Kobo Abé's "Woman In The Dunes" is a low-budget producer's dream--a story that takes place in essentially one room with two actors. The only major prop expense? Sand. Good thing Hiroshi Teshigahara got hold of the story (below left) before Roger Corman could. Imagine the professor from "Gilligan's Island" starring in an adaptation of this, opposite any of a dozen bland b-movie starlets?
Niki Junpei is a teacher in early middle age who cares for little other than his hobby, which is observing and cataloguing insects--primarily beetles. On a trip to the seashore to search for a new variety of sand beetle, Junpei misses the last bus back and is invited to stay overnight in the small, peculiar village embedded in the dunes. Delighted at the prospect of inexpensive hospitality he agrees, and climbs down a rope ladder into a sand pit to a small ramshackle house owned by a quiet widow. He is fed a simple supper of fish soup and falls asleep. In the morning, he finds the rope ladder gone, and his host--a woman of roughly his own age--laying on a tatami, nude but for the towel covering her face. What unfolds is a horror story of sorts: no bogeyman chases our protagonist, but the existential dread that creeps in like grains of sand through a loose-beamed roof is a fate just as cold and certain. Junpei learns that he must join the woman in her nightly duties of digging, sweeping, and shoveling away sand from her house, like it or not. He can't leave, for there is no escape up the sheer sand walls of the pit; he can't stop, or he'll be engulfed by the ever-advancing dunes. He must choose how best to cope with an untenable situation; initially nonplussed, and goes through a number of attempts to free himself, which comprise the bulk of the book. These efforts fall between heroic and pathetic.
I was initially struck by the book's similarities to the Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann novels I read in college. Like Hesse, Abé (below right) creates a kind of myth or parable which invites interpretation. Unlike Hesse, Abe's work stands as a reasonably compelling narrative without any existential introspection. At its simplest, it's a less hobbling version of Stephen King's "Misery" (for which it seemingly must have been an inspiration), or perhaps a low-tech version of the island from "The Prisoner". If you choose to read "Woman In The Dunes" as a straightforward narrative you could, but you will find that none of the characters are sympathetic. They have motives you can understand, but there's no effort to connect you with any of their personalities. Much like Junpei observing insects, the reader sees these characters move and interact and such, but there is no more empathy between the reader and the characters than there could be between a human and a beetle. It's an almost unthinkable situation and one that's difficult to imagine oneself in, especially if it represents the futility of our everyday lives. Especially then.
So then, how to proceed? Abé's sand world could refer to Western capitalism (work your whole life just to maintain your current status, essentially treading water until you sink) or the endless, pointless struggle of life itself outside of any system (Sisyphus pushing his rock uphill just to see it roll back down again; subsistence farming that requires season after season of labor to produce enough food to survive, but only just). Regardless of the ideology you attach to it, the story is about the dehumanization of man in the face of industry. (Junpei even loses his physical identity in the form of his own reflection--no mirror could survive the harsh sandy conditions. There is no room for vanity or self in the world of futility Abé creates.) That Junpei can find some solace in the arms of his captor/co-prisoner is either poetic or cold comfort, depending on how full or empty your glass is.
The writing is elegant. I'm forced to assume that the translation by E. Dale Saunders reflects not only the content but also the style of the source work. I suspect it must, if only because the dialogue, stylistically, is so similar to so many other Japanese authors I've read in translation. From Seicho Matsumoto's "Inspector Imanishi Investigates" to Haruki Murakami's short stories, the dialog always seems clipped or sparse when compared to, say, French literature. Barring a strange courtroom dream sequence late in the book, characters speak directly to their points… when they speak at all. But the descriptions are vivid and the narrative is deliberate but never slow. If you seek out novels to transport you to another time or place, "Woman In The Dunes" will foot the bill, though the trip is nasty and the destination is unpleasant. Although I found it engrossing and well written, I can't say I enjoyed reading the book. I'm glad to have read it and I'd recommend it both as existential novel and as a piece of almost uniquely Japanese literature, but I ultimately found it depressing.