The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

The Woman in the Dunes - E. Dale Saunders, Kōbō Abe

Without the threat of punishment there is no joy in flight.


In Kobo Abe's fantasy world of The Woman in the Dunes, an amateur entomologist on vacation finds himself in a remote coastal village built amid deeply undulating dunes. There, he is tricked by a lonely widow and her neighboring villagers, trapped in deep pits shored by sand drift walls, to be charged with the task of shoveling back the ever-sliding banks, persistent and never-ending in its threat to entomb them.


Sand moves around like this all year long. Its flow is its life. It absolutely never stops— anywhere. Whether in water or air, it moves about free and unrestricted. So, usually, ordinary living things are unable to endure life in it.


The landscape of the dunes which Abe describes, of wood-rotted boxed dwellings built at the bottom of shifting sand hills, could not realistically exist, marking the novel as a science fiction/ fantasy thriller. In addition, its themes adopt surrealistic, dreamlike, metamorphosing features reminiscent of the works of Kafka, slowly shifting and deforming like the dunes themselves.


Things with form were empty when placed beside sand. The only certain factor was its movement; sand was the antithesis of all form.


Abe's works are generically concerned with the human state of balance, whose fragility becomes evident in a life of pointlessness and insufferable futility. In The Woman in the Dunes, Abe presents the grotesque sadness borne from a man's oppressive, fruitless daily life; the image of a degraded human being who is isolated, trapped in the monotony of routine, unable to escape a meaningless existence.


What's hardest for me is not knowing what living like this will ever come to.
What was this "Hell of Loneliness"? he wondered. Perhaps they had misnamed it, he had thought then, but now he could understand it very well. Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion.


To effectuate some meaningfulness to his situation, whether for the choice to stay or freedom of escape, the protagonist heroically attempts to alter his circumstance, significantly going through a metamorphosis of his own, but like the true kinetic nature of sand, its waves of ebbs and flows, his fate lays ambiguous.


The theory had been advanced that the man, tired of life, had committed suicide. One of his colleagues, who was an amateur psychoanalyst, held to this view. He claimed that in a grown man enthusiasm for such a useless pastime as collecting insects was evidence enough of a mental quirk.


The Woman in the Dunes has its share of vocabulary best fitted for the field of science, reflecting Abe's background in the profession; though his manipulation of such language effectively results in a poetic blend of logic and illogic, never off-putting for the reader, simply suspending reality for a thrilling period of time, meaningfully spent. I feel comfortably balanced in recommending this to readers of both sci-fi and Japanese literature.