Friday, 4 January 2008

Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

The Kobo Abe novel "Woman in the Dunes is a Japanese novel written in the 1960s and was made into a film in the same period. It traces, in a small book of less then 300 pages, the implications of being alienated and the contradictions of conformity freedom if that conformity has a purpose.

Niki Junpei a teacher trapped in a empty teaching job, a failed relationship and a life mapped up to retirement and death goes a secret 3 day trip- done to wind up his work colleagues. He is an amateur entomologist (bug collector!) which in Japan of the period is an equally conforming hobby. (The imagery of trapping, collecting, recording and pinning is an important an important motif.

Junpei is interested in sand bugs so goes to area of sand dunes. When he misses the last bus back, a group of locals suggest he stays the night in their village. They send him down a rope-ladder to a house at the bottom of a sandpit, where a young widow lives alone. She has been tasked along with a handful of other households by the village with preventing the sands from destroying the house (if their houses succumbs to the dunes then the other houses in the village will be threatened).

When Junpei tries to leave the next morning he finds the ladder removed. The villagers inform him that he must help the widow in her endless task of digging sand. Junpei initially tries to escape, upon failing he takes the widow captive, but is forced to release her when the house almost collapses after several days of sand build up outside. At one point he does escape only to be captured and gradually

Junpei eventually becomes the widow's lover but still continues to plot his escape. Through his persistent effort on trapping a crow for messenger, he discovers a way to draw water from the damp sand at night. He thus is able to choose his when he can escape.

At the end of the book Junpei gets his chance to escape, as he discovers what the sand is being used for and that assumption of who bad-good guys are is less clear. He refuses to take it as he now has the power to leave when he chooses and a purposeful if bleak life with a community that depends on him. We at the end of the novel know what the meaning of his official declaration of death that is reported at the beginning of the novel.

The book raised powerful questions on what is our purpose and what we sacrifice if that life is to have any meaning. Its central “character “is the ever changing sand dunes described and struggled with in writing that is evocative, mythical and deeply psychological… the silences, gestures and actions all revealing more in the spaces between. But, and this is important it also suspenseful! Highly recommended.

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