Published in 1962, The Woman in the Dunes, or Suna no Onna (Sand Woman) in Japanese, tells the strange and horrifying tale of a man who goes on a bug-hunting excursion at the beach and never returns. His family’s search turns up nothing about his whereabouts or why he suddenly disappeared, and seven years later, he is declared officially dead by the government.
However, unbeknownst to his family and friends, he wasn’t dead. He was very much alive, held captive by the residents of a strange village in the sand dunes at the beach he visited.
One fateful day in August, the man, who is a teacher by profession and an amateur entomologist, arrives at an isolated beach with far reaching sand dunes in search of a rare type of beetle. After a day of fruitless searching under the scorching heat, he realizes that he might not be able to get back to the city on time. Fortunately, he meets a kind stranger who offers him a place to stay in a strange village hidden amid the sand. He is lead to a house at the bottom of a wide sandy hole that is accessible only by a rope ladder. The house belongs to a young woman, who welcomes him and provides him with food and shelter for the night – or so he thinks. She tells him about her life and how it revolves around sand – learning to live with it and keeping it at bay. The next day, as the man wakes and gets ready to leave the strange woman, he is perplexed at seeing that the rope ladder is no longer dangling from the top and that he has no other way of leaving the hole. To his horror, he soon realizes that he is being held captive by the whole village and assigned to live with and help the woman in her daily task of keeping the sand from swallowing up her little house and ultimately, the entire village.
The man seethes with anger and hatred not only for the woman but also for the entire village and vows to not lift a finger to help the woman at her futile task but find a way to escape his horrid situation. As the man rebels from the work in different ways, he quickly realizes that the villagers also have their ways of forcing him to participate in the task, slowly but steadily breaking his will and resolve.
The Woman in the Dunes is a dark novel about the struggles and challenges of life – the monotony and futility of daily tasks one is forced to undergo as a member of a functioning society. The man in the novel is forced to work all night clearing away the sand around the house only for it to accumulate again during the day. This activity is repeated ad infinitum not only for the benefit of the woman but also for the whole village. The novel highlights the despair and hopelessness of being in a situation that cannot be changed or avoided. However, the story of the man’s terrible life with the woman in the village is nothing compared with his shocking fate at the end of the novel.
For me, the story of this novel is terrible in so many levels. Taken literally, the man’s situation would be unbearable. To be constantly surrounded by sand – eating, sleeping, and living in sand and to have sand in your clothes and the crevices of your body would be a nightmare. Metaphorically, being in a hopeless situation but needing to fulfill daily tasks and rituals to survive would be equally horrendous.
The Woman in the Dunes is a deep novel that touches on existentialism, with a possible critique against the rigidity of Japanese culture and society. It’s not a novel to be taken lightly, and I certainly don’t recommend it to anyone who is already depressed or in a rut. It will plunge you in a pit of despair – well, maybe not, but it will certainly make you hate sand!
The Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna) (1962) – Kobo Abe
Vinage Books; 241 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 2.5/5