First published in Japanese in 1962; first published in English by Vintage in 1964
Sand takes on a life of its own in Kobo Abé's disturbing novel, The Woman in the Dunes. An entomologist spends his vacation scouring remote sand dunes in the hope that he will find a previously unknown beetle. As night falls, he accepts an invitation to stay in a villager's home. Since each village home is built at the bottom of a bowl that has been dug from the sand, the man must climb down a rope ladder to meet the woman who will be his host. The woman spends the night (as she does every night) shoveling sand from the home's perimeter; if she does not, the home will become engulfed in falling sand. In the morning, the rope ladder is gone, and the man realizes he has been trapped, forced to join the woman in her endless labor.
Notably, the man's absence is not quickly noticed. Given his lonely and judgmental nature, he has no friends. "He longs so much for freedom and action that he can only hate people." In the hole, he has exchanged one empty existence for another. Although the man plots (and attempts) various schemes to escape, we learn in the first pages that the man is declared missing after a seven year absence from his home and job.
The Woman in the Dunes is strange but compelling fiction. The man (we never learn his name) experiences the range of emotions associated with death, from denial through acceptance, as he endures his years in the hole. The woman explains that the sand never stops falling. Each night brings the Sisyphean task of shoveling sand into buckets that village employees will lift from the bowl on ropes. The next night the shoveling must start anew. "But this means you exist only for the purpose of clearing away the sand," the man observes. If ever there was a pointless existence, the man has stumbled into it.
Yet his new life may not be as bad as it might seem. Interestingly, the man comes to value pointless work; it is a tool that makes self-denial possible. The man's relationship with the woman changes over the years, from revulsion (he initially sees her as "an old tube that has been squeezed dry of all sex") to -- if not love -- at least understanding and empathy. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome, although the novel predates that term. The psychological and philosophical implications of the novel are fascinating.
The story has a surrealistic quality. Abé makes no attempt to explain why this village exists, yet I found it easy to accept the premise. While I am not usually a fan of the existential novel (like many people, I suspect existence is pointless but I find it comforting to pretend otherwise), The Woman in the Dunes is more than a commentary upon the futility of life. Yet as the man comes to terms with his plight -- as he ponders whether his enemies are the villagers who keep him captive, the woman who meekly shares his fate, or the sand itself -- the man is forced to reinvent himself. Much of the novel consists of his internal monologue, the moment-by-moment evolution of the man's reaction to his predicament and his constantly vacillating response (sometimes anger, sometimes desire, sometimes both at once) to the woman whose home (and body) he shares. The novel's ending is foreshadowed but, in the context of the story, it is perfect; no other resolution (if one could call it that) would be true to the events that preceded it.
In short, The Woman in the Dunes is a remarkable piece of fiction. It combines the qualities of a myth with the gritty realism of a suspense novel, all the while challenging the reader to make sense of the story's broader implications.