Book Review: Woman in the Dunes by Abe Kôbô

dunesAbe Kôbô 安部 公房 (1924-1993) was born in Tokyo and raised in Manchuria. He studied medicine before he became an author and playwright. His works can be characterized as avant-garde with surrealistic elements. Abe Kôbô was strongly influenced by Western authors as Poe, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Kafka, which can be seen in many of his works.

His novel Woman in the Dunes was his international breakthrough and won the Yomiuri Award in 1962. The famous producer Hiroshi Teshigahara made a film of the novel in 1964. This was also praised as an outstanding artwork and won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in the same year. Abe Kôbô was nominated for the Nobel Prize of Literature many times.

An amateur entomologist called Junpei Niki loses his way on an excursion. He is alone searching for a rare beetle at the seashore somewhere at Japan’s west coast. There he enters a bizarre landscape. He finds a village completely blown over by sand. The damage is caused by constantly raging typhoons. Some of the houses have been buried completely by vast dunes.

These houses have been shoveled free from the sand. But because the dunes are so high, each house is now standing at the bottom of a separate sand hole, circled by high sand walls. They can be reached by climbing down a rope-ladder into a deep hole. The habitants have to shovel the sand away every day in order to survive. Because the sand is floating, it is like building a house in the ocean, by shoveling water away. The sand is everywhere and life is a struggle against the sand.

Junpei Niki is captured by the inhabitants of the village, forced into the home of an old woman, who is living alone in one of the sand holes. First he does not recognize, that he is a captive, but when he realizes, that the exit rope-ladder was drawn away, and there is no way out of the sand hole, his struggle for survival begins.

The relationship with the nameless woman is strange and difficult at the beginning and changes through the story. First he wants to distance himself from her, but becomes dependent on her later on. He despises her looks and her way of life. He feels a mix of disgust, despair, curiosity and yet sympathy for her.

The woman has been living in the dunes for a long time. The sand is blowing without mercy. Sand is everywhere, raining down from the ceiling, pouring down into the food, crawling under the clothes. She is used to the situation and has made her peace with it. She sleeps at day. At night she shovels sand away by filling little canisters. The people of the village help her transporting the sand away. That is her work. She is paid with water and food. Without shoveling sand, there will be no life. So Junpei Niki has to shovel sand too, but he is reluctant to do so, but otherwise he would be given no water.

Junpei Niki struggles, he does not want to stay! But the villagers will not let him go. He makes plans, but cannot break free. He does not want to take part of this extremely absurd way of life, but has to give in to survive. Then he rages against the woman and against the system – without effect. He tries to convince the woman to escape this nightmare, but she is assimilated to this life. She gave up resistance long time ago.

Abe Kôbô invented a nightmarish story of the individual in a world fallen to pieces, a no-way-out situation. Abe Kôbô pictures the condition of the individual in the Japanese society at his lifetime. Woman in the Dunes has similarities with the Sisyphus myth. A merciless nature, a fate that cannot be understood and without escape. It comes with a microscopic view, a very detailed narration with an extraordinary elaborated protagonist. The scenes are claustrophobic and raw, yet there is some sympathy between the characters and without helping each other they would not survive, so they do. The inner struggle of the protagonist is well described, so that you know his thoughts and can feel the tension, anxiety and strong will to survive in every scene. The solution of the story is surprising then, but only logical, if you give it a second thought.

Woman in the Dunes is an extraordinary exciting and fascinating book, a classic of Japanese modern literature. An absolute must read.

Japanese: Abe Kôbô. 砂の女 Suna no onna. 1962.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Woman in the Dunes by Abe Kôbô

  1. In the movie version, the entomologist was trapped with a YOUNG woman. I was left wondering why he chose not to escape when he had the chance..


    • Good point. Actually the inhabitants of the village call her “hey, old woman”, which does not necessarily mean, that she is old by today’s standards.Traditionally a Japanese woman is called “old” in her late twenties. I think, she is in her thirties according to the story, but her age is not mentioned.


    • The book is written from his perspective and his motifs become clear. If you read the book, you get a better understanding of his thoughts. It is a very impressive book.


  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Ruined Map by Abe Kôbô | Japan Kaleidoskop

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