One of the masterpieces of world literature, “The Woman in the Dunes” was released to immediate acclaim, was translated into twenty languages, and two years later was adapted into a film that was nominated for two Academy Awards and received the Jury Special Prize in Cannes, among a number of other awards.
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Niki Jumpei, a teacher and amateur entomologist, arrives at a remote area filled with sand, to search for new species. However, when night falls and he misses the last bus, he is forced to stay in a nearby village. The inhabitants make him ascend a ladder in a sand pit, where he is to share the house with a woman. However, the next day, he discovers in terror that the villagers have retracted the ladder, and are determined to leave him in the pit forever, in order to help her shovel sand. If that was not enough, he realizes that if they ever stop shoveling sand, they will drown in it.
Kobo Abe seems to have drawn from both Sisyphus and Kafka in order to construct a story that could be interpreted in a number of ways. And while the iconoclastic view somewhat eludes me, the allegory about society and politics is quite evident. The villagers represent the inhumane authorities, who do not hesitate to enslave the people of the working class, using any kind of cunning or forceful method they can, while offering barely enough to keep them living. In that regard, the working class members find themselves, like Sisyphus, in a never-ending procession of work without actual benefit. The two main characters, the woman and the man, represent the two opposite sides of dealing with authority: the woman the complete acceptance and the man the continuous, but futile struggle against it.
Another comment becomes apparent in the beginning, as Abe states that the lack of trust between people has led them to the concepts of law and bureaucracy (including IDs, contracts, taxes etc), which, in essence, has nothing to do with actual survival. Abe presents this notion in ironic fashion, by having his protagonist repeatedly wondering why all this is happening to him, since he is a lawful man who always paid his taxes.
Lastly, Abe comments on human nature through the search of identity, which in this case, identifies with the search for a purpose in life and the inherent human ability to adapt to any situation. In particular, Jumpei forgets his situation almost completely in his effort to produce water from the humidity in the sand.
Jumpei is not exactly a likeable character, but his situation inevitably draws sympathy, as is usually the case with all victims, in a tactic that ends up in the reader feeling agony for his future. The book could easily be described as “heavy”, since ideas and thoughts in general take up a rather large part of its 240 pages, but right at the moment when you are to feel completely tired, Abe places moments of agonizing action, that help the readability of the book significantly. The same can be said about the sex, although the concept here also falls under the comments about human nature, and particularly primal instincts, and not simple entertainment.
“The Woman in the Dunes” is a masterpiece, as it presents a number of comments that echo quite clearly even today, and through a writing style one can only marvel.