Woman in the Dunes

22 12 2009

The twentieth century Japanese classic “Woman in the Dunes” by Kobe Abe (translated into English by E. Dale Saunders) is my latest read. I can only say that it is so strange. I shouldn’t have expected anything less, given the fact that it is a Japanese work. To the extent of my association with Japanese literature or art, I encountered more than a hint of mystery and strangeness.

In this novel, an entomologist goes on an expedition to find a rare beetle among sand dunes and gets illegally detained by the nearby townspeople. The houses in that town are built in pits, at a far lower than the sea level. The house in which he was detained is inside a 60 ft pit. Sand permeates everything there – the food, water, skin, throat, everything. Sand collects on the roof and around the house which needs to be cleared on a daily basis, lest the wood rots, the house breaks down, or the sand buries the living. The people usually work all night and rest during the day, in order to protect themselves from the burning sand. In that house lives a lone woman and our protagonist is meant to help her with the work.

I felt it scary that one can get detained against one’s will in some strange place and that too in such inhabitable circumstances. The question that kept coming back to me as I read through the slave work they had to undergo is that – why live in such a place? I’m not sure of the demographics of the town in question, but I guess it’s a few hundred. Instead of fighting against the nature why can’t they leave and live elsewhere. May be things are not that simple but the description of life in that sand pit made me wonder that nothing is worth it.

When I learnt that this is not an isolated incident and that the townspeople have abducted many others before and continue to do it without remorse, I was filled with uneasiness and frustration (reflecting the protagonist’s). And the fact that none has ever managed to escape sent a chill down my spine. I’m sure the entomologist felt quite dreadful.

The townspeople seem to think that their position justifies their actions. With little help from the authorities and government, they seem to take things in their own hands and they are not touched by any moral implications. As to the legality, the chance of their deeds being discovered is very rare – given their remote location and the facts the imprisoned never manages to escape.

Nevertheless, our guy schemes and tries various plans to escape. At first he tries to work at the sand pit, but it soon becomes evident that it’s impossible to get any fruitful result in that way. Later he tries by refusing to share the work. And his non-cooperation is soon brought to end by withholding water and other supplies. At some point, he manages to climb to the top of the pit and even manages to go as far as the village gates, but only to be found and brought back in humiliation by the townspeople. Amidst all of it, he develops a habit of being with the woman and they maintain a relationship which is inevitable.

At the end of the novel, he does get an opportunity to slip by, but he chooses to await another opportunity.

At some point during his scheming for escape, he reflects in frustration that “A beggar for three days, always a beggar.” It is ironical that how he ended up in the end.

No one knows what happened to the missing entomologist (who is also a school teacher) and when 7 years pass by without any news of him, the court declares him as missing – he is wiped out from the external world.

The book’s very remarkable, both in its story and the narration. But to be frank I failed to get the accurate sense of some of the theories and reflective/introspective thoughts of the protagonist at various points in the story. Hmm…

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28 12 2009
Century « Peek Inside My Mind

[…] “Woman in the Dunes” had been a deeply affecting novel. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” was an enigma. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy was another disturbing but wonderful work. […]

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