There’s an appeal to disappearing, a romantic idea of starting all over again, leaving a shared past for others to interpret and understand while new possibilities stretch out. What would it be like to step from the restraints of one’s identity? Kobo Abé approaches some of these ideas in The Woman in the Dunes, but from a perspective that is more Hitchcock or Poe than anyone else.
The novel opens with a middle age teacher out collecting insects for the week along an obscure coast of Japan. He’s told no one his plans in an attempt to cause jealousy among his co-workers and so that they will fall into the bland trap of gossip. Nobody knows where he has gone. He’s kept it from his mother, and from the woman with whom he is in a relationship. The teacher has decided to search this area for insects because it is remote and he has also developed a theory of the shifting nature of sand, which appeals to his world view. It’s along these dunes that he discovers a village in struggle with the sand. The people are poor, isolated, and mistrustful. The dunes threaten their small village and pile around the perimeter. Looking for shelter, the teacher is taken to a place where he can spend the night. The night turns into days and weeks.
The survival of the town depends on these homes beyond the perimeter where the poorest villagers live in the bottoms of steep bowls shaped from the winds. Each night the men and women must dig out the sand while the villagers haul it up. The teacher has become a slave. He resists, he plots his escapes, he lashes out at the woman with whom he lives and questions his life and identity.
From a creative perspective, this is an interesting novel. As a fan of Haruki Murakami, I wondered if The Woman in the Dunes influenced his writing at all. Following the vein of magic realism or the bizarre, it is an easy progression from writer to the next. Granted, this is the first novel I’ve read by Abé, so my ideas may be completely unfounded. Full of tension and terror, the reader begins to question what their own actions may be in similar situation (think kidnapping alone, and not kidnapping and life living in the bottom of a strange, shifting, dune village). The writing is not full of beauty, but this may be because it is a translation. It is a quick read though, and if you are looking for something a little different, this book will provide a haunting narrative.