A short write up on Suna no Ona / Woman in the Dunes by Abe Kobo

Book cover for Abe Kobo's Woman in the Dunes

Plot: A schoolteacher insect collector heads to the dunes of Japan for a three day trip to try to find a new variety of sand beetle. He ends up in a small village that is being overridden by sand, and is trapped by the villagers and dumped into a hole containing a small shack and a woman. They are expected to excavate the sand every night in order to keep it from overwhelming the house, and sleep during the day. He resists this abduction and enforced labor in a variety of ways, making a number of unsuccessful escape attempts, resisting doing the work, and ultimately succeeding in getting out of the whole only to get caught in the village. Each time he engages in the work it is to be a short-term solution only (to help the woman, to show good will, to get a newspaper, to get water) until after the successful attempt he constructs a pit in the sand ostensibly to catch a crow (so he can tie a message to its leg). He calls this contraption “hope.” After leaving it for a while because it is unsuccessful at catching crows he finds it filled with water and believes this is the means of his resistance (since water comes from those who drop supplies down to the two working, and pick up the sand they have dug each night). Time has passed from days to seasons, and the story closes with the woman having become pregnant. She develops complications and the villiagers come to take her to the hospital, leaving behind a rope ladder that the man uses to climb up, and then return to the hole and his digging. He has reframed his resistance only in terms of his contraption.

Themes/Considerations/Recurring motifs: The laboring body is being considered here – is it labor that is important, regardless of what it produces, or is there some product that creates meaning? At first he is angry that they have usurped his body to integrate it into their system, he believes the system itself to be meaningless since it is excavating a house from a hole that is constantly filling in. They are both too tired to do anything but dig. His escape attempts are all made through shirking work – deliberate shirking, feigned illness, etc. When he begins to work in concert with the woman they have more productive output and more leisure time, but she asks for piecework from the council and spends it doing more labor in order to get money for a radio. The village is both a corporation and a union – it starts out seemingly malicious (from his perspective) that the village makes people (and kidnaps people) to do this work. But the village also has drivers carrying away the sand, and it turns out they sell it at cut rates to people who use sand as concrete filler to build structures. There’s a moment of crisis here – when he finds this out he’s distressed because those structures will fall (the sand isn’t properly pure) and she doesn’t care. He is startled, then realizes she doesn’t care because she feels as if the outside world abandoned the village first, so whatever they do after to get their own back is ok. Labor is put into a larger network of interrelated existence of the village. Their work in squalor and dirt is not useless (Sisyphean) but contributes to the health/prosperity of the village. There is a tension between this and the ‘work’ of teaching – at one point he demands to be let out because his ‘resources’ are being squandered: he should be teaching, not being made to do manual labor. But the narrator is so unreliable that this seems to be a criticism of the hierarchy instead of an affirmation of it on the part of Abe.

Additionally there are three places where the narrative is broken by what seems like conversation about mental illness and a kind of frame narrative that belies the reportage-esque beginning and end (the beginning narrates the disappearance of a man who isn’t missed and is presumed to have suicide, and the end is made up of two ‘official’ reports: the request of his mother to consider him ‘officially’ missing and the government’s ‘official’ notification granting request.) These interruptions heavily imply the narrator is writing in order to exorcise some kind of mental illness – that the idea of sand-people causes him to write; that mental illness is really the only ‘normal’ in human existence; a sort of ‘origin’ story of a son who leaves the family farm because he can’t stand all the work he has do to and so disappears, living in the city and having a non-farming/labor job where he picks up a paycheck and goes to the movies on Sunday. These elements suggest an alternative biography/narrative where the trauma of being stuck in the dunes is in relation to some imagined breakdown of a ‘normal’ person who was driven insane by the sheer normality of his life to make up this fantastic story.

Of course the bugs that open the man’s narration are meant to make us think about a relationship of science to natural world, and there’s an interesting passage when he sees a spider wait by the light of a lamp to catch a moth and suggests this is an evolutionary mutation that takes advantage of technology. He wonders what other kinds of mutations/adaptations are being spawned by animals and the natural world adapting to man-made things.

It seems to be a rather bleak look at the artificiality of labor and of adaptation. The ultimate descent of Niki Shino (narrator’s name) into the sand pit isn’t marked as a full psychotic break or descent into madness, but rather as an acceptance of the state of things – creating a sense of foreboding that we will all be legislated/kidnapped/transformed into laboring bodies who are so removed from the results of our labor that we cannot even have a relationship to those products.

Oh, last thing, the woman wants a radio and a mirror, and Niki suggests they are both used to connect to other people. NOT sure how the mirror works that way and still need to conceptually work that out.

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About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
This entry was posted in japanese fiction, sci fi and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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