Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes, by celebrated writer and thinker Kobo Abe, combines the essence of myth, suspense and the existential novel.

After missing the last bus home following a day trip to the seashore, an amateur entomologist is offered lodging for the night at the bottom of a vast sand pit. But when he attempts to leave the next morning, he quickly discovers that the locals have other plans. Held captive with seemingly no chance of escape, he is tasked with shoveling back the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten to destroy the village. His only companion is an odd young woman. Together their fates become intertwined as they work side by side at this Sisyphean task.

Before reading this review, please be aware that it is not possible to talk about it in any depth about The Woman in the Dunes without giving away some key plot elements. But then in a way the plot isn't the most important thing about this book. I suppose there is the question of will he, won't he escape from the hole, but as the blurb says this is an existential novel, so you can probably work out the answer to that question. No, this is one of those books you carry on thinking about for days after you finished reading and not just because you are writing a review for your blog. It makes you ask some serious and fundamental questions about not only the book but also your life. 

So what are you doing with your life? Is it anything more than endlessly shoveling sand in return for food and a place to lay your head? Are you trapped in a hole looking up occasionally at the sky, but never seeing the horizon? If your life is more than this, why is that? What gives your life an added meaning? Is it love? Is it creating something?

This is in many ways a bleak book. It is regularly described as Kafkaesque, which I think is a fair description. There is a hopelessness about the central characters's position, but in this case the man is an innocent prisoner of people who are themselves outcasts. The writer has made his "hero" not particularly likeable: he is not brave, he is not pleasant, he is often indecisive, he is not particularly intelligent, his relationship with the woman (she doesn't get a name) and with his former lover (known simply as the other woman) is totally self-centred and mechanical. He is not the sort of person you would want to make friends with, he is the geek in the corner of the staffroom. He's a man who likes sticking pins in insects for goodness sake! He in turn becomes the insect we are studying.

But is the book totally bleak? That turns on how you interpret the ending. There is no right or wrong answer here. It could be bleak - the man has lost the will to escape and is thus trapped. Or there could be some sort of redemption - he has found some meaning in life in the hole. The choice is yours and that depends on your view of life.

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