The Woman in the Dunes – Kōbō Abe

I’ve just spent the morning reading this utterly brilliant and very disturbing 1964 novel from Japan’s award-winning Kōbō Abe. Following a trip to look for new insects in a forgotten part of the coast, Niki Jumpei finds himself trapped in a sand dune pit with little hope of escape. The only other occupant in the slowly-mouldering house he is forced to shelter in is a nameless woman. What follows is, as the review from Time says, a ‘kafkaesque nightmare’. Jumpei is forced to consider his role as prisoner and how far he will go to escape or to ameliorate his position. He isn’t a particularly likeable character, but it is impossible to not urge him on as he struggles to come to terms with his new condition.

One of the most vivid moments comes as he realises water is being withheld until he agrees to work. Abe’s treatment of thirst is visceral, leaving me even more conscious of the value of water as a commodity. The sand itself encroaches on everything, creating a claustrophobic quality to Jumpei’s narrowing world. He tries to rationalise his situation, desperately holding onto a scientific reason that he thinks will save him. Early on he decides he can escape by changing the gradient of the slopes around him. We realise his efforts will be futile but we, like Jumpei, have to hope.

‘Suddenly the flow of sand grew violent. There was a muffled sound and then a pressure against his chest. He tried to look up to see what was happening, but he no longer had any sense of direction.’

The woman herself is also a fascinating figure, at times submissive and unquestioning and, at others, showing a strength to survive that is perhaps more effective than her new partner’s. However, we’re in no doubt that as a woman she is even more vulnerable, and her lack of a name is yet another nod to her ultimate powerlessness.

This is a very memorable tale, and one which will stay with me. Highly recommended.

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