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The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the Dunes
By Abe Kobo
Penguin Modern Classics, 2016
ISBN-13: 978-0141188522
Review by George Mullins

Abe Kobo’s 1962 existential novel The Woman in the Dunes has achieved lasting success and won the writer Japan’s Yomiuri Prize for Literature. The bleak novel concerns itself with the story of a misanthropic man forced into the Sisyphean task of shovelling endless amounts of sand out of a pit in order to prevent the destruction of a dilapidated house from ever encroaching sand dunes. The man’s depressing and peculiar predicament acts as a mirror for our own metaphoric sand-shovelling lives: Abe forces his readership to question why we work, why we persevere through inevitable suffering and brings into question our existence as a whole. While pondering these universal themes, Abe also uses the bleak story to highlight a number of issues prevalent in post-war Japan, such as racial discrimination of the burakumin and the psychologically tormenting work environment of the sarariman

The parabolic tale centres on Niki Jumpei, a disillusioned school teacher come amateur entomologist, and chronicles his deceptive imprisonment in a house surrounded by a wall of constantly flowing sand, whose only inhabitant is an unusual and resigned female: the woman in the dunes. While escaping the hassle of modern life, Jumpei finds himself bug collecting in a seemingly picturesque coastal landscape. In an ironic twist of fate, the bug collector becomes as helpless as an imprisoned beetle when the eerie inhabitants of a nearby village deceive him and entrap him in a rancid, hellish house-pit. His only means of escape, a rope ladder, vanishes and he is forced, alongside the mysterious woman, to shovel sand lest he die of dehydration. The relationship Jumpei has with the woman is unusual and undefined: they have sex but little passion exists between them. The characters are clearly drawn towards the companionship they offer to one another, but the readers are left pondering as to whether this is purely circumstantial or perhaps true love.

In the pit, Jumpei stages a failed escape attempt, is subjected to a demeaning public sexual act, smokes hundreds of cigarettes and drinks plentiful amounts of cheap sake. All the while he is naturally yearning for his return to the so-called freedom of the world beyond the sand dunes and vehemently expresses his right to liberty. However, at the climax of this harrowing novel, the man finds himself in a position to break free from his circular task when the rope ladder reappears; but unexpectedly, he refutes his chance of escape and resigns himself to his sand shovelling duties, giving up his obsessive desire for normality. Readers and critics continue to debate this ending over a century later. Has the man’s will for freedom been eroded by the oppressive villagers? Has a deep love for the woman in the dunes quelled his desire for escape? Or has the man merely found a greater meaning in his work; one that modern Japan has failed to provide?

Abe’s linguistic craft is profoundly evident in the novel. With a sparse ensemble of characters and a story that takes place in one bare location, a strong sense of constriction is established. This directly reflects the perpetual threat of the impinging sand dunes, which silently torment and weaken Jumpei’s psyche. Essentially, the sand itself becomes a quasi-character in the book. It constantly clings to the couple and pervades their bodies and thoughts. The sand acts as a metaphor for time itself, ceaselessly flowing and erasing all it encounters. Jumpei is well aware of the futility of his battle against the awesome might of the sand; he is deeply burdened by the unavoidable engulfment that awaits him.

With the protagonist’s name rarely being used, and the woman remaining nameless throughout, The Woman in the Dunes allows for the characters and their story to take on a universal quality. The hardboiled question of what makes humanity persevere through suffering is certainly one that permeates the minds of all readers, regardless of national boundaries. This perhaps explains the novels impressive international success and continued relevance. That being said, by looking at the cultural context in which the novel was written we can discover some interesting subtexts to the profoundly complex tale.

As David Mitchell expresses in the Penguin Classic’s thought-provoking introduction, Abe invites us to view the villagers as burakumin. This is the lowest class in Japanese society that has historically been unjustly discriminated against. Since the Edo period the burakumin have been labelled as impure, tainted humans, due to their work as butchers, tanners and executioners. As a result, they have been systematically treated as outsiders by wider Japanese society. They are, to this day, unfairly ostracised and discriminated against. The possible burakumin villagers in the novel express how the government has abandoned them and failed to provide the once prosperous fishing village with relief from sand damage. Jumpei, and the readers, slowly begin to reposition the neglected villagers as the story’s victims. Suddenly their barbaric behaviour becomes justified as a logical reaction to the racial discrimination they have endured. Jumpei’s position in this battle is complex, however; to the villagers he is a member of the hierarchy that oppresses them and therefore he warrants enslavement. Alternatively, to the mainstream society he is expelled from, he is simply a lonely, introverted outsider on the periphery of the collective. Could this line of thought help shed light on why the misanthropic Jumpei accepts his unremitting, hellish physical labour and in doing so rejects contemporary Japan?

Another interpretation of Abe’s work is to see the situation as a metaphor for employment in a modern Japanese company. Japan’s stereotypical company workers, or sararimen, are infamous for their long working hours, subordination to bosses and life-long devotion to their company. Japan’s workforce, as a result, is highly capable and efficent, but comes at a cost in the form of strained family life and high suicide rates. The sarariman’s characteristics become drilled into Jumpei by the villagers through his physically and psychologically gruelling hard-labour. Is Abe making a nuanced statement here about how psychologically tormenting and confining the experience working for a collective, post-war Japanese company can be? Or perhaps, could Jumpei’s loss of selfish desire for freedom and his acceptance of collective goals be seen as an ultimately positive experience; as something that has led Japan to great post-war economic success?

As with many great works of art, Abe’s masterpiece The Woman in the Dunes entraps its readers in a complex story which taps deep into the human condition. We are forced to take a mirror to our own working lives and ask ourselves: why do I work and why do I persevere? The novel is unapologetic in its ability to elude its readers of a straight forward answer. Abe purposefully encourages readers to seek a profusion of interpretations when attempting to comprehend the story’s highly profound and impactful climax. The Woman in the Dunes is a deeply thought-provoking story, which won’t soon lose its relevance to the contemporary world. It is certainly more than deserving of its critical acclaim and international recognition.