The Woman in the Dunes – Kobo Abe

12 July 2009
Chapters 1-7
Less than a quarter of the way through, and it feels as though we know exactly where it’s going. We’re told on the first page of the permanent disappearance of ‘a man’ and, by the end of Chapter 7, we appear to know exactly what happened to him.

I’m being a bit tentative about what we do and don’t know. 50-odd pages into a 200-odd page book is a bit soon to make assumptions – but he really is, literally, in a hole. None of the events that have got him there has any relationship to a reality we might recognise, so it seems likely that Abe isn’t terribly worried about that. (I can remember a reference to the man having ‘missed the last bus’ and it sounded simply wrong.) What he wanted was a man stuck in a hole with a woman, and that’s where he’s got him.

At various times during these chapters I’ve thought of 1950s science fiction: it reads like a Ray Bradbury, probably set on one of the inner planets of the solar system. Sand, as we all know, is sand – Abe helpfully gives us more statistics than we know what to do with – but… this is sand, Jim, but not as we know it. It’s invasive, it’s insidious, it creeps into everything. It isn’t just on the surface – although it’s there all right, covering absolutely everything. Somehow it gets inside, even inveigling itself into our man. And when he wakes up to find the woman naked and covered by a layer of sand, well, Abe doesn’t spell it out but it’s as though she’s made of it.

Two weird things. One, it’s a conspiracy. Somewhere outside there’s a real world containing a council that has money to pay for things – but that’s not in this coastal village, which is more like the place where hapless Edward Woodward washes up in The Wicker Man. This is the Sand Man, and to the villagers he’s simply ’the other one’, another slave to face the forced labour of keeping back the dunes. Never mind that it’s pointless: he knows it, we know it – and the knowledge is absolutely worthless to him where he is. And the other thing: he’s a man and she’s a woman. She’s been co-opted into the conspiracy, possibly against her will, and she expects him to show her violence. She has an understanding about power relationships that, over-civilised teacher that he is, the man doesn’t have. There are a lot of things about his hole that he doesn’t understand.

Her nakedness is deeply troubling to him, and the reader – if not the man himself – wonders about the bare, forked animal that we are. He even imagines how easy it would be to lift her bodily by the crotch…. Abe has taken him to places he doesn’t want to be, and he‘s taken us with him.

13 July
Chapters 8-10 – to the end of Part 1
If the man didn’t previously understand the hopelessness of his case, he’s beginning to now. He’s spent three chapters reasoning to himself that the situation can’t possibly be as bad as it seems. Reason. Fat lot of good that does him: he reasons that people don’t just disappear, that communities can’t simply kidnap salaried citizens… and that a slope of sand simply must be movable with a bit of elementary geometry and elbow grease. Wrong, wrong and wrong, apparently – and Part 1 ends with the collapse of the sand on to him and the man’s collapse into his own vomit.

This novel was written in 1962, which is about right for my idea of its hostile planet Ray Bradbury feel. But we’re not talking science fiction, we’re talking human condition, and I found Beckett’s Waiting For Godot springing to mind. And then I checked his Happy Days – you know, the one where a woman is buried up to her waist in sand but carries on throughout Act 1 convincing herself everything’s fine. In Act 2 she’s up to her neck. There’s a man onstage as well, who seems neither to be as trapped nor any more able to escape – but I might be wrong…. Anyway, that play was first performed in 1960, a time when the consensus liberal view was that absolutely everything was pointless. Is Abe’s world the same as Beckett’s? His novel strikes me as a kind of fictional reworking of Waiting for Godot – in which, as it happens, there’s a community out there but it’s no help at all – and Happy Days where there doesn’t seem to be anything.

Chapters 11-20 – first half of Part 2
Bit like Part 1, really: our man’s still down his hole, and for most of these chapters he still hasn’t realised that he’s doomed. So we get various stratagems and ruses as he works through what he thinks are likely possibilities while we look on wondering when he’s going to give up. But then, unlike us he hasn’t been told that in seven years’ time he’ll be given up for dead. Not that this necessarily means it’s simply going to carry on like this, of course, which is why I’ve been a bit hesitant from the start. Maybe he’ll stop worrying and learn to love his hole – an option that seems increasingly likely now he’s finally decided to have a shag with the woman whose sexuality he’s never stopped noticing. Which is hardly surprising given the circumstances and the way her clothes keep falling open. Is it a honey trap? he wonders – as we’ve all been wondering since day 1.

Or maybe, despite being offered the chance to escape in some possible future chapter, he stays because… because he’s sexually screwed-up and at last he‘s discovered agenda-free sex. We realise that for our man this is a consummation devoutly to be wished, because we get his memories of sexual encounters, a woman as screwed up as he is referred to as ‘the other’, conversations with Mobius man about spiritual rape, his erectile dysfunction whenever he forgets to leave his hat on. (I’m not making this up. A hat is how he coyly refers to wearing a condom, although neither he nor the author are coy about any other sexual matters.)

Er…. There are more references to the outside world in Part 2: while pretending to be seriously ill (ruse No. 1) he demands, and is given, a newspaper. It’s full of recognisable 1960s stuff like the cost of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and other world news, plus bits of local stuff. It’s all words words words to our man by now: his world has shrunk to almost nothing. And the woman speaks of how she became tired of walking for year after year – a specific reference to the destruction of many parts of Japan after the war.

We begin to realise this isn’t entirely a Human Condition novel: it’s about conditions specifically in Japan. The woman – and all the villagers – seem to be obsessed with home. There are several references to it, and it begins to explain why the villagers will stop at nothing to keep their homes from being destroyed. The fact that they can’t stop it – it becomes clear that the fabric of their houses has been almost entirely eaten away by the action of moisture in the sand – seems to make no difference. It’s become a collective madness – and this is what the man has only slowly come to realise. He’s been trying to reason according to normal rules, but they simply don’t apply. The man has forced the woman to stop shovelling the sand away (ruse No. 2) and it’s clear the villagers will simply stop lowering water or any other supplies until they can hear the shovels again. It’s another hard lesson about power.

What’s a man to do? (Apart from have a quick shag?) Get digging, boy.

14 July
To the end of Chapter 23
He’s found a way out. Who’d have thought it? So, either they are going to catch him straight away and chuck him back in, which I doubt, or he really does decide to stop worrying and learn to love his hole. There’s been some heady stuff – almost incomprehensible stuff, in fact – about return tickets as opposed to one-way tickets as a symbol of the human condition, and maybe he discovers his return ticket is back to Our Lady of the sands rather than to the crappy existence we’ve had a few glimpses of in the middle section of the novel. And there’s some heady stuff about the glories of hard work as well…. Whatever, he ain’t going back to his past life, because Abe told us 170 pages ago.

15 July
To Chapter 27 – end of Part 2
They catch him straight away and chuck him back in… and he decides to stop worrying and learns to love his hole. Probably. So the two alternative outcomes turn out to be different parts of the same one. Inevitable? I suppose so: our man was never going to run away and then run straight back – although for a few pages it looked possible as Abe gave us two narratives running parallel. As he flounders his way across the dunes after nightfall (to run smack into the village, which isn’t what he wanted… unless you believe Freud might have been on to something) he keeps thinking about the woman he’s left in the hole. She’ll not realise at first that he’s gone… she’ll have to work harder now… will she let out a howl when she realises…? Guilt? You bet, despite his efforts to deny it.

But that isn’t the end: there’s Part 3 to come, another 30-odd pages, and… and what? How predictable can it get? I think I’ll stop making any more predictions and assume that by telling us about the man’s seven-year disappearance on Page 1, Abe was making a point. The ending is a given in this life – because, obviously, this novel really is about the human condition and not just some insect-gathering anorak who gets taken for a ride – and the only variable is whether we accept it or not. For most of the book our man remains tiresomely resolute that he, unlike the woman and the others in this godforsaken place, has a return ticket to a more fulfilling existence somewhere else. In Chapter 26 or 27 Abe, or his translator, even puts the idea into our man’s head of the grass appearing greener on the other side. Deep. But not as deep as the hole he’s still in.

17 July
Part 3 – to the end
Of course, a reader doesn’t know something is inevitable until the author confirms it…. But that seems to have been the story of the whole novel, not just Part 3. We knew 200 pages ago that, in all likelihood, this is how it was going to end – which leaves the question, to slightly alter what I wrote some time ago, of what those 200 pages are for. Does Abe take us on a journey we’re ultimately pleased to have gone on? Does he cover enough new ground to make the novel interesting? Hmm.

To start with, the plot. In Part 3 it seems that Abe wants enough new stuff to happen to our man for him to have a basic change of heart. How to make him stop wanting what he’s wanted all along? Abe offers us a number of New Elements, some of them more conventional than others. One of the conventional ones is the man’s accidental invention of a water distillation unit. He had been trying to invent a trap for crows so he could tie SOS messages to their legs – but, ironically, his delight at his discovery that all he’s trapped is water gives him enough of a sense of purpose for him to forget about escaping for the moment. He wants to share his knowledge with – wait for it – the other people in the village.

So, when an escape route is offered on a plate near the end – the precious rope ladder is left dangling – he puts off his escape until after he’s shown off his toy. (It’s a sign of Abe’s determination to make it plausible that he invents a new storyline – the woman’s entopic pregnancy – to make a rescue by the villagers nervous and hurried enough for them to forget the ladder.) The novel ends: ‘He might as well put off his escape until some time after that.’ This is after eight or nine months of being incarcerated and after this final sentence of his narrative comes the document pronouncing him a missing person nearly seven years later.

This is Abe being conventional. It isn’t all like that, because running parallel is the story of the man’s relationship with a community that seems ever more bizarre. For instance, their price for agreeing to let him have supervised walks outside the hole is to force him to have sex with the woman while they watch. (And reader, he goes along with it, to the woman’s disgust.) The woman is just as bad, in a different way. She tells him that the villagers sell the salt-tainted sand to builders despite its unsuitability and downright dangerousness. He is appalled, but she is indifferent: why should they care?

But what has the man to gain by attempting to return to his old life? Abe never makes it explicit, but it’s clear that this bonkers place is at least as good as anything else he’s ever known. Call it moral relativism if you like, but there’s a logic to the mindset of these people. Our man – who, as demonstrated by the ugly sex scene, is as bizarre in his own way as they are – appears to be all right with it. And Abe has done his best to convince us that these aren’t aliens from another planet, but human beings. This, he seems to be saying, is what we’re like.

I’ve read today that Abe is often compared to Beckett, and that similarities between this novel and Happy Days aren’t accidental. Somehow, the information confirms the novel’s place in the context of its time as fully as its country of origin. There appears to be a Japanese sensibility at work, and that’s often difficult for a Westerner to deal with. Ok. But 1962 is a foreign country as well, and I’m not sure I want to go there any more than I want to go to Abe’s godforsaken village in the sands.

When’s the next rocket-ship out of here?


3 Responses to The Woman in the Dunes – Kobo Abe

  1. phamquest says:


  2. Lachlan Rabbitt says:

    I really enjoyed both the nuances of the book and the holistic ideas, great analysis!!!

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