The Woman in The Dunes by Kobo Abe

When I told my husband about this book he said, “Well, the man’s first mistake was climbing down the rope. He should have slept on a bench in the train station or something.”
Indeed, if the entomologist, Niki Jumpei, had not climbed down a rope ladder into the sand pit where it was suggested he spend the night, things would have been a lot better for him. But perhaps we cannot escape certain pits. Which have the capability to trap us into eternity.
Niki, a man of about thirty years of age, goes off into the desert in search of a rare beetle. When he has missed the last train from the village into which he’s wandered, he is given lodging at the home of a young woman. But, such a strange lodging it is. To enter it, he must descend the aforementioned rope ladder, which was immediately pulled up. Then he looks around. Though the woman herself is lovely, the home in which she lives is not. The beams are decaying, the walls are sagging, and the whole thing exists in the bottom of a pit into which sand falls at an alarming rate. The sand is so persistent, in fact, that the woman must stay up all night shoveling it into buckets, for which she is ‘paid’ with water. But, there is no chance for escape. Nor does she even try.
The man is determined to find a way to escape, but when he does he doesn’t make it far. For the waves of the dunes, the poor visibility, and the lack of a route lead him accidentally back to the village. From there, he runs into an area of sand into which he quickly sinks. The villagers, who have followed him, come to his rescue. They pull him out and return him to the home of the woman in the dunes.
I am perplexed as to how to interpret the sand. For surely it means something more than simply being caught in a pit. Of course, as a horror story, it works beautifully. What is more terrifying than the dream in which one is running but never advancing? Screaming without making a sound? Those dreams of futility are pure torture for me because I love the illusion of control. “If I’m trapped, I’ll surely find a way out,” I think.
But, let’s take the story beyond one of terror. Couldn’t the sand represent something else? Could it be the repressive government which stifles its people? Could it be our own human flaws which trap us into a life we do not want? Could it be the emptiness of life without hope or meaning? I think so. I think the sand can stand for whatever it is that causes us to be trapped. Then even worse, to abandon hope so that we are content with nothing more than the life in which we find ourselves.
I read this book for A More Diverse Universe as well as my own Japanese Literature Challenge 6. I highly recommend it for its beautiful writing, but perhaps more importantly, for the way it poses questions as to one’s situation in life. Regardless of culture.