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 to the beach and never returns. His family’s search turn up nothing about his whereabouts or why he suddenly disappeared, and 7 years later, he was declared officially dead, by the government.
Unbeknownst to his family and friends, however, he wasn’t dead. He was very much alive, held captive by the residents of a strange village among the sand dunes on the beach he visited.
One fateful day in August, the man, a teacher by profession and amateur entomologist, arrives at an isolated area, a 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 the strange village hidden amid the sand. He is lead to house at the bottom of a wide sandy hole, accessible only by a rope ladder. The house belonged to a young woman, who welcomed him and provided him with food and shelter for the night – or so he thought. She told him about her life, and how it revolved around sand – learning to live with it, and keeping it at bay. The next day, as the man awoke and got ready to leave the strange woman, he is confused when he sees that the rope ladder is no longer dangling from the top, and that he had no other way of leaving the hole. To his horror, he soon realizes that he was 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 for the entire village, and vows to not lift a finger to help the woman at her futile task, and to later 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 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 at clearing away the sand around the house, only for it to accumulate again during the day, and the activity is repeated ad infinitum, not only for the good of the woman, but also for the benefit of the whole village. The novel highlights the despair and hopelessness of being in a situation which cannot be changed or avoided. The story of the man’s terrible life with the woman in the village, however, is nothing compared to his shocking fate revealed at the end of the novel.
The story of this novel, for me, was 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 nonetheless having to go about fulfilling daily tasks and rituals in order 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