The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe is a weird little book. Let’s just start out with that as an opener.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Kathryn Harrison.)
A guy disappears. A schoolteacher, who rails against ordinary life, goes on a little holiday collecting insects, about which he purposefully though without reason tells people almost nothing. He wanders into a little village on the seaside with all these homes at the bottom of pits in the sand dunes. Having made no plans for where to stay, upon being confronted he asks if he can be put up in a village house.
He was escorted to one of the cavities on the ridge of the dunes at one end of the village.
From the ridge a narrow path went down the slope to the right. After they had walked on awhile, the old man leaned over into the darkness and, clapping his hands, shouted in a loud voice: “Hey! Granny! Hey, there!”
From the depths of the darkness at their feet a lamp flickered, and there was an answer.
“Here I am! Here! There’s a ladder over by the sandbags.”
Indeed, without the ladder he could not possibly have got down. He would have had to catch hold on the cliff with his bare hands. It was almost three times the height of the house top, and even with the ladder it was still not easy to manage. In the daytime, he recalled, the slope had seemed to him rather gentle, but as he looked at it now, it was close to perpendicular. The ladder was an uncertain thing of rope, and if one lost one’s balance it would get hopelessly tangled up. It was quite like living in a natural stronghold.
What they omit telling him until later (too late) is that he cannot leave:
He wondered if he should say something to the woman before he left. But, on the other hand, it would only embarrass her to be awakened. Anyway, what should he do about paying her for the night’s lodging? Perhaps it would be better to stop on the way back through the village and give the old man from the cooperative the money—the one who had brought him here the day before.
Stealthily he went out.
The sun was boiling mercury, poised at the edge of the sand cliff. Little by little it was beginning to heat the bottom of the hole. He hastily turned his eyes away from the intense glare. In the next instant he had already forgotten it. He simply stared at the façade of the sand wall.
It was unbelievable! The rope ladder had vanished from the place it had been the night before.
The village intends to keep him in the pit forever with the woman (who is not a granny despite the quote above). They are to clear the sand that is blown into the pit. This is what they need to do all day, every day. Supposedly, this needs to be done so that the village survives and isn’t forever buried in the sand, there not being enough villagers to do it, but why keeping their particular cavity clear of blown sand helps isn’t ever really specified. They raise no crops or livestock, nothing else. They just have to clear the sand endlessly, which will be taken up in baskets by people who bring them food, water, and other necessities.
As one might expect, the man tries to escape. Repeatedly. As one also might expect, this does not go well. Eventually, he finds a way that he actually can escape. However, he doesn’t. He just stays there, doing what he’s supposed to be doing, planning on one day escaping after all. As with everything else except the sparse prose of the text, the reasons behind this aren’t explicitly specified.
The Woman in the Dunes is a very strange little book. The writing is crisp and the subject is pleasantly unusual. The protagonist can get a bit annoying, but I think that actually helps the reader accept what happens to him. It’s just such an odd thing, and there’s a great deal of meditation on the nature of living underneath a very simple structure. The Woman in the Dunes is intriguing to say the least.