Monday, June 27, 2011

'The Woman in the Dunes' by Kobo Abe (JLit Book Group)

The Woman in the Dunes
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: |

Other thoughts:
Tony's Reading List
Experiments in Manga
If you've reviewed The Woman in the Dunes, let me know and I'll link to it here.

Japanese Literature Book Group

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.

Our next selection will be 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.

The small print: I purchased this book for my personal library. Links in this post to Amazon (including book covers) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. You can find my review of The Woman in the Dunes here.

    Reading the novel and watching the film has left me somewhat terrified of sand. It's an odd tale, but a fascinating one.

  2. Ash - Thanks for the link to your review, and so glad you decided to read along. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Odd but fascinating is a perfect way to describe it. And I know what you mean about the sand! I'm mildly claustrophobic anyway so I really can't imagine what I'd do in the same situation.

  3. I am going to LOVE following your blog!

    I have had next-to-no exposure to Japanese literature & am looking forward to learning much. I don't think I'll start with The Woman in the Dune, though...I considered joining the JLit challenge but think I'll wait a bit until I get some of your recommendations on my TBR list.

    Thank you for your insights!

  4. Hello, Owl59 on twitter here.
    As I tweeted, I enjoyed your excellent review on this famous novel.

    I agree with everything about what you said about this novel. There are two things I would like to add here.

    First, not only the woman but also the man gradually became to feel shoganai. It might be an allegory that everybody can get used to an odd situation?

    Second, I was impressed with Kobo Abe's simple and descriptive style in writing. His language is quite straightforward and not complicated. It is written almost like scientific report, and that makes this novel so realistic and believable even though the story is surrealistic.

  5. Wow this surely sounds like a heavy read. I am currently still reading the old capital. But progress is slow. I really need to get used to the Japanese style of writing since it is truly different then the Western style I am used to.


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