Kōbō Abé 1924–
Japanese novelist, playwright, and short story writer.
Abé's work is not distinctly Japanese, but rather shows the influence of such Western writers as Kafka. He is a master of the philosophical novel, which incorporates his major themes, lost identity and alienation.
(See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
[In The Woman in the Dunes, a man comes to a] village, each of whose houses is set in a deep pit in the dunes to protect it from the weather. He stays overnight in a house with a woman. In the morning no ladder is lowered for him. He is kept prisoner: to help shovel sand into buckets, to keep the house from being buried and, incited by proximity, to beget children with the woman. Thus he is impressed into the survival and continuity of the village.
The plot, which is what it must be called, is designed as a framework for symbolisms of freedom, love, tenacity, stupidity, hope. There is no inherent demerit in such a plot but there is inherent risk. As soon as the shape becomes clear, the reader becomes aware of a blueprint being slowly followed. Unless the author is able to keep us concentrated on the present moment with interest of character and richness of texture, we become impatient. This is too often true of Abé's book. (p. 21)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Novels from Abroad: 'The Woman in the Dunes'," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. III, No. 2, January 14, 1964, pp. 20-1.
The story of an unprepossessing schoolteacher captured on an insect-hunting excursion and subjected to slavery would seem merely bizarre if it were not treated in a meaningful way [in The Woman in the Dunes]. Some of Kobo Abé's readers will recall Kafka's manipulation of a nightmarish tyranny of the unknown, others Beckett's selection of sites like the sandpit of this novel as a symbol of the undignified human predicament. Yet others will see that Abé remains wholly Japanese in rendering his abstract theme through particulars observed with such attention that they take on an almost perverse beauty…. [He] has created a myth of suffering humanity within the recognizably real frame of contemporary Japanese society.He depicts the ease with which man loses civilized values while yet insisting upon a residual humanity. The unhappy schoolteacher is led skillfully from an initial realistic situation to his hovel in a sandpit where, like the other slave householders of the wretched seaside village, he is forced to keep back the encroaching sand. Throughout the novel he desperately plans escape. His single attempt is a failure, and when at last he might get free he has grown indifferent to release.
The result of enslavement is steady degradation and, conversely, the hero's growing respect for the woman of the book's title. Her strange appeal is partly that of enslavement, partly of femininity. She is artistically more successful as an individual and as a symbol than as an excuse for sexual excursions. There is no question about the success of the two central symbols, insects and sand…. The sand is alive and yet deadly, the hostile environment in which man must seek to establish his individuality, humanity, and civilization. The schoolteacher fails to escape it, but he comes to understand that life is a sandpit and even to achieve some dignity in his degradation….
In such a novel much depends upon intensity of tone, upon the credibility given the action, if the theme is to carry conviction. Apart from certain aspects of the woman and a section near the middle of the story, the tone and meaning are well sustained. What happens seems intolerable precisely because it is so grotesquely credible.
Earl Miner, "Life Is a Sandpit," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1964 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVII. No. 36, September 5, 1964, p. 32.
(The entire section is 4,873 words.)