Saturday, July 21, 2012

Short Take: The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Japanese writer Kobo Abe’s 1962 novel The Woman in the Dunes has been compared to the work of Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, and Samuel Beckett. One can understand the analogies, but the book is essentially commuter fiction that's putting on airs. Kobo Abe uses the philosophical aspects of the earlier writers’ work to give existentialist spice to a prison-escape adventure. The protagonist is a vacationing Japanese schoolteacher who is taken captive by a poor seaside community. They confine him to a quarry where he is required to dig and gather sand for sale. His only companion is a young widow who lives in a small house in the quarry, and who also does the work he has been given. The book builds up a fair amount of drama about this educated bourgeois being brought down to the emptiness of an arduous, routinized existence. All that matters are the most basic demands of survival and instinct. But the heart of the story is still the suspense narrative built around the his efforts to escape. His inevitable sexual relationship with the woman offers grist for the intellectual mill--man’s primal nature asserts itself regardless of circumstances and whatnot--but the main purpose is to give an extra sensationalist kick to the material. Something has to keep the reader turning the pages in between the escape attempts. Middlebrows may read the book and pat themselves on the back for their sophistication, but it’s nothing more than pseudo-intellectual pulp. The English-language edition was translated by E. Dale Saunders.

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