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Old 1st Dec 2006, 17:13   #1
John Self
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Default Kobo Abe: The Woman in the Dunes

Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes (1964) was recently reissued by Penguin Modern Classics. Well: why else would I have bought it? Actually in this case the cover is rather clichéd: the tasteful monochrome image, more Athena greetings card than door to literature. And it doesn't match the book at all, which is a slippy, elliptical allegory and not as, well, black and white as the cover suggests.



The woman in the dunes is in fact a secondary character, though her featuring in the title should alert to us to her true importance. Our protagonist instead is a man, a insect collector called Niki Jumpei. One day, so far as the rest of the world can see, he disappears. While strolling along a beach he has discovered a village, where sand dunes build up higher around each successive house, until eventually he finds that he is walking along the elevated dunes and looking down at the houses which are sunken into holes in the sandscape. If I go on, I'm telling no more than the back cover blurb does, which is that the man stays overnight in one of the houses, lowered down to the house from the sixty-foot dunes by rope ladder, and when he wakes up the next morning the ladder is gone.

And so we find ourselves in a bizarre fairytale-like world, where sand is everything and everything is sand. It permeates, literally, everything Niki thinks about, until he can think of little more than the properties, qualities, types and uses of sand. The book does for silica crystals what Moby Dick did for whales: that is, approach it from all sides and finish it off by writing more about it than we could ever wish to know. In the clichéd language of reviewers everywhere, the sand seems to become a character itself. But unlike Moby Dick, The Woman in the Dunes never loses sight of the story, and it becomes positively page-turning. It also evokes the borderline-otherworldliness J.G. Ballard - and in particular his novel Concrete Island, where a man becomes trapped in a sunken motorway island - and the sort of thing that I always thought Kafka wrote but actually didn't (ie paranoid allegories of existence which actually make linear sense). And it is beautifully illustrated by Machi Abe. And it inspired a film so much a "celebrated milestone" in cinema I'd never heard of it until a few minutes ago.

So The Woman in the Dunes is the best sort of literary discovery: new yet familiar (I'm sure the closing idea has been used before - or since); bizarre but lucid; perverse and pleasurable. Next stop The Face of Another...

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Old 12th Feb 2007, 14:47   #2
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Default Re: Kobo Abe: The Woman in the Dunes

Kobo Abe's The Face of Another has a better cover than The Woman in the Dunes, but that cheap thrill is soon forgotten when ploughing through this turgid tome.



The blurb makes it sound almost thrilling, like an updated Invisible Man:

Quote:
The narrator is a scientist hideously deformed in a laboratory accident - a man who has lost his face and, with it, connection to other people. Even his wife is now repulsed by him. His only entry back into the world is to create a mask so perfect as to be undetectable. But soon he finds that such a mask is more than a disguise: it is an alternate self - a self that is capable of anything. A remorseless meditation on nature, identity, and the social contract, The Face of Another is an intellectual horror story of the highest order.
But where The Woman in the Dunes (which immediately preceded The Face of Another in publication) managed to combine some fairly knotty metaphysical concerns with a driving storyline, this falters and trips over its own quasi-philosophical musings. These take the form of the narrator's diary and additional notes thereon, and while the story begins to take a linear form after a confused opening, it pretty soon gets mixed up again and grinds away to little effect. The main engine of the plot is when the narrator - who has suffered horrific slug-like lumpy scars to his face when splashed with liquid oxygen - decides to use the realistic mask he has created to disguise himself and seduce his wife. A great deal of time is spent on his attempts to get the mask right, but it gets lost in rather waffly stuff about the nature of one's face affects the personality and psyche.

Eventually I was glad to be rid of the thing. The best thing about it are the forty-eight little iconic illustrations which begin each section, and which look like meaningless patterns to begin with, and then resolve themselves into different stylised faces and masks. One could profitably flick through and enjoy them, however, without wading through all the words in between.

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Old 9th Aug 2007, 17:17   #3
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Default Re: Kobo Abe: The Woman in the Dunes

I just finished this yesterday, got through it in one day's worth of train travel.

I'm not sure how much I liked it. I loved his descriptions, it made me palpably thirsty to read of the heat and the sand and the sun and wind, the lack of saliva and the hot discomfort of sand stuck in sweat but the mysterious story didn't grab me as much as I had expected.

I found it difficult to grasp who started conversations - although I certainly wouldn't want any 'he said, she saids' dialogue simply wasn't introduced very clearly. I don't completely grasp the underlying message that I'm sure is there, although it might be something to do with acceptance of life as it is, and finally, I thought that certain things - particularly the relationship between the man and the woman (she never gets a name) - just were'nt explored enough, or deeply enough.

It's a very strange book, at certain times beautiful and creepily suggestive but it didn't quite float my philosophical boat. I was somewhat reminded of reading Camus' 'L'etranger' as a French A-Level student - I think it was the heat and the sand and the sense of distance between the man and the people around him, but perhaps I'm wrong in this.

Writing this, I wonder whether perhaps that sense of distance is intentional, I didn't identify partiularly with the man, or his relationships, precisely because the author intended the man's own isolation to be brought forward in that way. Oh I don't know. It was an interesting read, and perhaps I'll revisit these thoughts, but I suspect not as it just didn't grab me as much as I had hoped.

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