The Woman in the Dunes, written by Kobo Abe, superficially appears to be a simple description of the evolution of the lifestyle of an amateur entomologist who aspires to identify a new species of beetle; the plot is not convoluted, straightforwardly detailing how the man is trapped villagers living in the sand, is forced to endure Sisyphean tasks, and is gradually attached to his new home. In fact, it seems almost exemplary of an apathetic narrative style devoid of much value, yet this novel became the herald of Japanese literature post World War II, winning multiple awards, and even garnering a film adaptation. What exactly, then, is it that gives this seemingly bland prose such renown?
I had, after doing a quick skim through the book, initially assumed it to be a relatively fast and uninteresting read. This is most certainly not the case, and this novel is by no means meant for anyone not willing to fully mentally engage while reading. Kobo Abe's style of writing is extraordinary in that he does not truly define the characters through emotions and actions but through symbols and ideas that those actions represent. As such, the simplicity found in the novel is exceedingly devious; the writing, devoid of much description found in more traditional works, is so bare that it requires a higher level of inspection to even fully fathom the message being conveyed. For example, the main characters of the novel are not even properly named, but instead are referred to solely as 'the man' or 'the woman'; while this characterization creates a hazy outline of those involved in the story, it also forces a reader to think beyond what is simply expressed in the lines to fathom what is the idea behind the characters. The characters rarely involve in emotional introspection, but rather rely on the depiction of the external to relay what complexities are reflected in their own lives. For this reason of atypical yet addictive deceptively contemplative voice alone I would not recommend the novel The Woman in the Dunes to those who would like a lighter read; however, for those that enjoy such ploys of symbolism, it is a pleasurable book.
The novel, as mentioned, begins with an amateur entomologist who is searching the sand dunes for a new species of beetle. His name, Niki Junpei, is defined once in an official report of missing people, mentioned in the prologue, is not really mentioned for the rest of the story; he is characterized as a slightly misanthropic individual, whose burdens are almost reflections of the burdens faced by others. After being imprisoned, Junpei has a multitude of thoughts, but most notable is how quickly he accepts that no one from his normal society will truly put in effort to look for him. As Junpei's life in the sand dunes goes on, Abe continues to develop Junpei as a reflection of the values of self-worth, community, and work in society. The novel is a stellar telling of the intangible oppression faced by every individual in a community, and of the mutability of self-worth and personal dogma. It is the powerful and captivating analysis into the individuality of the person when compared to the population that makes The Woman in the Dunes stand out as a book worth reading.
Shashank Swaminathan is a junior at Novi High School. He enjoys playing music, doing karate, and reading novels in his spare time.