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The Woman in the Dunes (Twentieth Century Classics) Hardcover – 22 Oct 1987
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"Abe follows with meticulous precision his hero's constantly shifting physical, emotional and psychological states. He also presents...everyday existence in a sand pit with such compelling realism that these passages serve both to heighten the credibility of the bizarre plot and subtly increase the interior tensions of the novel." -- The New York Times Book Review "Some of Kobo Abe's readers will recall Kafka's manipulation of a nightmarish tyranny of the unknown, others Beckett's selection of sites like the sand pit...as a symbol of the undignified human predicament." -- Saturday Review --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Kobo Abe was born in Tokyo in 1924, grew up in Manchuria, and returned to Japan in his early twenties. Before his death in 1993, Abe was considered his country's foremost living novelist. His novels have earned many literary awards and prizes, and have all been bestsellers in Japan. They include THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES, THE ARK SAKURA, THE FACE OF ANOTHER, THE BOX MAN, and THE RUINED MAP. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
When night falls, he is forced to seek shelter, and is offered a room in a rickety house with a young widow, down a dune, accessible only by rope ladder. When day dawns, he finds the ladder has been removed, and he is expected to spend his nights assisting the woman in loading buckets with sand, otherwise her house (and the village) will be overwhelmed with sand.
I was dubious about the cover's calling it 'Kafkaesque' and 'existential'. would it be too deep for this reader to get the meaning? The answer is no, it's very accessible. As our insect-collector gets used to the awful surroundings, he begins to comprehend how the villagers stay in this god-forsaken spot:
'He could easily understand how it was possible to live such a life. There were kitchens...blaring radios and broken radios...and in the midst of them all were scattered hundred-yen pieces, domestic animals, children, sex, promissory notes, adultery, incense burners, souvenir photos, and...It goes on, terrifyingly repetitive. One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.'
Caught up in the minutiae of life: whether it's work, like a hamster on a wheel; sensual enjoyments; materialistic ambition (the woman aspires to buy a radio); or engrossing if ultimately futile pastimes (the man finds new insects in his dune); humans find meaning in lives which when considered dispassionately are pretty pointless.
Exciting and thought-provoking, this was a great read.
And so we find ourselves in a bizarre fairytale-like world, where sand is everything and everything is sand. It permeates, literally, everything Niki thinks about, until he can think of little more than the properties, qualities, types and uses of sand. The book does for silica crystals what Moby Dick did for whales: that is, approach it from all sides and finish it off by writing more about it than we could ever wish to know. In the clichéd language of reviewers everywhere, the sand seems to become a character itself. But unlike Moby Dick, The Woman in the Dunes never loses sight of the story, and it becomes positively page-turning. It also evokes the borderline-otherworldliness J.G. Ballard - and in particular his novel Concrete Island, where a man becomes trapped in a sunken motorway island - and the sort of thing that I always thought Kafka wrote but actually didn't (ie paranoid allegories of existence which actually make linear sense). And it is beautifully illustrated by Machi Abe. And it inspired a film so much a "celebrated milestone" in cinema I'd never heard of it until a few minutes ago.
So The Woman in the Dunes is the best sort of literary discovery: new yet familiar (I'm sure the closing idea has been used before - or since); bizarre but lucid; perverse and pleasurable.
The Woman in the Dunes is told in almost abstract, allegorical terms. The reader only learns the protagonist's name on the last page, otherwise known as the man to the other main character, the woman. The story begins as an entomologist gets caught by the dark in the dunes by a seaside village. He thinks he is offered accommodation, but the house into which he is lowered, at the bottom of a deep sandpit, makes a prisoner of him, condemned forever to shovel the encroaching sand. From the outset, the plot and setting are endowed with an unreal, rhetorical quality. As the man struggles to escape, the focus changes to the repetitiveness of daily life, the futility of society with its news and entertainment, which the man soon discards. His relationship with the woman is thrown a stark, ambiguous but mostly adversarial light. And the novel emerges as metaphor for the pointlessness of human life; any life:, not just life at the bottom of a sandpit.
Abe had been compared with Kafka, and they share a dry, allegorical style as well as bitter, sarcastic humour and the occasional expository interruption in a third voice. Some sex scenes in this novel are quite crude, as they are in The Castle. But The Woman in the Dunes differs from Kafka in key respects. First, Abe enjoys providing forensic detail, engaging in what is nowadays fashionably called research. Thus he muses about insect species, about sand itself, about the niceties of police reports. This makes the story more real. Second, the novel is not entirely bleak, allowing for some positive ambivalence as one approaches the end. This is an extremely intriguing and engaging novel, idiosyncratic and probably unrepresentative of modern Japanese fiction such as one finds in the better-know Mishima.