Since I started reading both more avidly and more widely several years ago, I've spent more time analyzing different genres, different kinds of authors, and different kinds of literature. In Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
, she makes a number of observations about how classic French novels differ from classic British novels, and how American novelists differ from either. I'm not well read enough in French and British literature to judge the validity of her points, other than to notice that yes, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas do have a tone that is noticeably different from, say, Charles Dickens and George Eliot.
All of which brings me to Japanese literature. Which I haven't read nearly enough of since taking a couple of courses in medieval Japanese literature as an undergrad. So far I have read several books by Haruki Murakami, Battle Royale
, and now, The Woman in the Dunes
. I've got several more in my queue.
Haruki Murakami, Kobo Abe, and Koushun Takami are very different authors (just as Charles Dickens and George Eliot are very different authors), but Japanese novels all have a very
different feel from Western novels. That is not to say they are particularly hard to understand or that they don't have the same elements of English-language novels: plot, characters, theme, storytelling, etc. But Japanese literature seems to focus very much on the moment, and an individual's experience of it. Long, descriptive passages about mundane details in the character's environment, or his mental ruminations, often wandering off onto bizarre sidetracks, almost as if the author is trying to describe how a person's thoughts actually work (like, when you're focusing on the matter at hand, but somehow your mind makes a subconscious leap onto a completely unrelated topic).
And that is how The Woman in the Dunes
reads. The story is of a Japanese schoolteacher and amateur entomology who takes a little weekend trip to the beach. He happens upon a small, very poor village that is being overwhelmed by the encroaching sands on all sides. Needing a place to stay for the night, the villagers offer to put him up in the home of one of the locals, who turns out to be a widow living alone. Her house is at the bottom of a sandpit and the only way in or out is by rope ladder. Our unfortunate schoolteacher doesn't think anything is odd or sinister about this until he has lowered himself into the trap.
The rest of the book is really more about Niki Jumpei's thoughts and experiences, and of course, sand. Sand is everywhere. Kobo Abe describes it - its porosity, its viscosity, its physical qualities, its omnipresence - the way gothic authors describe the brooding atmosphere and the dark manor. By the end of the book you're feeling sand crawling up all your crevices, rubbing your skin raw, getting in your hair, and threatening to bury you.
Jumpei's relationship with the widow, who is never named, is turbulent, sexual, ambiguous, and disturbing. She was the bait for the trap, and she is by turns apologetic, vulnerable, pathetic, and callous. One gets the impression she is the way Kobo Abe, as a Japanese man of a certain age, may see all women, as these opaque, unrelatable beings as prone to break into sudden charming laughter and offer you a massage as to turn out to be dangerous fairy tale creatures luring you into hell. Certainly our protagonist, Jumpei, never quite relates to the widow as a fellow human being, but he seems to be completely disconnected from people in general. The world he's been abducted from really wasn't much better than the world he is now trapped in, where he must forever shovel sand to keep it from burying the widow's hovel. This metaphor seemed one of the more obvious ones in the novel, but I'm sure there were many others I missed, and like the other Japanese novels I've read, I have the feeling that much imagery and symbolism is lost in translation.
I can't really say how I felt about this book, other than that it was an interesting reading experience and the story is definitely haunting and weird and memorable, like a slightly surreal movie. I definitely recommend it for anyone who is interested in sampling Japanese literature.
Oh, but speaking of surreal: come on, all your Goodreaders who labeled this "magical realism"! Kobo Abe is not
Haruki Murakami. There are no talking cats or parallel worlds in this book. Okay, yes, parts of it are a little... strange, but there is nothing that is, strictly speaking, fantastical about it. It's not "magical realism" just because it's written in Spanish or Japanese, folks!