by Kōbō Abe
砂の女 (Suna no onna)
First published in Japanese in 1962
Winner of the Yomiuri Prize, 1962
Translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders
Vintage International, trade paperback, 238 p.
One of the premier Japanese novels of the twentieth century, The Woman in the Dunes combines the essence of myth, suspense, and the existential novel. In a remote seaside village, Niki Jumpei, a teacher and amateur entomologist, is held captive with a young woman at the bottom of a vast sand pit where, Sisyphus-like, they are pressed into shoveling off the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten the village.
Like the short blurb explains, the main character of the story sets out with his bug-collecting equipment on a vacation to the seaside, and ends up a virtual prisoner, stuck at the bottom of a sand pit with the woman of the title, forced to shovel sand or end up buried alive.
In David Mitchell's article on The Woman in the Dunes in the Guardian*, he calls The Woman in the Dunes "a metaphor for the human predicament." In some ways it is also a psychological study in captivity. It made me think of Stockholm Syndrome, when victims begin to develop feelings, however conflicted, for their captors. As the story progresses we see how the main character's emotional state changes over time. Much like the ever-flowing, ever-changing sand which is a character in its own right. A continual presence that controls and dictates every aspect of their lives.
While reading this I couldn't help but wonder though why on earth anyone would stay in such an inhospitable environment. Why must they have this daily battle against the encroaching sand. Early on the man wonders the same thing:
He did not understand at all the reason why the woman had to be so attached to that River of Hades. …Love of Home and obligation have meaning only if one stands to lose something by throwing them away. What in the world did she have to lose?Yet we come to realize that the woman has, it seems, lived her whole life in the village. She doesn't know any differently, and doesn't know what kind of freedom she's missing. She doesn't rail against the injustice because for her there isn't any, but instead she calmly accepts her situation.
The Japanese often say "shogannai" which translates loosely as "it can't be helped" to describe any situation that is just the way it is and can't be changed. Much of the time it makes sense to me. Heck, I say it often myself. It's how to simply accept something is out of your control, and move on. In an extreme case, it's how the Japanese cope with hardships like the recent earthquake and tsunami. But from my Western perspective, it can sometimes be frustrating too when "shogannai" is used, seemingly to me anyway, just as an excuse to avoid confrontation.
In terms of this story, perhaps I'm just rebelling against the submissiveness of the woman. She's so meek. Why does she let him treat her that way? The violence of some of their physical contact bothered me, but although I question its necessity, it is mostly because it was very believable. In the end, neither character is very likeable, but although he behaves in unfortunate ways, you do sympathize with his plight.
The Woman in the Dunes is described as Kafka-esque and here is where I have to admit that I've never read any Kafka (I know!) so I can't really comment on that. But it is certainly bizarre, with a nightmarish quality that seems to be a Kafka trait.
Overall, I liked The Woman in the Dunes much more than a couple of the other Japanese literature classics I recently tried, The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe, and The Temple of the Golden Pavillion by Yukio Mishima. It was again a very male voice (I'm very much looking forward to reading some Japanese contemporary female authors soon) but a story that gave me lots to think about. It's a claustrophobic tale and one that is not easy to forget.
What did you think of The Woman in the Dunes?
*No Escape: David Mitchell on The Woman in the Dunes (Article in The Guardian)
Kōbō Abe (Wikipedia)
Woman in the Dunes (the film)
The Woman in the Dunes at: Amazon.com | BookDepository.com
Tony's Reading List
Experiments in Manga
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The Japanese Literature Book Group was started due to a desire to read and discuss Japanese literature with others, and by doing so to hopefully gain a deeper understanding of the literature and culture of Japan. The schedule for the Japanese Literature Book Group for 2011 is largely made up of suggestions from fellow JLit devotees and we'd love to have you join us. Click on the button for more information about past and upcoming reads.
Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata. With discussion to begin on August 29, 2011.
With a restraint that barely conceals the ferocity of his characters' passions, one of Japan's great postwar novelists tells a luminous story of desire, regret, and the almost sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead.
When Kikuji is invited to a tea ceremony by a mistress of his dead father, he does not expect to become involved with her rival and successor, Mrs. Ota. Nor does he anticipate the depth of suffering that will arise from their liaison. But in the tea ceremony every gesture has a meaning. And in Thousand Cranes, even the most fleeting touch or casual utterance has the power to illuminate entire lives - sometimes in the same moment that it destroys them.
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