Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Woman in The Dunes by Kobo Abe

When I told my husband about this book he said, "Well, the man's first mistake was climbing down the rope. He should have slept on a bench in the train station or something."

Indeed, if the entomologist, Niki Jumpei, had not climbed down a rope ladder into the sand pit where it was suggested he spend the night, things would have been a lot better for him. But perhaps we cannot escape certain pits. Which have the capability to trap us into eternity.

Niki, a man of about thirty years of age, goes off into the desert in search of a rare beetle. When he has missed the last train from the village into which he's wandered, he is given lodging at the home of a young woman. But, such a strange lodging it is. To enter it, he must descend the aforementioned rope ladder, which was immediately pulled up. Then he looks around. Though the woman herself is lovely, the home in which she lives is not. The beams are decaying, the walls are sagging, and the whole thing exists in the bottom of a pit into which sand falls at an alarming rate. The sand is so persistent, in fact, that the woman must stay up all night shoveling it into buckets, for which she is 'paid' with water. But, there is no chance for escape. Nor does she even try.

The man is determined to find a way to escape, but when he does he doesn't make it far. For the waves of the dunes, the poor visibility, and the lack of a route lead him accidentally back to the village. From there, he runs into an area of sand into which he quickly sinks. The villagers, who have followed him, come to his rescue. They pull him out and return him to the home of the woman in the dunes.

I am perplexed as to how to interpret the sand. For surely it means something more than simply being caught in a pit. Of course, as a horror story, it works beautifully. What is more terrifying than the dream in which one is running but never advancing? Screaming without making a sound? Those dreams of futility are pure torture for me because I love the illusion of control. "If I'm trapped, I'll surely find a way out," I think.

But, let's take the story beyond one of terror. Couldn't the sand represent something else? Could it be the repressive government which stifles its people? Could it be our own human flaws which trap us into a life we do not want? Could it be the emptiness of life without hope or meaning? I think so. I think the sand can stand for whatever it is that causes us to be trapped. Then even worse, to abandon hope so that we are content with nothing more than the life in which we find ourselves.

I read this book for A More Diverse Universe as well as my own Japanese Literature Challenge 6. I highly recommend it for its beautiful writing, but perhaps more importantly, for the way it poses questions as to one's situation in life. Regardless of culture.

34 comments:

  1. It is still one of the strangest books I've ever read and I like you're take on it. Perhaps the sand could also represent how we let things slowly entrap us, until there is no escape?

    cjh

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    1. Absolutely. I think it is a perfect representation for what entraps us until there is no escape. I'll never forget the images of sand: stuck in their mouths, in their water, on their bodies. It was such pervasive, gritty stuff, from which there was no relief. And when a respite presented itself? Why didn't they take it? Each character seemed to have given in. Perhaps the sand could stand for evil. (Did you notice how I didn't even mention politics? ;)

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  2. Wow. This book sounds depressing, beautiful writing and all. I think I have something by Abe on my shelves now. I'll probably check that book out first. Thanks for participating in the tour!

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    1. Vasilly, it wasn't so much depressing as fascinating. As a philosophical point of view, I found it to be much like Saramago's Blindness in that the story gave a framework for life. And the choices people make in living it. I loved being a part of this tour, thanks for co-hosting it!

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  3. Having so thoroughly enjoyed another book by this writer I want to read this one, in fact this is one of those writers whose work I want to explore.

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    1. I wouldn't mind reading all of Abe's works myself. This one was mesmerizing to me, a most worthy read. Which did you read?

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    2. Face of Another - http://parrishlantern.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/face-of-another-kobo-abe.html?m=1

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    3. Hi , I've both your comments concerning Face of Another, due to spam any posts more than 2 weeks old is moderated, that's why they didn't show will publish them both, unless you have a preference.
      P.S..The book itself is a wonderful read.

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  4. I've heard about this novel before, but your review really makes me want to read it.

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    1. So glad that it inspired you, Helen!

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  5. Interesting review. Sounds like a thoughtful novel.

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  6. When I told my husband about this book he said, "Well, the man's first mistake was climbing down the rope. He should have slept on a bench in the train station or something."

    André Gide calls this the acte gratuite, the irrational action the protagonist makes to get the action going. If you read with this in mind, you'll notice that most protagonists do something foolish at the start of a novel.

    Anyway, thanks for the review. I have only seen the Japanese film version: it was a very good movie. But the novel is on my TBR too.

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    1. Thank you for the informative comment reminding me of something I see over and over in a novel without really knowing the term for it. I saw it so clearly in the beginning of Anna Karenina, when the whole novel begins with its central themes of adultery, family, and one's happiness. Only here, the "irrational action" (poor choices) just keep on going.

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  7. This is one that I've really wanted to read for SO long now!! Really must get to it.

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    1. Yeah, and don't read any comments by Parrish because he'll make you want to read every single novel Abe's ever written! :)

      This is really good, Chris, you should read it when you have a chance. It even fits for the RIP VII!

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  8. I've been interested in reading this novel and seeing its film adaptation for some time, Bellezza, and your post raises the book a few rungs up the pending TBR latter for me. Very juicy job on your write-up!

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    1. Ah, Richard, I take this as the greatest of compliments, that what I write could incite you to move the novel up a few rungs. It's so good, and it's quite short. I'd love to know your thoughts if you do in fact get to it. xo

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  9. Sounds horrible! I'm with you on the sand and its place as a metaphor, because surely why this book is terrifying is that idea of being unable to escape. In the way you've described it, it could stand for anything, different for each reader.

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    1. That's what it seems to me, Charlie, the sand indicative of whatever it is that traps each individual person. I don't think anyone is able to completely avoid a trap of any kind. Hopefully, though, we don't fall completely in!

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  10. I enjoyed this book and agree the sand could be a metaphor for just about anything. It is scary stuff and I really should read more of Kobo's work.

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    1. I want to read more of Kobo's work, too, especially after Parrish Lantern's review of Face of Another. The one I reviewed was short, but powerful.

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  11. I've read the same edition with the same fascinating illustrations (by his wife, I think?). I love how the sand became an open-ended symbol that could accommodate different interpretations by readers.

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    1. The illustrations are indeed by his wife, which made me half envious of being such a team together!

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  12. I have been meaning to read this one. Sounds perfect for RIP, maybe I will read it next.

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    1. This would be a perfect read for the RIP VII; I was just 'afraid' of pushing my luck for reading it for two other challenges! ;)

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  13. I loved the idea of the book more than I enjoyed reading it to be honest as I found the middle part to be a bit dry. But I absolutely loved the ending! If you love the book I'd recommend the black and white movie based on it - which I thought was in some ways better than the book.

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  14. I'll look for the film as it's always interesting to compare the two after reading the novel. But usually I end up preferring the later.

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  15. I didn't know that it was a horror book. Makes The Woman in The Dunes an even more interesting (to-)read!

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    1. It's horror in the way that society can be horrifying. Much like Blindness was to me.

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  16. It's an excellent novel, with Kafka's fingerprints all over it, but didn't you think it was a bit graphic and degrading? He basically treated the woman like a piece of meat...

    By the way, I'm thinking of organising an informal J-Lit reading month in January to coincide with the last month of your J-Lit challenge. I haven't read as many Japanese books this time around (today's Natsume Soseki post is only about number 4!), so that would be a good opportunity to fit a few more in :)

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    1. I did see that he treated the woman like a piece of meat, and yet, I often see women treated that way in Japanese literature. They are so often portrayed as meek and submissive, just like this one, or they're murderers like in Out. (Which is a book I loved.)

      I think it would be wonderful for you to organize an informal reading month in January. I haven't read many Japanese literature books, either, at least not nearly as many as last time. I didn't get around to hosting a read-along, either, but time may come for that after autumn. Why is time so elusive? :)

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  17. This sounds wonderful. I'd been wanting to read Kobo Abe for some time. I'm glad to know you liked it.

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  18. I read it for the Japanese lit challenge last year, and found it to be a very interesting reflection on life changes. here is my review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/11/22/84-review-the-woman-in-the-dunes/.
    I enjoy this challenge, I discover many interesting writers

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  19. I've heard so much about this novel (and I think there is a movie too?) but still haven't read it. Even with the brief description, it already sounds pretty claustrophobic!

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