How would you like if you are lost without a trace? What would happen to your conscience if you cease to exist in your world as if you were never born and find yourself incarcerated in an unfamiliar world that is savage, unrelenting, deadly; and all your attempt of escape ends with another avalanche of sand dunes? Sounds very Kafkaesque, right? It is thus the Kobo Abe‘s novel “The woman in the dunes” start: with an unmistakable Kafkaesque spirit that tends to almost throttle its reader as well as its unnamed protagonist.
Kobo Abe (born Kimifusa Abe) was essentially one of the modernist Japanese writer whom modernism was more of a haunting experience rather than something that he embraced or celebrated. True, the facets of early twentieth century Euro-centric art forms like Dadaism or Surrealism spilled over in his work; granted, he was indebted to Kafka, Camus, Dostoevsky more than he would have liked to admit. Still Kobo was a writer of the east. The fatalistic ideas translating in his works: be it in novels like “The woman in the dunes” or “The face of another” or be it the script of the film “Pitfall”, Kobo is more often than not a easterner trying to come in terms with modernity with the sense of fatalism. If the novel “The woman in the dunes” has to have a central character, it must have to be this sense of fatalism.
The novel opens with the picturesque description of the life of a modern urban entomologist living his life to the fullest possible vitality. How he is ‘progressing’ in his work and in his area of expertise is transcribed to the readers in a brief but definite manner, until, the modern man fell into the sand pits without any hope of escape. There’s no point in restating the obvious fact that the fall is metaphorical as well as physical. As if to render his escape more improbable, there’s a woman accompanying in the pit surrounded by dunes with him. She is insistent on imposing herself upon him, thus becoming his eventuality.
The rest of the novel deals with their relation: how they come in terms with the fact that they are in an inescapable entanglement and how they accept each other as their destiny. A considerable part of the story also deals with their constant battle against nature: their survival attempt by removing the ever-encroaching ever-engulfing sand. But this battle does not transpire into a typical man versus nature battle as seen in Hemingway‘s Old man and the sea, partly because the fatalist Kobo Abe could have never let the human endeavour win (that would have destroyed the central motif of the novel anyway) and partly because the sand was never really meant to allude the nature: it was supposed represent the inescapable destiny against which all the human endeavours are supposed to cease to rebel and conform, seek a truce. The incessantly flowing sand blew as if it was the ceaseless time, the great Cronus, against whom all our efforts are but ephemeral. In a way the novel ends with an air of Greek tragedy, leaving Kobo Abe and his readers at the shore of angst of futility and determinism.