is held captive with a young woman at the bottom of a vast sand pit where, Sisyphus-like, they are pressed into shoveling off the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten the village.
This is one of the most well-known Japanese literary novels to Westerners, at least before Haruki Murakami became the Japanese Stephen King. A lot of that probably has to do with the Cannes prize-winning 1964 film.
I like the more direct translation of the Japanese title (Suna no onna): "Sand woman." Because while The Woman in the Dunes sounds like something kinda gothic and kinda literary and magical, "Sand woman" conjures up images of an antlion or something, and I think that's a lot closer to what Kobo Abe was trying to convey. Suno no onna is (so Wikipedia tells me) an "existential novel," but it's also a horror story hiding behind an existential novel.
Niki Jumpei is your basic schlub civil servant, a schoolteacher whose hobby is collecting bugs and in his remaining spare time, reading about the properties of sand. On an entomological field trip, he stumbles (literally) across a seaside village that is almost buried among the sand dunes. When he asks for a place to stay overnight, the villagers direct him to the home of a local widow.
Once there, Jumpei finds out that the village has a sinister secret and they don't intend to let him go.
Now, if this were a Western novel, we'd expect some lurking horror: maybe something lurid and violent like cannibalism or incestuous orgies or maybe the villagers worship the Deep Ones.
This is, however, an existential novel, which means it's about the individual and his place in the universe. So no crazed bloodthirsty villagers here, no supernatural horrors, just a man trapped and made to shovel sand. At first he sees the widow as his enemy, though she is nothing but gracious and apologetic to him. They become lovers. Jumpei attempts to escape. And always the sand is everywhere, the sand is the oppressive, irresistible force crushing him.
His face was as stiff as starch, his breathing like a storm. His saliva tasted of scorched sugar... and such a terrible loss of energy. At least one glassful of water must have evaporated in perspiration. The woman arose sluggishly, keeping her head bent. Her sand-streaked face came to about the height of his eyes. Suddenly she blew her nose with her fingers and rubbed her hands with sand that she scooped up. Her trousers slipped down over her bending hips.
This kind of minute descriptive detail permeates the book, like sand. Every tiny observation about his environment, every stray thought. Jumpei spends a lot more time thinking, reflecting, sometimes wallowing, than doing. He's an annoyingly passive protagonist, at least until he tries to escape, and the ending is... well, not unexpected. But this is one of those books where the plot isn't the point, but the writing per se isn't really the point either. It's the details, the images and emotions evoked, and the symbolism. Although the one real action scene is surprisingly suspenseful.
And despite all that, this book was also genuinely creepy.
A movie made for black and white
The 1964 movie is perfect, and like the book, it has the superficial appearance of a horror movie. The ominous set-up, the pacing, the camera work (with lingering close-ups on sand-covered skin), all seem to be promising something shocking and horrible at any moment, but it never materializes.
Indeed, The Woman in the Dunes on film played up the sexual tension in the book, so most audiences seem to view it as a work of eroticism as much as an existential piece. And it does have a lot of tense, erotic moments. But it's also the sand that fills the screen, beautifully filmed, making it the elemental force it is. This is one of the few movies that is at least as good as the book.
Verdict: This is a thoughtful book and one to take your time with, even though it's pretty short. If you don't care to think about the symbolism and all the metaphors that the sand is representing, and what Kobo Abe is saying about his characters, and society, between the lines, then this might be one of those books that those not fond of literary fiction will dismiss as boring and kind of pointless. Which would be a shame, because The Woman in the Dunes is quite a gem, if definitely something you have to be in the right mood for.
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