I was some how a little nervous as I began to read The Woman of the Dunes as my expectations for the book were so high. My fears were misfounded. It is, to me, a masterpiece. Like other post WWII Japanese novelists, Abe was influenced by French Existential thinkers and writers like Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. (Side note, has anyone ever read The Plague by Camus who was not required to read it for a class?). One of the basic tenants of existentialism is that there is no intrinsic meaning to life. All the codes people are taught to live by are simply not true. Some saw this as plunging us into a meaningless universe, some saw it as bringing man the freedom to create their own meanings. It is easy to see why post WWII Japanese intellectuals would be attracted to this. Much more so than the Germans, the world view of the Japanese people was destroyed by their defeat in WWII and the announcement of the Emperor that he was not divine. (This theme is treated in Kenzaburo Oe's marvelous When He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears.) The Bushido code by which the Japanese lived was reduced to a mockery and seemed something imposed on the people to make them slaves to their once master, the Emperor, now a figure of mockery. A great sense of shame was felt by nearly all and everyone was quick to deny they have believed in the old ways anyway. They only acted like they did out of fear of their overlords.
Even in children, unusual preoccupation with insect collecting frequently indicates and Oedipus complex. In order to compensate for his unsatisfied desires, the child enjoys sticking pins into insects, which he need never fear will escape. And the fact that he does not leave off once he has grown up is quite definitely a sign that the condition has become worse. Thus it far from accidental that entomologists frequently have an acute desire for acquisitions and that they are extremely reclusive, kleptomaniac, homosexual. From this point to suicide our of weariness with the world is but a step.
The plot action is pretty simple. (The back of the book in the edition I have gives it away and I really think most potential readers of the book would know the basic plot before they read it any way so I do not see this as a spoiler). Niki is on a holiday from his teaching job. He goes to an area with a lot of sand dunes in the hope of discovering a never before cataloged beetle of some kind. If does this, he will be famous among other entomologists. He walks into a village of simple country people, in the sand dune area. Sand is everywhere and in everything. The shifting sand is constantly encroaching on the houses. Niki needs a place to stay for the night and ends up in the underground dwelling of a 30 or so year old widow. The dwelling is a sixty foot deep in the ground hole which can be exited only by a rope ladder. The woman's entire existence revolves around excavating sand. Everyday what ever she excavates can be blown back by the shifting winds. (The Myth of Sisyphus is one of the dominant themes in the work of Camus.) The man finds himself unable to get out of the hole in the ground. He eventually has sex with the woman (she may be a trap for him like the bait one would put out for an insect might be scent from a female of his species.). Their mating is described quite clinically just as an entomologist from a far superior planet might detail in a report on human mating customs. Niki's life comes to resemble that of a beetle that lives in a hole in the ground and preforms an absurd act over and over again to live. He slowly tries to find or create a meaning to his existence and always hopes he will escape. The villagers reasons for keeping him trapped are totally without logic. He comes to feel a kind of fondness for he woman while at the same time hating her and using her body for sex. The woman's only goal in life is to somehow earn enough money to buy a radio. Years go by. The man loses interest in reading, forgets many of the details of his old life.
I know my account of the book makes it seem rather bleak. One can take it as either a tale of an absurd universe where any adherence to a faith or creed is but groundless or you can take it as suggesting that meaning can be created anywhere under the harshness of circumstances even after all the trappings of your acculturation have been removed. The themes in this work have ancient roots. There has always been a few who laughed at the Gods and went their own way. For some readers the dunes and the hole in the ground house will be society. Niki is partially trapped by his desire to have sex with then woman in the underground house, trapped by his physical nature to perform an absurd action for a moment of transcendence. In time, he makes as his dominant goal in life to help the woman get a radio. We never learn her name. Woman in the Dunes also be viewed as a comment on the life of women in post world war II Japan.
Woman in the Dunes is beautifully told. We really feel we are in the world the novel creates. We can feel the sand creeping into everything. The story does not impose a meaning on us. In one sense, if there is a meaning it maybe just that there is not one. I endorse this work without reservations. It is not a hard to read work at all. After I read two or three more books by Kobo Abe, I think he will probably be among the Japanese novelists on my "read everything they have written TBR List".