The Japanese Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, there existed a king named Sisyphus. He was the son of Aeolus and the father of Glaucus.  He was also the founder of Ephyra, believed to be the origin of present-day Corinth. However, his claim to popularity was how he was able to escape death, not once but twice. During the first instance, he chained Death up so that no one died. Ares came to Death’s aid, forcing Sisyphus to submit. Again outsmarting the gods, Sisyphus asked his wife, Merope, to not perform burial rites. With his body unburied, Sisyphus was permitted by the underworld to return to the world of the living to punish his wife. He didn’t return to the underworld, thus, earning the ire of Zeus. For his offense, Sisyphus was forced to roll a boulder up a hill. Once he nears the summit, the boulder rolls back down. He must perform this task for eternity.

Sisyphus might not be who Kōbō Abe, born Kimifusa Abe, had in mind when he started working on what would be his most celebrated novel, The Woman in the Dunes. Originally published in Japanese in 1962 as Suna no Onna (砂の女), the novel commenced with an allusion to an unnamed man who went missing; his name was later on revealed towards the end of the story as Niki Jumpei. When pieced together, information gathered by the police does not amount to anything substantial, especially as a lot of conjecture was involved. It was said he was murdered. In a stretch of the imagination, it was posited that he committed suicide. However, no lifeless body was ever discovered. By decree of law and with no substantial lead that will lead to the truth, this man, unnamed at the start, was pronounced dead after the passage of seven years.

The story then flashed back to 1955. Jumpei was a reclusive teacher who taught at a boy’s school in Tokyo. He recently developed a new interest, a new hobby, a passion that he wanted to cultivate. He wanted to collect insects, but not just any insects. He found butterflies and dragonflies mundane, thus, they did not pique either his interest or curiosity. He wanted to collect insects that lived in the dunes: “The true entomologist’s pleasure is much simpler, more direct: that of discovering a new type.” His new passion made him pursue a grander vision. He knew that the discovery of new species will earn him a place in illustrated encyclopedias of entomology.

“In a sense, then, the whole village seemed to have become a rising slope with only the buildings left on their original level. This impression became more striking as he went along. At length, all the houses seemed to be sunk into hollows scooped in the sand. The surface of the sand stood higher than the rooftops. The successive rows of houses sank deeper and deeper into the depressions.”

~ Kōbō Abe, The Woman in the Dunes

Despite his relatively amateurish capabilities, he started considering himself a “dedicated” entomologist. One August afternoon, he traveled to an anonymous remote fishing village built amid shifting dunes. He has only one goal: to collect insects in the dunes. He got so soaked up in his task that he didn’t notice time passing him by. It seemed futile as he was not able to spot a single beetle of the family that he was searching for. Before he realized it, he missed the last bus going out of the village. Left with no recourse but to spend the night in the village, he asked the locals for a place to stay for the night. The locals warmly abided and led him to a ramshackle lodging house located at the bottom of a funnel-shaped pit of sand and can only be accessed through a rope ladder.

The lodging had only one inhabitant, a young woman, the titular woman in the dunes. Apart from running the lodging, she spent her time shoveling sand that accumulate every night into buckets. Beyond her unusual preoccupation, there was nothing out of the ordinary that stood out. That was what he thought. Things soon started to take a horrific, even nightmarish turn. Upon waking up the following morning, the book’s hero discovered that the rope ladder, the only way out of the sandpit, was no longer where it was the night before. It soon dawned on him that he was conned and was now trapped in a situation he was an unwilling participant in, with an enigmatic woman he barely knew.

Jumpei’s initial impulse reaction was to resist. This was not something he bargained for. What developed was a subtle conflict between his indomitable spirit to escape and the equally unyielding will of the villagers to keep him trapped. He plotted several means of escape but each one failed. Like the Sisyphus of Greek mythology, he kept climbing up the sand dunes only to roll back into the depths of the sandpit. It was a test of wills. On one side, there was only one of him, but on the other side was an entire village. The villagers had the upper hand for they possessed the only things to ensure his survival: food and water. Resistance, he soon realized, was futile.

Abe, one of the most renowned Japanese writers of his time, was able to vividly capture the transitions in the main character’s emotions. It all started with a feeling of betrayal, of being deceived. He pleaded at the start but his pleas fell on deaf ears. It eventually brewed into full-blown anger which fueled his resistance. It eventually turned into desperation. Despite his pleas, in the end, he was beaten into submission, badly. He knew it was his fate and the sooner he accepted his fate, the better it would be for him. However, this did not keep him from feeling desolate. Abe was able to capture the feeling and atmosphere of isolation when one finds one’s self in a situation one never expected, that moment when you realize that there was no longer any silver lining. There was a general sense of hopelessness that hovered above the story.

“This image of the flowing sand made an indescribably exciting impact on the man. The barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently was due to the ceseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things. What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out.”

~ Kōbō Abe, The Woman in the Dunes

The main character was a man of science, therefore, a man of reason. However, his background in science did little to prepare him for what he would experience in the sand dunes. From science, his story shifted into one of existentialism as the story digs deep into the human psyche. It was these existentialist allegories that were amongst the novel’s finer facets. Initial instincts kicked in as a swirl of emotions seized the main character. It was eventually replaced by rational thoughts and reasoning. Still, the questions surrounding the meaning and purpose of life persisted. How does one find happiness in a situation one never signed up for? What was the point of living when it is anchored on the diktats of others, of strangers? How does one define existence?

In the end, after all the struggles to regain freedom, came acceptance of what fate had in store, with Jumpei finally mentally withdrawing. He gradually found meaning in his new existence and an integral part of this acceptance was the young woman he found himself with. His initial reaction to her was contempt. Why was she not resisting her fate dictated by the village? Jumpei soon realized the reason for her subservience: she doesn’t have any idea of what freedom meant. Just when rational thought returned, primal male instincts kicked in; being isolated in a confined space can easily alter one’s mindset. Jumpei and the woman, who was simply referred to as the “woman”, forged what can only be perceived as a strange and turbulent relationship where boundaries were ambiguous. It was a mutually-beneficial bond subtly driven by sexual tensions and their carnal needs, but it never blossomed into something romantic.

As a character, the woman’s profile was anchored on Jumpei’s insights and observations of her; the rest of the story was built around his contemplations and experiences while trapped in the sandpit. However, he was an unreliable observer and was then driven by the dictates of his emotions. One time, he considered her a temptress who colluded with the villagers to keep him trapped in the sandpit. On other days, he saw her as a powerless victim of the same society that drove him to the bottom of the sandpit. She could be a prostitute or could be a virgin. On good days, she was a dutiful partner. On bad days, she was his foe. His treatment of her was appalling, very badly in fact. His responses to her and his anti-hero tendency are further ruminations on the complexity of human nature. She was also his antithesis. Jumpei came from a big city while she grew up in the village. He was the personification of science while she was a product of a more primitive lifestyle in the countryside.

Abe’s masterful writing breathed life into the sand. It was an all-encompassing presence, a character that loomed above the story. It was revealed that the woman was previously married. A year prior to Jumpei’s arrival, her husband and child were buried alive in a sand erosion during a typhoon. The sand was no simple object. It was alive, ubiquitous, and even destructive. It was invading the characters’ bodies, their clothes, and the bed they were sleeping in. It was in their eyes, in the food they eat, and in the water they drink. It was crawling down their bare skin. It was constantly on the march, with a mission to conquer them. It also threatens to inundate the village, its very existence. It was a nightmare that was pushing them to the brink. The arid dune is a reflection of the hopelessness we feel when we find ourselves in an inescapable quandary. The animation of the undulating sand added to the overall feeling of claustrophobia that permeated the story.

“Certainly sand was not suitable for life. Yet, was a stationary condition absolutely indispensable for existence? Didn’t unpleasant competition arise precisely because one tried to cling to a fixed position? If one were to give up a fixed position and abandon oneself to the movement of the sands, competition would soon stop. Actually, in the deserts flowers bloomed and insects and other animals lived their lives. These creatures were able to escape competition through their great ability to adjust – for example, the man’s beetle family.”

~ Kōbō Abe, The Woman in the Dunes

Beyond the ruminations and musings of Jumpei, the novel subtly explored the willingness of humankind to exploit their fellows for capitalist gains. The buckets of sand being shoveled were lifted up the sand cliffs every morning and sold illegally to construction companies. There again existed a contrast for the villagers were waging a war against the very same element they were earning a living. The ladder was symbolic. Climbing it was akin to climbing the rungs of society. In hindsight, it also represented freedom. For those on top, it represented power and control. Ironically, the people who got trapped subconsciously adjust to the conditions after a while, with some of them even thriving. They slowly forget how society – the village – trapped them. When an opportunity to be unchained presents itself, they have to double-take to confirm what they see. What seemed an easy choice was not so easy after all. The book’s conclusion vividly captured this irony of our existence.

Brimming with philosophical musings, both on a personal and universal scale, The Woman in the Dunes is a highly introspective literary piece about life and existence. The Woman in the Dunes is the very quintessence of the existentialist novel, a highly atmospheric story that dug deep into the human psyche through the story of Jumpei and his isolation with the eponymous woman. Abe’s insights into the complexities of human nature made the story flourish. The premise was simple and the plot straightforward but the lush exploration of a plethora of subjects, with emphasis on the meanings of life, isolation, freedom, and sexuality, perhaps one of life’s highest forms of liberation, made the novel an integral part of Japanese literature and of literature in general.

“I hear there are people in the world who, over a period of ten years, have calculated the value of pi to several hundred decimal places. All right, I suppose they have that much reason for existence. But you took the trouble of coming to such a place as this precisely because you rejected such a reason for existence.”

~ Kōbō Abe, The Woman in the Dunes
Ratings

83%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 
24%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

Like most of the books I have been reading since 2016, my first encounter with Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes was on must-read lists. It was ubiquitous and also came in highly recommended. I was initially apprehensive because the book was giving me strong science fiction vibes, a literary genre that I am still exploring. I eventually relented because I surmised that it was an integral part of Japanese fiction. It did take me some time before I was able to obtain a copy of the book and once I did, I didn’t hesitate to make it part of my immersion into Japanese literature in 2021. At the start of the story, I was thrown off by the story. I knew immediately that it was not something common, at least as far as I have read in Japanese literature. The elements of science, particularly the details of insects, felt eccentric. I, later on, realized that it was setting me up for an unusual literary journey. As the story moved forward, I got my grip on it. What Abe did best was evoking the feeling of isolation, desolation, and desperation, in equal measures. There was an atmosphere of claustrophobia and hopelessness that transcended the story. And it all felt so real despite what one can perceive as absurd.

It wasn’t an easy read but it was worth it. One word commonly used to describe the book is Kafkaesque. I want to read more of Abe’s works and, maybe sometime in the future, I get to read the works of Franz Kafka. Interestingly, it was said that Abe was a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize in Literature but his untimely demise put the discussion to a premature end.

Book Specs

Author: Kōbō Abe
Translator (from Japanese): E. Dale Saunders
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: 1992
Number of Pages: 241
Genre: Psychological Fiction

Synopsis

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.

About the Author

Kimifusa Abe (安部 公房) was born on March 7, 1924, in Tokyo, Japan but was raised in Mukden (now Shenyang), in Manchuria, where his father, a physician, taught at the medical college. At school, he excelled the best in mathematics. In 1941, he returned to Tokyo to attend high school. Two years later, he attended the Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), where he took up medicine. However, he returned to Manchuria in 1945 without completing his degree. He was repatriated to Japan in 1946 and in 1948, he completed his degree in medicine.

At a young age, he was also exposed to the works of literary greats such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lewis Carroll. By the time Abe finished his degree, he was already deeply entrenched in his literary endeavors; he never got to practice his chosen profession. In 1947, he self-published his first book, Mumei shishū (Poems of an Unknown). A year later, he published his first novel, Owarishi michi no shirube ni (The Road Sign at the End of the Street). While it was successful commercially, it was with his 1951 short novel, Kabe (The Wall), that he started getting critical acclaim. Kabe won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. Global acclaim arrived with the publication of Suna no onna (The Woman in the Dunes, 1962). The book won the 1962 Yomiuri Prize and was also adapted into an award-winning film.

Abe’s other works include Daiyon kampyōki (Inter Ice Age 4, 1959), Tanin no kao (The Face of Another, 1964), Moetsukita chizu (The Ruined Map, 1967), Hakobune Sakura-maru (The Ark Sakura, 1984), and Kangarū nōto (Kangaroo Notebook, 1991). He has also written short story collections, essays, and poems. He also formed the Abe Kōbō Studio, a theatrical company, in 1973, for which he wrote and directed plays. One of his plays, Tomodachi (Friends), won him the prestigious Tanizaki Prize in 1967. His most well-known play, Tomodachi was performed in the United States and France. Kōbō Abe was his pseudonym.

Abe passed away on January 22, 1993, in a Tokyo hospital due to heart failure.