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The Women In The Dunes Essay

1984 words - 8 pages

The Women in the dunesNo escapeIs Kobe Abe's strange, bleak novel The Woman in the Dunes, about a man imprisoned in a pit of sand, a parable of damnation or salvation?It is a metaphor for the human predicamentKobo Abe's novel The Woman in the Dunes appeared in 1962, to spontaneous acclaim, was translated into 20 languages and adapted for a Cannes festival award-winning film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and scored by Toru Takemitsu. Each of the seven subsequent novels that Abe wrote before his death, aged 68, in 1993 earned him plaudits as a writer of the avant-garde and sales of over 100,000 in Japan alone.That Kobo Abe had survived his early 20s to mature into one of his country's most venerated writers was down to some lucky throws of the dice. When poor grades at Tokyo University Medical School jeopardised his draft exemption, he forged a certificate stating he had tuberculosis to avoid an all-too-probable death at the front. The ploy worked, and Abe was able to return to his child- hood home of Mukden (Shen-yang), Manchuria, in 1944, where an epidemic killed his father, a doctor, the following year. Abe survived the anarchic collapse of the de facto Japanese colony and was repatriated in 1946.Back in the Tokyo of General MacArthur, Abe led a hand-to-mouth existence as a street vendor, selling vegetables and charcoal to support himself and his wife, Machiko, a fine line-artist whose drawings illustrate his novels. Abe's literary name was established in 1951, when a collection of short stories won the 25th Akutagawa prize, Japan's most prestigious award, though a further decade would pass before the publication of The Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna) ushered in some measure of that security which he so rarely extended to his fictional characters.In Abe's novels, plot and character are usually subservient to idea and symbol. This makes The Woman in the Dunes something of an anomaly. Its plot is devious, addictive yet straightforward. An amateur entomologist arrives in a remote area of sand dunes with hopes of identifying a type of sand beetle. Night falls and the villagers offer him shelter in a ramshackle house at the bottom of a funnel-shaped pit of sand. Descent is possible only by means of a rope ladder. The occupant of the house, a young woman, spends most of the night shovelling sand into buckets, which are then raised by the villagers: her house is one of a bulwark that prevents the village being swallowed by the advancing sand dunes. When he awakes, the man finds the rope ladder is gone. His attempts to climb out of the pit repeatedly fail, and he comes to realise, first with incredulity, then outrage, then fear, that he is now a conscript in this Sisyphean labour. Nor is he the first outsider to be press-ganged into the battle against the encroaching dunes: but the villagers allow inadequate specimens to die, rather than risk detection by the distant authorities.The novel pits the man's will to escape this sun-fried nightmare...

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