Sooner or later most humans come to grips with their relative insignificance. Maybe for people born in the second half of the twentieth century this is a given – we know we’re just one tiny speck on a bustling, diverse planet. We know we could slip easily through the cracks of our baggy social systems. We know how easy it would be to get lost in one of the world’s towering, complicated cities. And we know we’ve lost most of the threads that tied us once upon a time to previous generations.
But for some, this realization comes as an appalling shock. For Niki Junpei, the hero of Kobo Abe’s splendid 1962 novel The Woman in the Dunes, the reality of his insignificance smacks him quite mercilessly into the bottom of a deep sand pit with no opportunity of crawling his way out.
Niki is a teacher and amateur entomologist. One afternoon he strikes out for three days vacation near the ocean. He hopes to discover a new beetle or an otherwise unknown insect. He arrives at a strange village just barely holding its own against the massive shifting tide of the sand dunes. After missing the last bus, he asks the villagers for shelter for the night. They agree and he is lowered deep inside the dune into one of the homes whose only other occupant is a young woman, a widow. What he doesn’t know is that the village has no intention of ever letting him out again.
Niki comes to understand not only that he is a hostage but also, and this part is much worse, that no one will ever come looking for him. He will vanish and his disappearance, for the most part, will leave the surface of the life he leaves behind undisturbed. His colleagues will joke and invent a sordid affair; his girlfriend will accept her abandonment as the natural result of their fading relationship. His attempts to fight, overcome, understand or transform this reality supply the novel with urgency and a distinct emotional momentum.
Alongside Abe’s existential meditation, his prose is also a real delight (seamlessly translated, in my opinion, by E. Dale Saunders). Abe exploits the image of the sand and its weight, its beauty, and its near-magical quality:
High in the night sky there was a continuous, discordant sound of wind blowing at a different velocity. And on the ground the wind was a knife continually shaving off thin layers of sand. He wiped away the perspiration, blew his nose with his fingers, and brushed the sand from his head. The ripples of sand at his feet suddenly looked like motionless crests of waves.
The relationship between Niki and the woman is complicated. She needs him to survive in the hostile environment of the dunes. That is his only functional purpose. That he work alongside her clearing the sand each night. But in such close quarters the two can’t seem to stop themselves from embarking on an awkward affair. Their relationship seems to mirror another of Abe’s questions – why have things gotten so confusing, why have men and women become so aggressive with one another, why have people forgotten how to really connect?
The Woman in the Dunes is an imaginative representation of our struggle to assert our own consequence, an honest depiction of the hidden despotic tendencies of the average human and a bleakly beautiful rendering of nature’s ultimate authority.
To wrap up, I want to mention that Abe adapted the novel for film in 1964 (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara) and it remains a stunning example of Japanese black and white cinematography.
Also, let me just send a huge thanks to Dolce Bellezza for hosting the Japanese Literature Challenge. What a wonderful idea!