Kobo Abe, one of Japan’s most celebrated and frequently translated authors and playwrights, is often compared to the Czech writer, Franz Kafka, because both writers created novels that were built upon nightmarish allegories. Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is a prime example. With this novel, one of Abe’s more popular works, Abe takes the reader into a very strange and isolated world in order to make a statement about the condition of modern civilization. His statement is fascinating, but not very glorifying, as the protagonist becomes trapped in a world of ceaseless and mindless labor.
The Woman in the Dunes and the subsequent movie based on the novel catapulted Abe into the international realm. After the popular success of this novel, Abe’s works became the most often translated fiction of Japanese literature. And long since its publication, The Woman in the Dunes, which in 1960 won the Yomiuri Prize for literature, continues to retain its classification of being not only the best of Abe’s extensive life work, but also one of the classic examples of modern Japanese fiction.
The story begins with a character, Niki Jumpei, who seems all but totally unaware of who he really is. He often describes himself and his actions as if he were a detached observer of his own actions. His imprisonment in a hole in the sand dunes tempers his psyche, however, and in the end he comes to an awakening in which he grasps a better understanding of his basic psychological makeup. As Wimal Dissanayake, writing for Literary Relations, East and West: Selected Essays put it: “What Kobo Abe has sought to do is to remove his protagonist from his cultural environment and to probe deeper and deeper into his own psyche as a way of attaining his authentic selfhood.” The story of a journey of inner discovery during which the protagonist remembers what it means to be human in a modern society that sometimes seems to have forgotten.