The Woman in the Dunes is the best known of Kb Abe’s works, at least in the Western world, perhaps in part because it was made into a memorable motion picture. More important, however, is that this grim, almost allegorical picture of the state of humanity echoes a Greek myth that resonates in the twenty-first century: the myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend his days pushing a heavy rock up a steep slope, only to have the rock slide back down every time. Albert Camus, one of the major writers influenced by French existentialism—a philosophy that dominated much of Western thought and literature after World War II—used Sisyphus as a symbol of human fate in one of his major essays. Very simply stated, the existentialists held that life was similar to the experience of Sisyphus: Human hopes and dreams (particularly that of the Christian afterlife) were doomed never to be realized, but human nobility was nevertheless confirmed in accepting this fact and carrying on with the struggle.
The Woman in the Dunes has a distinctly Japanese style. The setting for almost all the action is an isolated village whose inhabitants have no interest in and little connection with the larger world outside their immediate area. They are primitives who accept their harsh fate, condemned to an eternal struggle with the encroaching sand, because they can conceive of no other way of life. Their sense of humor is crude and cruel, and their imaginations are limited. The simple experiment with water that Jumpei conducts at the end of the novel would never occur to any of them, and yet it could lead to a major easing of one of the harsh conditions of their existence. Still, even should the experiment turn out to be a success, there is no reason to believe that the villagers will use Jumpei’s results to their benefit.
The allegorical nature of The Woman in the Dunes is underlined by the relatively small amount of interest Abe shows in making...
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