I recently put down Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes after three intense reading sessions. It is not an especially long book but for me this signified a new record in reading determination, though it didn’t feel so. The reason being I was spellbound as I let Abe guide me through the bizarre and sometimes slightly perverse caverns of his mind…!
The book conjures mental images of a grainy black and white movie, with each scene simply and clearly described as you would see it from a camera shot. This sounds subjective, but I have good reason to believe that some books just ARE black and white (for example, I have yet to find anyone that has read Germinal by Zola in colour). And so, if you are anything like me, the book will take you into a black and white art-house film; eerie and silent with precise, terse dialogue. (It was made into a movie which is exactly like this by the way, which I watched after reading – do not watch it before! It is terrible.)
The setting; a torrid coastline, choked by sand that gets into the reader’s eyes, ears and throat as it relentlessly blows inland from the coast. Indeed, according to the critics, the sand is an allegorical character unto itself. Its corrosive and dangerous effects certainly bring the novel into motion, as situated in these inhospitable sand dunes is a small village, populated by parochial and suspicious rural-types locked in a perennial battle to stave off relentless tides of sand that threaten to engulf their homes. Our hero, a science-minded and very rational protagonist, comes across the strange settlement by chance whilst collecting rare beetles. He swiftly succumbs to the trickery of crafty locals and finds himself compelled, upon pain of death, to join in their ceaseless sand-digging labours. Imprisoned in a small house deep inside an inescapable pit he resides with a woman—the very ‘Woman in the Dunes’ from the title—and soon realises her complicity in his abduction. With no way out, they begin a very unusual cohabitation together battling against sand-submersion.
Flourishing within the surreal and narrow parameters of this plot is a wonderful exploration of human need and bonding. The existential aspects of Abe’s novels are habitually compared to Kafka’s work, but I didn’t feel it to be so. For one thing the reader is spared Kafka’s affected writing style and prolixity, but more importantly Kafka’s novels lack the passion, feeling and strange, twisted beauty that Abe manages to convey using similar plot devices. Forced upon each other, the friction between the protagonist and the woman causes some very complex, conflicting and deep emotions to awaken. We only get a real window into the inner workings of the main character, whose mind is split between rational intellect and raw atavistic urge in a sinister balance that is tested throughout the book, and the surreal setting and plot works to expose this dualism really well. There are some very disturbing moments and Abe seems unafraid to hold anything back, but to me they weren’t particularly gratuitous.
I think overall the book expresses deep-seated struggles between man and woman in coexistence, struggles that are magnified and darkened by the unusual settings. The novel was written in the 1960s, so notions of man and woman were more compartmentalised than they would be now, but some of the issues explored in the book are still everyday relationship problems just brought to the max. I believe ideas about mid-life crises and overcoming the fear of commitment/ wanting to be ‘free’ (deemed classic man stuff) feature in the novels haunting and memorable climax, though overall I felt the premier theme under Abe’s inspection is the germination of pure companionship, however weird it may be.
I also should say this is just my reading, there are probably dozens of completely different interpretations of the book that could be made. This is another reason I recommend it so highly.
I have little idea of what sand is supposed to represent—time maybe? It makes sense—it has a constant presence and they are victim to its relentlessness but, on a positive note, it also acts as a binding force between the unfortunate duo, and as soppy as it may sound I think time does that to a relationship moving in the right direction.
Simply put, the characters appeared to me as man, woman and sand (time)—in a dreamlike struggle to find harmony. Will they find it? I know the answer—because I read the book already. Now it is your turn to join me readers!