The Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna – “Sand Woman”) is a novel by celebrated Japanese author, Kōbō Abe. Coming in at under 200 pages, The Woman in the Dunes is a novella that proves brevity is no boundary for depth of expression and an exploration of some oftentimes quite dark existential philosophies.
When it was first published in 1962, The Woman in the Dunes won the prestigious Yomiuri Prize, a Japanese literary award. Since then it has gone on to be regarded as a classic of Japanese literature, translated into twenty languages, and in 1964 was adapted into a celebrated and award winning film, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.
It often seems all too easy to describe a story as “Kafkaesque” – and there are some that vehemently deny the label because of that. In the case of The Woman in the Dunes however, the term is apt. Like a lot of Franz Kafka’s work, The Woman in the Dunes uses a sense of menace and isolation to create a quite bizarre, confusing and quite frightening situation for a character who is relatively straightforward in an Every Person sense.
The story is a deceptively simple one. After spending the day scouring sand dunes on a remote beach for insect specimens, entomologist, Nicki Jumpei – known throughout most of the novel as “The Man” – is forced to spend the night in the village. The strange villagers offer him shelter in a dilapidated house at the bottom of a deep, well like hole which he must share with a curious woman. Nicki soon realises that he has been tricked and imprisoned.|
The woman and the other villagers, spend their days sleeping and their nights shovelling away the eternally encroaching sand to save their houses being caved in. It’s an unremitting and exhausting task that, as far as Nicki can understand, is futilely cyclical – the villagers slave to live and live so they can continue to slave to live.
At the bottom of this sand filled pit, Nicki devises numerous escape plans, while at the same time developing a strange, somewhat primal and fierce sexual attraction to the woman. And so his days pass, always thirsty and filthy in this prison where sand invades absolutely every crevice of the house and their bodies, trapped in a nightmarish fear underscored by this perverse lust.
Nicki moves through stages of victim, aggressor and compliant worker whose freedom is eventually crushed in a passive, self accepting kind of way in a scene with all of the bleak and desolate misery of the end of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. The novel opens with the epigraph, ” Without the threat of punishment there is no joy in flight.” In this sense it seems that his escape plans are the very thing that enable Nicki to go on living in the pit. He and the woman develop a sort of love but never real tenderness or connection. He contemplates the universe, his life outside the pit, the horror of an eternity in the sand, while throughout all of this the sand shovelling just keeps on going, and going, and going…. The sand itself becomes a character as something so organically important – something Nicki as an entomologist specialising in sand creatures is acutely aware of – yet something so passive and un-living that has however, a type of life of its own.
Abe’s prose is sparse and direct. While there is very little in the way of flourishing description, The Woman in the Dunes still leaps off the page to create a highly visual read. Translated from Japanese, accolade should also go to the precision of the English translation by E. Dale Saunders.
200 pages of being stuck in that sand filled pit, I could feel the sand on my own skin, the dryness in my own throat and crusting in my own eyes. The spare prose has led a lot of readers criticise the book for having such shallow characterisation. It’s true that “The Man” and “The Woman” are not really developed in terms of details of their lives before the story time, nor is The Woman given any development beyond Nicki’s own observations. But it still works. The Woman in the Dunes is an introspective novel – throughout the basic story, the real point of the book comes in Nicki’s existential ponderings, the constancy of his fear and the confusion of his lust. The characters themselves are rather like archetypes, fixtures on which to hang the novel’s symbolism. The Woman in the Dunes can be interpreted in numerous levels of metaphor both psychological and social. Different readers will be able to make their own observations and inferences. It is arguably for these reasons that, fifty years after its first publication, The Woman in the Dunes retains a wide cultural, social and psychological relevance.
I’m hard pressed to think of another, more curious book than this. It’s simple and really, not a great deal happens in terms of plot, but it is an intensely compelling read. The Woman in the Dunes is a story saturated with hope and yet is one of the most despairing novels I’ve come across and is sure to be something that will stick with me for a long time to come.