~translated by E. Dale Saunders
The Woman in the Dunes, originally published in Japan in 1962, is probably the most well-known work by Kōbō Abe available in English. One of the reasons for this is the film by the same name released in 1964, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara with a screenplay that was also written by Abe. The first English translation of the novel The Woman in the Dunes, which included line illustrations by the artist Machi Abe (who also happens to be Kōbō Abe's wife), was published in 1964 by Knopf. The paperback published by Vintage International (an imprint of Knopf), the edition currently in print, was first released in 1991. E. Dale Saunders has served as the translator for several of Abe's works, including The Woman in the Dunes. Although I was aware of both the film and the novel, I hadn't watched or read either of them until the novel was selected for the June 2011 Japanese Literature Book Group. In fact, I hadn't previously read any of Abe's works, so was happy to have an excuse to change that.
One August, Jumpei Niki, schoolteacher and amateur entomologist, disappears. None of his colleagues know exactly where he went to collect his beetles, but he was expected to return. Jumpei's desire as an insect collector was to discover a new species or variant, a goal that brought him to a secluded village nestled among the sand dunes along the coast. The village and its people seem a little strange, but he doesn't realize the trouble he's in until it's too late. He asks to stay the night and is brought to a widow's household that is nearly swallowed by the sand. Jumpei readily climbs down into the pit, grateful for the villages courtesy, only to find that the ladder has been removed when he tries to leave in the morning. He has three choices: join the widow and dig sand for the rest of his life to survive, try to escape, which no one has been able to do, or die.
It would be fairly easy if not obvious to read The Woman in the Dunes symbolically or as a metaphor. However, since I wasn't feeling particularly clever while reading The Woman in the Dunes, I approached the novel more literally. Even doing so, I still found the story to be quite compelling. Admittedly, it is also very strange. But it is fascinating to watch Jumpei deal with the odd situation he finds himself in and slowly change because of it. While some of his circumstances are hardly believable, the setting that Abe has created is presented very realistically. Life in the village, while not completely explained to either the reader or Jumpei, seems to have been thoroughly thought through. In some ways, I found The Woman in the Dunes to be vaguely reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" as both works are about societies with deeply entrenched and somewhat menacing traditions.
What left the biggest impression on me from The Woman in the Dunes was the sand itself. Abe's portrayal and description of it is extremely evocative; the sand could almost be considered its own character. It is beautiful, powerful, uncaring, and dangerous. Frankly, after reading The Woman in the Dunes, I'm somewhat terrified of sand. Jumpei's relationship with it begins with admiration, crosses through fear and hatred, eventually evolving into something akin to dependency. It wears him down not only physically, but mentally as well. The sand becomes central to his though processes and is the most important thing in his life. The results of this are chilling and is what made The Woman in the Dunes such an effective novel for me.