The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1962)
Review by Nicole Roché, Online Managing Editor/Fiction Editor
**WARNING: This review contains spoilers.**
The opening line of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes states, “One day in August a man disappeared.” The unnamed narrator offers various theories about what might have happened to the man. Did he run off with a mistress? Did he take his own life? A teacher and hobby entomologist, the man was known for his frequent insect collecting. As the narrator asserts, entomologists often have secret, even perverse compulsions: “From this point to suicide out of weariness with the world is but a step.” Readers are told at the end of the chapter that after seven years the man was never found, and thus was declared dead.
Like the Book of Genesis, which opens with dual (and contradictory) creation myths, the novel’s next chapter offers readers a second, far more detailed take on the man and his fate. “One August afternoon,” the chapter begins, “a man stood in the railroad station at S—. He wore a gray peaked hat, and the cuffs of his trousers were tucked into his stockings. A canteen and a large wooden box were slung over his shoulders. He seemed about to set out on a mountain-climbing expedition.” This second, far more fleshed-out version of events, begins the story proper. We learn the man has traveled to the village by the sea in hopes of finding a new species of beetle, a discovery that will forever win him a place in the history books. Of course, at this early point in the novel readers already feel the bittersweet pang of dramatic irony—the man’s name will indeed go down in history, though not in the way he has hoped for or imagined.
As the man first sets foot in the mysterious village, so too are readers brought step by step into the nightmarish unreality of the novel’s setting. The man realizes that as the sand he walks on continues to rise, the village’s houses remain on their original plane. As he continues to walk up the ever-rising dune, the houses become more and more buried. The man stops in his tracks: “What in heaven’s name could it be like to live there? he thought in amazement, peering down into one of the holes.” He becomes preoccupied when the elusive rare beetle makes an appearance. Villagers begin to watch him as he chases after it, and they ask if he is some sort of inspector. Night falls. The villagers offer to put the man up for the night. He must climb down a rope to get to the house at the bottom of the dune where he will spend the night. Here he meets the woman who lives in the house. He learns that her husband and child were killed years ago after being buried in a sandstorm. The woman cooks dinner for the man, and they quibble about the nature of sand, the novel’s central metaphor. The man is attracted to the woman, and annoyed by her. In the night, he awakens to the sounds of the woman shoveling sand. The villagers stand above, on the ridge, and lift buckets the woman has filled. She must work like this all night, every night. “‘But this means you exist only for the purpose of clearing away the sand, doesn’t it?’” the man asks. The woman thus emerges as a Sisyphean figure: both noble and tragic. The man, frustrated, eventually acquiesces and helps shovel. But in the morning, when he tries to leave, he finds that his only means of escape, the rope, has been removed in the night.
From here, still so early in the novel, the plot becomes, like that of so many other existentialist novels (eg., Franz Kafka’s The Trial or Albert Camus’s The Plague) a lab experiment in which readers see the characters’ mettle tested under increasing degrees of pressure and absurdity. Will the man attempt to escape? Will he harm himself, or the woman who has played such a central role in his capture and imprisonment? Or, on the other hand, will he give himself over to his desire for the woman? Make a life with her? Allow himself to enjoy that life without regret or anger or recrimination?
Camus calls his collection of essays The Myth of Sisyphus (1955) “a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.” What does it mean to live and to create in the desert? This is essentially what Camus means by learning to live in acknowledgment of, and in spite of, the Absurd, which he says results from the “confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” The world remains indifferent to human ideals and striving. The Myth of Sisyphus, which seeks to answer the question of whether suicide is justified in the face of an absurd existence, argues that to truly live amid the Absurd requires us to embrace it. In other words, we must learn not just to survive but to thrive. “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum,” Camus writes, “is living, and to the maximum.”
Living, and creating, in the Absurd can mean so many different things at different points in our lives. At some point everyone undergoes times of turbulence, whether good and bad. Everyone lives, for a time, steeped in grief or despair or regret. Everyone grapples at one time or another with inertia, boredom, discontent, outrage, fear.
John Scalzi with the Los Angeles Times recently offered readers a ten-point plan for getting creative work done during a time many of us would call absurd: the time of a Trump presidency. The first step is, “Acknowledge it’s bad, and other facts of life.” In this first step, which is arguably the most crucial, Scalzi observes that denial won’t change anything about a situation. Furthermore, “It’s all right to acknowledge that day-to-day life exists, even in the face of existential crisis.” Awareness of one’s situation, however terrible, need not necessarily lead to despair, because revolt of some kind is always possible, if only in our essential approach or attitude. The Woman in the Dunes focuses readers on this truth. “There is no sun without shadow,” as Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus’s closing essay, “and it is essential to know the night.”
Nicole Roché is the online managing editor and a fiction editor for CutBank. She is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana.