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Friday, 23 October 2020

The Woman in the Dunes: ideas, style, dialogue, troubling aspects

1/ Niki Jumpei is held captive by the villagers and stuck in a ramshackle house at the bottom of a sand dune, with a woman. See what he thinks about her: 

“Her charms were like some meat-eating plant, purposely equipped with the smell of sweet honey. First she would sow the seeds of scandal by bringing him to the act of passion, and then the chains of blackmail would bind him hand and foot.” (Ch.12) 

The Woman in the Dunes is a terrifying, nightmarish, and claustrophobic novel, but at the same time it’s also erotic. There’s lots of sexual tension in it.  

“The woman sidled up to him. Her knees pressed against his hips. A stagnant smell of sun-heated water, coming from her mouth, nose, ears, armpits, her whole body, began to pervade the room around him. Slowly, hesitantly, she began to run her searing fingers up and down his spine. His body stiffened.” (ibid.) 

I won’t tell you what happens next, you have to find out for yourself. 


2/ Both he and the woman slave away for the village—for what? Food? Does she not want to go out, and perhaps take a walk? Does she not want a different life? How can she accept such a life, away from civilisation, shovelling sand all night every night and living like an animal? He asks but she doesn’t seem to understand—she has accepted it all. 

He doesn’t. 


3/ So far from 20th century Japan, I’ve read Soseki, Akutagawa, Kawabata, Tanizaki, and now Abe (not including the ones I read over 10 years ago), and Abe and Soseki are the writers with the most interesting metaphors and similes. 

I mean, look:  

 “It was hard to wait. Time was folded in endless, deep, bellow-like pleats. If he did not pause at each fold he could not go ahead. And in every fold there were all kind of suspicions, each clutching its own weapon. It took a terrible effort to go ahead, disputing or ignoring these doubts or casting them aside.” (Ch.18) 

This is when the teacher holds the woman hostage and tries to negotiate with the villagers. He refuses to work, thinking he holds the trump card because they wouldn’t want the whole village to be swallowed up by sand, not realising that he’s the one at a disadvantage because he’s at the bottom of a sand dune, unable to get out, and the villagers are the ones bringing them water and food. He’s not very good at negotiating—he threatens the villagers, but why should they care when he’s there and nobody outside knows it?  

“The morning, pressing its face, like the belly of a snail, against the windowpane, was laughing at him.” (ibid.) 

That’s an interesting, unusual simile. And it’s the morning, not the villagers or the whole situation, that laughs at him. 

The Woman in the Dunes is full of striking images. 

“The sand, clinging to the perspiration, was like a soggy wheat cake in texture and color.” (ibid.) 

Not everything looks good either. Look at the woman, being tied up to a chair. 

“The towel was as heavy as a dead rat with her saliva and foul breath. It had bitten into her flesh, leaving freckled spots, which did not seem about to go away. The stiffness in her cheeks, which had become like the skin of dried fish, began to relax as she repeatedly moved her lower jaw.” (Ch.16)


4/ I don’t think dialogue is Kobe Abe’s strength. Same with Kafka. It may be funny that the novel is not meant to be realistic and could be read as an allegory but I still find the dialogue awkward and slightly contrived—even when the setting, the entire situation is absurd and like a nightmare, I would still prefer the characters to sound natural and to talk like people, rather than the author’s mouthpieces bouncing ideas off each other. 

In The Woman in the Dunes, it’s fine when there’s a short exchange, but when the conversation gets a bit longer, there’s an unnaturalness about it that I don’t really like, especially the conversation between the teacher and the woman before they have sex the first time (ch.19). For a few lines it’s not even clear who’s saying what, until later, as the woman doesn’t seem to have a distinct voice—distinct enough for me to know if a line is spoken by her or by the teacher—though perhaps the voice gets lost in translation. In such a brilliant, well-written novel, that dialogue becomes an irritating blotch. 


5/ I would have to watch Teshigahara’s film adaptation again, which I saw many years ago, to make an adequate comparison, but about halfway through the novel, I cannot help thinking that the film would be superior as everything would be turned into images and all the unnecessary ramblings would be got rid of. This novel is rich in ideas, but near the end of chapter 19 there’s a long philosophical section that goes on till about chapter 21, and I feel that The Woman in the Dunes doesn’t have the artistic purity of Kafka’s best works (such as “The Metamorphosis” or “A Hunger Artist”). The narrator goes on and on about sex and Mobius and spiritual rape and soap opera and psychological venereal disease and death and hunger and certifications and all that, only because the woman doesn’t want a condom—it all becomes frustrating and appears a bit out of place. I’m talking, I must note, as a fan of Tolstoy and Moby Dick. Maybe there’s a point: Niki Jumpei, a theoretical man, develops even madder ideas because of heat and thirst and hunger and the encroaching sand and the whole preposterous situation. 

But in chapter 21, the writing returns to normal and is good again, even before the 2 characters get water. 

This is when the characters return to work: 

“No soon did he have the shovel in his hands than his exhausted limbs collapsed like a folding tripod.” (Ch.21) 

That’s good.

“His vocal cords were shredded like strands of dried squid…” (ibid.) 

Kobo Abe doesn’t say, but the teacher is now hungry: 

“The board wall of the house was as soft as a rice cake that has not fully dried; it looked like a seedbed for mushrooms.” (ibid.) 

Look at him: 

“A frothy saliva that tasted like egg white filled his mouth.” (ibid.) 


6/ Earlier I came across a blog post that pointed out a scene from The Woman in the Dunes that she found troubling and repulsive: 

“The woman, who had been entreating him at first, manifested obvious fright at this frenzy. He was seized by a feeling of prostration, as if he had ejaculated. Again he spurred his courage, forcing himself on by a series of helter-skelter lewd fantasies, arousing his passion by biting her breasts and striking her body, which, with the soap, sweat, and sand, felt like machine oil mixed with iron filings. He had intended to let this go on for at least two hours. But finally the woman gritted her teeth, and complaining of pain, crouched away from him. He mounted her from behind like a rabbit and finished up within seconds.” (ch.23)

The blogger read it as rape. I’m not sure. Is it rape, or is it rough sex? 

This is the moment before—she’s washing him and he’s washing her back:   

“He would wash her in return. Caught between confusion and expectancy, she made a gesture of resistance, but it was not clear just what she was resisting. He quickly poured a bucket of warm water over her naked body…” (ibid.) 

Is she resisting the touching, or resisting him putting soap and water on her? 

“She cried out and, sliding down his chest, crouched level with his stomach. Undoubtedly it was a posture of expectation. […] 

The woman’s excitement naturally infected him too. […] The woman was glowing from within now, as if she were being washed by a wave of fireflies.” (ibid.) 

To me, it looks more like aggressive, affectionless sex than rape, or at least it doesn’t seem absolutely definite that it’s rape. However, I do think that Niki Jumpei is not nice either to the woman in the dunes nor to the woman he left behind (referred to as “the other woman”)—he appears patronising and self-important from the start and some of his thoughts about women here and there are rather troubling, then the philosophical sections reveal more of his views on women, which are frustrating to read.  

However, I believe the point here is that Niki Jumpei is not likeable but it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t make what happens to him acceptable. It is precisely in making Niki Jumpei a jerk that Kobo Abe makes a stronger point about slavery, about the cold deception and exploitation by the village, about the exhaustion and meaninglessness of their struggle against the sand—we may not like the teacher personally but we are still with him against the village. 

I’ve finished chapter 24. The man is at the moment out of the trap, but I know he would soon be caught.

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