The Woman in the Dunes (1962) Suna no Onna
By Kobo Abe
Penguin Modern Classics, 240pp
With an Introduction by David Mitchell
My first introduction to the work of Japanese author Kobo Abe was through the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara – who collaborated with Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu four times, on Pitfall (1962), Woman in the Dunes (1964), The Face of Another (1966) and The Ruined Map (1968). Woman in the Dunes is a film that has always impressed me but until now I had not read the novel, and I approached it with a certain trepidation. Whenever I have held a film in high regard the book has always been something of a disappointment. I know Teshigahara’s film well and could not see how it would play out on the page – much of the films potent power is in the shifting sands that envelope the shack the Man is imprisoned in. Teshigahara filmed the sand as if it were water, undulating, amorphous, dangerous.
What is surprising is how faithfully Teshigahara filmed Abe’s novel – and therefore more surprising that Abe’s novel gripped me as tautly as Teshigahara’s film did the first time I saw it, for although they are the same story, Abe’s razor-sharp prose bought another new complex level to the fore. One of literary fictions strength’s is the ability to be omniscient, to allow the reader insights into the characters thought-processes. Cinema does not allow such luxury. So whereas Teshigahara’s Man is developed through his actions on screen, Abe’s Man is allowed introspection, consideration, analysis. There are things in Abe’s novel that struck a deeper resonance because they were written rather than filmed.
Entymologist Niki Jumpei (the Man) searches the scorching desert for a rare beetle; a new breed that will give his name permanence in the scientific field for it will appear forever more in a catalogue of insects. He has not spoken of his trip to his wife or his colleagues, and as the day wears on he discovers he has wandered far from civilisation. He meets an elderly man who tells him the last bus back to the city has left, and that he shall have to find shelter for the night. He is led to a shack that is at the bottom of a sand pit. Descending into the hole little does he realise that he has fallen into a trap, and that when he wakes in the morning the rope ladder will be gone, and that he is forced to spend the rest of his days fighting the encroaching sand with a female companion (the Woman).
By refusing to name his characters (we learn the name Niki Jumpei only through an imagined missing persons report), Abe’s novel takes on the form of a parable. Much of Abe’s fiction has taken this form – usually in his work symbol and idea take prime place over such considerations as plot or characterisations. That The Woman in the Dunes has such international acclaim and regard is indicative of Abe’s skill at combining his usual literary tropes successfully with plot and characterisation for perhaps the only time in his career. The Man has a psychological depth, an inquisitiveness that resonates back into the plot of this book. At no point does the plot of this novel become unbelievable, despite its presumed absurdities. It is the astuteness of Abe’s writing that holds this work together, that stops the metaphorical sands from consuming his hard work.
“One day in August a man disappeared. He had simply set out for the seashore on a holiday, scarcely half a day away by train, and nothing more was ever heard of him. Investigation by the police and inquiries in the newspapers had both proved fruitless.” (p.3)
So begins Abe’s novel. His matter-of-fact tone, and the elegant simplicity of his prose, gracefully conceals the depths running under its surface. The reader is dragged by these undercurrents into the dark, malevolent, erotically charged heart of the sandpit. Though the Woman makes no deliberate move to seduce the Man, his attraction to her is immediate, if undesired. She very quickly causes him to doubt what he thinks are certainties of life, perhaps deliberately at times, so his sense of order is unbalanced. The Man becomes discombobulated by the experience of being isolated and trapped. Knowing this and seeing this, the dénouement of makes perfect sense.
Entymology provides one of the clues to unlocking the deeper secrets of this narrative, and reveal Abe to be a truly clever trickster. The pit in which the Man is contained is but one of many in a village. The Man is being treated like one of the insects which he wishes to contain within a box – though the Man does not see this. The insects he seeks battle against the sand, just as this Woman does. The Man has gone there looking for new forms of life, what he has found is a new form of existence, where the will of all is dedicated to the preservation of life. Even when confronted with this, and the reality of the outside world clashes against it. The Woman goads him and reveals her reality to him:
“Why should we worry what happens to others?” (p.223)
The only battle that is worth fighting, is she saying, is the battle to save oneself, the battle against the sand, the completion of this Sisyphean task. Like all good parables there is the deeper, more personally resonant strain. For we are reading about every man, every life – everyone of us, everyday, goes to work, fights to stay alive – we are all in our own way, trapped in the sandpit, fighting the flow. The ending of the novel can be read a multitude of ways, depending on the reader then. If you think we are trapped, then it is submission. If you do not, then the Man has found liberation.
Abe the novelist retreated from such simple tales with his later works. The Face of Another, his second novel, is available in the Penguin Modern Classics range, and will be reviewed shortly. Abe preferred literary games, and became successful at them, but if the purity of The Woman in the Dunes is anything to go by, one wishes he could have written more.