Translated by E. Dale Saunders, with an introduction by David Mitchell

I’m spending the month on Japanese culture in general (books, film, music, art…), and major Japanese author Kobo Abe, born in Tokyo in 1924, was new to me. I read his novel The Woman in the Dunes for my ‘Japanuary’ and for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15, hosted by Dolce Bellezza.

Kobo Abe spent much of his childhood in Manchuria in China, which was invaded by Japanese troops when he was seven. The brutality he witnessed made him ashamed of his Japanese identity, and from childhood he despised nationalism, and held an internationalist outlook.

He studied at Tokyo University, dodging the draft with a forged medical exemption certificate, and (this is perhaps apocryphal) graduated from medical school on the proviso that he agreed never to practise medicine.

Initially he wrote, but lived in poverty. However, The Woman in the Dunes was published in 1962, and was an enormous success, being translated into around 20 languages, and winning the prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature. The book’s themes seem to have upset the Japanese Communist Party so much that Abe was kicked out. It inspired the Cannes-winning 1964 film of the same name, which can be watched in full on YouTube.

The early pages of the book open with teacher, ‘salaryman’ and amateur etymologist Niki Jumpei travelling to an area characterised by extensive sand dunes in search of a particular type of beetle, in the hope of making it big in new-species spotting. However, it gets dark and it becomes too late for Niki to travel home, so he takes up the offer of a bed for the night.

This bed is no luxe Air BnB though: he’s taken to a damp, stinky and, especially, sandy hut, occupied by an unsettling, submissive young woman. Most strange is the fact that the hut is accessible only by means of a rope ladder, situated as it is in a deep, funnel-like pit of sand.

Niki soon discovers that the woman is widowed, and worse still has lost her only child, both tragedies the result of a freak sand-related accident. She spends each night frantically shovelling sand to prevent her home from being subsumed. The sand is taken up out of the pit by villagers with buckets, and at the end of a gruelling night she is finally able to rest when the sun comes up. It’s not clear why she works this way round – presumably it is simply too hot to do it in the day under the relentless sun.

On waking in the morning, Niki realises to his horror that the rope ladder that would enable him to leave has disappeared. The woman is compared unfavourably with the insects that he researches: she spends her time frenetically, desperately burrowing, repeating the same seemingly pointless and irrational actions.

Niki is rational and scientific, but apparently powerless in the face of his situation and the needs of the young woman and the rest of the villagers to fight back the sand – without past, without future, existence is overtaken with essentially pointless busy-work, as the tiny grains of sand combine to create a life-threatening mass. The opening lines of the novel indicate that efforts at escape are futile:

One day in August a man disappeared. He had simply set out for the seashore on a holiday, scarcely half a day away by train, and nothing more was ever heard of him. Investigation by the police and inquiries in the newspapers had both proved fruitless.”

As Niki assists the woman in her task, he increasingly loses any sense of agency. Thus, he joins her in digging endlessly the encroaching sand in order to prevent the whole house – and the wider village – from being submerged, in return for food, shelter, sake and tobacco. There is a horribly mechanical kind of sexual tension between the two characters, but their couplings are devoid of any kind of eroticism.

This is an absurdist, dystopian fable, written in straightforward, uncomplicated prose. Abe’s writing was influenced by surrealism as well as by the work of writers such as Kafka and Beckett. I found it to be an uncomfortably compelling read, and a bonus was the fact that my Penguin Modern Classic edition came laden with wonderful drawings by Machi Abe.

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