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The best books stir deep emotion within us and that emotional bondage between the reader and the characters in the story can never be undone. "Woman in the Dunes", by Japanese playwright, novelist, poet and photographer Kobo Abe is one such book. It's an absolute travesty that although he was nominated numerous times he never won the Nobel Prize for literature. As you begin to read you soon find yourself in the middle of a nightmare. Abe's strength here is that once you have entered this uncomfortable and panic inducing situation; your truly there, stuck in it, until the final page.
An insect enthusiast goes to the desert to look for a rare type of beetle. But a sand storm is approaching and he is offered shelter in the mysterious village that is half buried in the sand. He climbs down a rope ladder to a house at the bottom of a deep dune. Dwelling in the house is a woman whose husband and child were both killed by the sand. She is resigned to a life of continuous backbreaking labour, day and night shovelling the sand to protect the village behind. In the morning the man wakes up to find that the rope ladder is gone and he has been duped in to slavery; forced to help the woman with her endless task in exchange for food and water. He is left with a choice to make; face starvation or work as a slave.
The first chapter begins with the disappearance of a man whose mother is filing a report. This leaves the reader wondering what happened to this man and the rest of the story is the explanation. The book is but 240 pages making it a fast read. Every so often there are some simple black outline drawings which are quite fun. A diagram of 'hope', the man's contraption designed to catch a carrier pigeon, is useful. But there are some of beetles, the villagers and the man wearing clothe over his face to protect his mouth and eyes from the sand. These drawings almost appear as if they are the man's own sketches, making them even creepier.
What is interesting about this book is that none of the characters have a name. The woman is 'the woman' and the man is 'the man'. We find out that characters name is Niki Jumpei only at the end on the missing persons report; the very last afterthought of the book. But nonetheless the characters are believable and highly emotionally responsive. The man is not the most likable character ever, but his reactions to the terrible situations that are thrust upon him during his battle in the dune are extremely relatable. The woman is the source of an odd mix of sympathy and frustration. Whilst the man is finding it hard to accept his fate and on many occasions exhibiting violent behaviour, the woman is kind and gentle yet so calm and compliant with her desolate situation. The relationship between the two is compelling. Initially he is frustrated; furious with her ignorance, and since he cannot get at his capturers he takes out his emotions on her. To aid his frustration she is basically emotionless. Does a romance blossom between the two of them? Not exactly; it is a forced arrangement which becomes more normal as time goes on. Love perhaps is not the right word. This relationship echoes the main theme of the book; is the situation a paradise or a misery? You will have to decide when you read it.
The villains are the villagers who are obviously human beings. Man's worst enemy is himself? They remain mysterious throughout the book. They are unreasonable, clever and, it appears, always watching. When the man refuses to work they punish him. They seem to take on a god like character; deciding the fate of the animals entrapped in the cage of sand beneath. Abe makes use of the idea of people fearing most what they can't see/understand. The villagers are given brief descriptions at times, but mostly they are cast in the shadows, too high up above our main characters heads to be seen completely. Mostly their actions are recorded, not particularly what they say. They cast the bucket down in the dune to collect the shoveled sand or give food or water. They ignore his desperate pleas. They are eerily silent at times. They are truly quite frightening.
The other main character:
The sand is the final character. It is purely symbolic and the way that it is described throughout the book helps to create the mood of each scene. The sand has killed the woman's first husband and child and it gets into everything; the food, water, their clothes and bodies. It seems to destroy all that it touches. Truly the sand permeates every scene and becomes a villainous character in its own right. The sand is ever moving, ever changing, perhaps this, to a degree, reflects the Buddhist idea of impermanence. Furthermore, Buddhists believe that the origin of suffering is attachment which one can learn to be free of thus eliminating suffering. The man possesses a deep attachment to his old life yet he can't truly understand why.
Themes and ideas:
Abe is a master story teller who keeps the pace throughout the book, making it a fast and addictive read. What he wishes to show the reader is certainly open to interpretation. It seems to be quite similar in some respects to 1984 but on a much smaller scale as it takes the theme of a man trying to escape an artificial world to its core. But familiarity is a dangerous thing and ignorance may well be bliss.
The man cannot control his surroundings and the nightmare is a psychological one. Perhaps this is a comment on progressiveness and modernity. There is a great deal of symbolism in the book to be explored by those wishing to decipher the meaning of this, at times, some what cryptic book. The plot line is simple but its interpretation may not be so.
"Woman in the Dunes" is Abe's masterpiece, but it demonstrates Abe's key interest which is present in practically all his books; charting the psychology of the human mind. The villains show the ruthlessness of evil human beings. To an extent these men exploit the labour of the man and the woman so that they can prophet from it. It is at their captives' expense that the villagers are able to go on living. The book was first published in 1964 when a Marxist revival was taking place. Is it a reference to the evils of Capitalism? I can't be sure, but the subject of slavery during such a time seems to ring such bells.
What I loved about it and why I recommend it....
I loved the tension that was present throughout. I loved the mysteriousness of the villagers. I loved the simplicity of the story. Instead of focusing on a large and elaborate plot with many elaborate characters, we have two sort of normal people in a less than regular situation. Abe's prose is simple, yet the vivid description which the book is filled with is beautifully constructed. Literary geniuses like Abe are able to find words for feelings I would never be able to express. The relationship between the man and woman even during moments of sexual passion is odd, awkward and intriguing.
This is a fantastic book that is best read in one whole chunk. It is compulsive reading at its deepest and purest form. It combines psychological thriller with emotive language. I guarantee once you start reading this it is really difficult to put down. I finished the book in 2 days and as with the best authors, Abe left me hungry for more. I heard they made a film but I haven't seen it so I can't comment on that. But I think with a book which describes emotion so powerfully it would be difficult to match up to.