Sunday, 29 November 2009

84 - 'The Woman in the Dunes' by Kobo Abe

As many of you probably know by now, I quite enjoy the odd Haruki Murakami work (no sniggering at the back), and it is through him that I got into Japanese literature in the first place. To find out a little more about the area, I joined a Facebook group, only to abandon it earlier this year. Why? Well, apart from the fact that I've become a tad bored with the superficiality of most Facebook groups, I got fed up of defending Murakami against a nameless (and, judging by their profile picture, faceless) individual who seemed to regard themself as a master of Japanese literature and who didn't consider Murakami to be a writer of literature at all.

Now, anyone is entitled to give an opinion, but I just got sick of the general, sweeping nature of the comments, the contradictory sense of certain remarks (Everyone in Japan thinks Murakami is a bad writer: he's only a popular writer...) and the lack of any recognition of the points made in favour of the great man. In fact, any negative comment made by anyone remotely more famous than... well, me, was treated as the final nail in the coffin of Murakami's reputation.

The only real positive contribution this phantom made to the discussion was to ask whether anyone had read any Kobo Abe, claiming that he was a great influence and (of course...) a much better writer than Murakami. All of which drags us (screaming and kicking) towards the actual point of today's post - and you doubted there was one -, Abe's classic novel 'The Woman in the Dunes'. Shall we?

School teacher, and amateur entomologist, Junpei Niki sets off on a holiday he has planned in secret to visit the coast and search for new kinds of insects which could make him famous. He stumbles across a small, run-down village and accepts the offer of accommodation for the night in a small hut, where the only occupant, a woman, is engaged in a never-ending battle against the sand which slips down onto the building from the steep embankment surrounding it. Only the next day does Junpei realise that the offer of a bed for the night was actually a lure into slavery: the walls of the embankment are too steep to climb unaided, and the villagers have no intention of helping him out...

A quote on my (Penguin Classics) copy describes the book as "A haunting Kafkaesque nightmare", and if Murakami is supposedly indebted to Abe, Abe must have taken a great deal of his inspiration from the Czech master (in particular from 'Der Prozess' or 'The Trial'). Just as Josef K. finds himself held against his will, unable to obtain a reason for his 'arrest', so too does Junpei struggle (in vain) to understand why is being held against his will. Where K.'s prison is psychological, in the sense that he is actually free to carry on his usual life and plan his defence from home, Junpei's is physical and, at least at first, impossible to escape from. However, later in the book, he too becomes trapped by his mind, and the physical barriers to escape become less important.

Although we are told his name, Junpei Niki is usually referred to as 'he' throughout the book while we are never told the woman's name. None of the (few) other characters in the book are named either, a deliberate, alienating tactic on the part of the author. However, there is one more major character (apparently especially vivid in the film version) and that is the ever present sand which forms the barrier to escape and gradually seeps into the hut, covering every surface with a fine layer of dust. In addition to its physical role, the sand also plays a more metaphorical role in the sense of the sands of time, ever-moving, ever-changing, burying things in the past with its slow, inexorable march across the dunes.

In this context, Junpei's plight can be seen as a struggle against everyday life. All of a sudden he is plunged into what is, essentially, a marriage, forced to live in a small home with a woman, granted the small essentials of everyday life by the strange villagers, but unable to survive without submitting to the drudgery of scooping sand into buckets to protect the house from burial. This 'domestic bliss' is contrasted with his gradual loss of interest in entomology, the reason for his visit to the coast in the first place. As the book progresses, the reader sees how his attitude changes from one of anger against his captors, to secret plans for escape, to sullen acceptance of the necessity of playing along, for the time being; each time he accepts something from the villagers (be it water, sake, newspapers, or sex...), he loses a little bit of his will to escape and begins to accept the inevitability of what is actually an unacceptable situation.

'The Woman in the Dunes' is a very powerful and intriguing book, and there are definite influences on Murakami's work to be found here. The anonymity is an obvious one , and the idea of ordinary people coming to terms with the extraordinary is another. However, that is not to say that Murakami is in any way derivative. I'm not sure how representative Junpei is of Abe's other characters, but he's definitely not the prototype for any of Murakami's laid-back characters (most of them would probably have found it quite relaxing down in the hole...). I'm not sold on the 'read Abe, and you'll see through Murakami' mantra.

A final note on parting: I haven't really talked much about the woman of the title, and that is deliberate. Firstly, Junpei is the main character, so I have focused on him, particularly in light of the parallels with both Josef K. and Murakami's heroes. Secondly, I would find it difficult to because the way she is handled is, in many ways, a little unsettling. Anyone who has lived in Japan would have seen how women are portrayed (graphically - both metaphorically and literally; see any Manga book...) in a sexual light. There is a tendency in Japanese culture for there to be a very fine line between aggressive courting and rape; anyone who feels especially strongly about this should be warned before they read this book (and they may well be less than well disposed towards Junpei for the behaviour he exhibits towards his new 'de facto').

Influences are useful to know about but do not render an artist's work any less interesting. Kafka (obviously) influenced Abe. Abe (definitely) influenced Murakami. All this means is that they are likely to be enjoyed by the same readers. Well, with one possible exception...