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Kōbō Abe: 砂の女 (The Woman in the Dunes)

Our hero is Niki Jumpei, a thirty-one year old teacher. He lives with his (female) partner. His passion is insects. He studies and collects insects and dreams of finding a yet undiscovered insect and having it named after him. He nearly managed to get hold of one but it escaped.

His secondary interest is sand and if you want to know a bit about sand, you will learn something from this book. His interest in sand is connected with his interest in insects, as he expects to find unusual insects in the sand on the seashore.

However, we know, to some degree, what is going to happen to him from the very beginning. He sets out one day on an insect-hunting expedition, takes the train and was never heard of again. No body was found. His work was not secret. His partner said he was going hunting insects, though it was suspected a woman might be involved. Was it suicide? No-one knew. There was some speculation that indulging in something like insect collecting as an adult indicated some mental quirk. When he did not reappear after seven years, he was pronounced dead. This book tells what really happened to him.

He was indeed going to hunt insects and takes the train and then the bus to a remote sea shore, looking for his rare insects. The village he arrives at is odd as it seems to be well below sea level, with the houses in deep holes. Indeed, he climbs up a cliff and then, to his surprise, sees a small house in a hole sixty feet below him.

While looking for insects, he is suddenly surprised to see three men standing behind him. They inform him that the last bus has left but he can stay in the village, specifically in the house in the sixty foot deep hole.

He descends by rope ladder into the hole, where he is welcomed by a woman of around his age. The house is not in good condition. In particular, sand seems to get in everywhere. You can’t ever catch up with the sand no matter how much you shovel, she tells him. He learns that, in a bad sand storm, her husband and daughter disappeared, presumably buried somewhere under the sand.

The woman tells him that she has to work at night clearing the sand, as it is wetter then and therefore easier to handle. When the sand is dry,” she said, looking up toward the sky, “you never know when or where it will come crashing down.

He also learns that she has to keep clearing the sand away, as do her neighbours, to protect the entire village from being engulfed. She digs it out, men come and haul away the sand she has put in baskets and jerry cans and lorries take it away. The village keeps going because we never let up clearing away the sand like this. If we stopped, in ten days the village would be completely buried.

He is, of course sympathetic, but feels it is not his problem, till the next morning, when he realises the rope ladder has been removed. Gradually, he comes to learn that the rope ladder will not reappear. He is trapped, condemned to stay down the hole, helping the woman clear the sand and, perhaps to have a child with her. In return, they are given food and drink, and when he is well-behaved, extras such as cigarettes and a newspaper.

The rest of the book is about how he survives. He revolts, he tries various tactics to persuade them to let him out, he plans various escapes, he tries blackmail, promises threats, he threatens her. He even suggests alternative ways for them to make a living so they could pay for reinforcements, such as crops and tourism. He discovers a way of extracting water from beneath the sand.

He eventually learns that he is not the only such prisoner. Others have wandered into the village and been caught and imprisoned like him. We know from the beginning of the book that he has disappeared for at least seven years, so the question is: does he die, escape later or never escape?

Abe tells his story very well. A man stuck in a deep sandy hole with a woman could be a boring story but it is not. Abe keeps up the tension and we follow the psychology of our hero. Indeed, he often has imaginary conversations, both with his partner and a former, somewhat pedantic colleague. He also wonders why the police have not found him, though accepts his abrupt departure is partially to blame. In short, this is a superb psychological novel.

The book was made into a highly successful film, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, which won a prize at Cannes and which I have seen and can highly recommend.

Publishing history

First published in 1962 by Shinchōsha
First English translation in 1964 by Knopf
Translated by Ernest Dale Saunders