Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dune Messiah

I'll admit it: I was thinking of Haruki Murakami when I placed a hold for "The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe.  I knew enough to not expect that they would be similar authors; quite to the contrary, in fact.  I had previously read that Murakami has often been kind of an outsider in Japan; while his books are popular there, he has been rejected by Japan's literary establishment, who frown on his borrowing from Western pop culture and the way he works outside of traditional story structures.  In contrast, Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe are revered by the establishment, with little criticism permitted.

Still, Murakami is the only other Japanese novelist I have read, so it was inevitable that I would compare TWitD to his works.  Pretty early on, I was surprised to realized that instead of Murakami, I was constantly thinking of another 20th century author, this one from another continent: Albert Camus.  You can also think of Kafka, or Sartre.  While the setting of the book is solidly Japanese, and I'm certain much of the book's psychology is informed by that background, its actual situations and concerns are fully of a piece with the European Existentialists.


The Trial and The Plague are centered around man confronted with a baffling adversary.  Both feature people trying to fight against their lot, but more than that, to simply understand what's happening and why.  Likewise, the protagonist in Abe's novel finds himself trapped in a seemingly ludicrous setting: at the bottom of a sand valley, I imagine it being about 20 or 30 feet deep, sharing a house and a shovel with a widowed woman.  He eventually realized that he has been enslaved, but this realization brings more questions than it answers.  His task is to shovel all the sand that falls over from the dunes.  It's an eternal job: more sand always comes, no matter how much he shoveled the day before.  It's a pointless job: ostensibly, if he doesn't shovel, the sand will overrun the house, knock down the dune, and spill in towards the village.  But even that is bizarre: why does the village even exist?  What possible advantage could there be to planting a village in the middle of a constantly moving desert?

Abe's prose (in translation, of course) is amazing.  He writes with incredibly vividness about the narrator's experiences, and particularly about the physical omnipresence of sand.  He describes the feel of the sand, how it cakes into your eyes, how it burrows into your holes, how it gets into every food you eat no matter how much you try to protect it, how it permeates water so that, when you drink to try and clear your throat, it forms a thin paste of sand in the back of your mouth.  It's thoroughly unpleasant, which is certainly the point.

Less frequent, but equally interesting, are the tangents that Abe shows us from within the protagonist's mind.  The main character is professionally a teacher, but his main passion is entomology, and his specific passion prior to arriving in the dunes had been to locate a new species of beetle.  He isn't really a likeable person; much like the victim in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, we feel sorry for his predicament, but recognize his human failings as well.  This man is self-interested, not very empathetic, narrow-minded when it comes to human relationships (whether equating a human life with a radio or deciding how much money to pay in order to remove a sense of obligation).  However, he does have a curious, interested mind, and I enjoyed tracking his wandering thoughts.  Before he arrives in the city he carries out a long and quite moving meditation on the nature of sand: how much like water it is in many ways, and how like and unlike rock.  Most of his thoughts in the pit are given over to escape, but he stops to puzzle over the relationship of power to sex, and the relationship between evening temperatures and condensation, and the nature of city life.  He also has vivid and disturbing dreams that he experiences and then ponders, later on finding the symbolism in them.


It wasn't Murakami, but it was a good book.  I won't be rushing back to Kobo Abe, but I'll return for another shot later.  If anything, it's even more readable than the other existentialist authors I've read before, and I'm curious whether this book counts as "Typical" Kobo Abe, or if his others are significantly different.  Either way, this was a rewarding read and a great way to expand my exposure to Japanese literature.

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