Suna no onna [Woman in the Dunes]
I googled it and I was surprised to find over 400.000 results. It seemed like such an obscure book…but what do you know? There’s a movie. Supposed to be a good one too, written by Kobo Abe as well – which is probably fine in the way that it keeps the tone of the book. But while I occasionally try Japanese literature – I’m not going anywhere near Japanese cinematography.(Call me prejudiced, but I’m quite sure I won’t enjoy it.)
The book – it’s a 200 page metaphor really. Influenced by Kafka (but not getting anywhere near the master), Kobo Abe manages to create a bleak atmosphere, as unsure as quicksands. The plot thread is quite straightforward: Niki Jumpei, a school teacher with a passion for insects, wanders in a village situated in a desert area in search of some new bug specie. Night falls, locals offer him shelter in a single woman’s house which, by the next morning, will prove to be a trap. The house is in a deep sand pit and is one of the rim houses, keeping the desert from swallowing the whole village. Thus, night after night, the woman is committed to removing buckets of sand from the pit, to prevent her house from collapsing. The trapped man (and by no means the first) is nothing more than free labour. As the initial shock and surprise of his imprisonment wears off the fear and desperate attempts to escape follow, before his will is crushed and he starts his existence as one of the sisyphean villagers.
The woman – unnamed – changes as Niki’s perception of her changes: from captor to victim, from despise and fury to pity and understanding. He can’t take in her unwillingness to fight and leave the village until he realises that the sand pit is all she knows, that “freedom” doesn’t mean anything to her and that her biggest aspiration is to have a radio. Fighting his new condition gives way to adjusting to it as the woman will first serve him as a hostage in dealing with the village elders, then as a sexual partner and finally as a life partner. Years will pass (7 years after Niki’s mother submitted a missing person’s form he is be declared dead) until the woman’s extra-uterine pregnancy causes the villagers to rush her to a doctor leaving him the rope stairs that will, for the first time, grant him his freedom. After all this time, his reactions is almost of indifference – what will to change his condition he had is long gone. His cage has become his home.
But the main character is, in fact, sand. Sand insinuates in everything – food, house, skin until it takes over. The village is practically governed by this eternal sand – a forever changing prison. Niki’s initial scientific eye and curiosity towards it, turns to accepting it as a superior force and, in dedicating his life to such a meaningless task as shovelling sand, he shows the true futility of everyone’s life.