The Woman in the Dunes – Kobo Abe, An Extraordinary Story

The Woman in the Dunes was a book that had been waiting in my bookshelves for years. Recently, when it was chilling outside, it caught my eye, and I wanted to laugh at the irony and read it. It was a really scorching book on these cold London days. Unfortunately, I can say that it also caused me to have a huge sand phobia. As you can see, The Woman in the Dunes both overwhelmed me and gave me a brand new phobia. Kobo Abe is one of those great Japanese writers I’ve wanted to read for a long time; I was expecting a book like this from him.


The Woman in the Dunes is a book that those with claustrophobia should never read, but it may also be harmful to highly sensitive personalities like me. I have come to this age; I have read so many books; I’m still affected by the stories like they are real. When I read such books, I can’t collect myself for a few days. Anyway! Let’s go back to The Woman in the Dunes.

The Woman in the Dunes - Kobo Abe

An insect collector is tracking a particular insect on a beach far from his home. However, when he misses the last bus, he is hosted in one of the makeshift pits on the beach, which is quite poor and full of sand. The next day, he wants to go after the beetle again, but he realises that the villagers have different plans for him after a while.

Together with the woman in the pit, he has to get rid of the sand and clean sand endlessly every day. Will he be able to escape? The book is full of sand. More precisely, after progressing a little in the book, the reader becomes full of sand inside and out. You cannot eliminate the feeling of helplessness and stuckness created by the sand, heat and thirst. After a while, you start to look at people and nature with different eyes.

The Woman in the Dunes is not a heartwarming thing at all, of course, as if the sand you look at is not enough, you get bored with it. Oh, and that ending… My first Kobo Abe book perplexed me; I hope the next ones will provide an easier read. Enjoy!

The Woman in the Dunes - Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the Dunes: Dazzlingly original, Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of the premier Japanese novels in the twentieth century, and this Penguin Classics edition contains a new introduction by David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas.

Niki Jumpei, an amateur entomologist, searches the scorching desert for beetles. As night falls he is forced to seek shelter in an eerie village, half-buried by huge sand dunes. He awakes to the terrifying realisation that the villagers have imprisoned him with a young woman at the bottom of a vast sand pit. Tricked into slavery and threatened with starvation if he does not work, Jumpei’s only chance is to shovel the ever-encroaching sand – or face an agonising death. Among the greatest Japanese novels of the twentieth century, The Woman in the Dunes combines the essence of myth, suspense, and the existential novel.

Kobo Abe (1924-93) was born in Tokyo, grew up in Manchuria, and returned to Japan in his early twenties. During his life Abe was considered his country’s foremost living novelist. His novels have earned many literary awards and prizes, and have all been bestsellers in Japan. They include The Woman in the Dunes, The Ark SakuraThe Face of AnotherThe Box Man, and The Ruined Map.

If you liked The Woman in the Dunes, you might enjoy Albert Camus’ The Plague, also available in Penguin Classics.

‘A haunting Kafkaesque nightmare’

Kobo Abe

Abe Kōbō, pseudonym of Abe Kimifusa, (born March 7, 1924, Tokyo, Japan—died Jan. 22, 1993, Tokyo), Japanese novelist and playwright noted for his use of bizarre and allegorical situations to underline the isolation of the individual.

He grew up in Mukden (now Shenyang), in Manchuria, where his father, a physician, taught at the medical college. In middle school his strongest subject was mathematics, but he was also interested in collecting insects and had begun to immerse himself in the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lewis Carroll. Abe went to Japan in 1941 to attend high school. In 1943 he began studying medicine at the Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), but he returned to Manchuria in 1945 without obtaining a degree.

The Woman in the Dunes - Kobo Abe

Repatriated to Japan in 1946, he was graduated in medicine in 1948 on condition that he never practice. By this time, however, he was deeply involved in literary activity. He published in 1947 at his own expense Mumei shishū (“Poems of an Unknown”), and in the following year his novel Owarishi michi no shirube ni (“The Road Sign at the End of the Street”), published commercially, was well received. In 1951 his short novel Kabe (“The Wall”) was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, establishing his reputation. In 1955 Abe wrote his first plays, beginning a long association with the theatre.

Since the early 1950s, Abe had been a member of the Japanese Communist Party, but his visit to eastern Europe in 1956 proved disillusioning. He attempted to leave the party in 1958 when the Soviet army invaded Hungary, but he was refused, only to be expelled in 1962. In that same year Suna no onna (The Woman in the Dunes), Abe’s most popular (and probably his best) novel, was published to general acclaim. It was made into an internationally successful film in 1964.

From the mid-1960s his works were regularly translated on both sides of the Iron Curtain. They include Daiyon kampyōki (1959; Inter Ice Age 4), Tanin no kao (1964; The Face of Another), Moetsukita chizu (1967; The Ruined Map), Hako otoko (1973; The Box Man), Mikkai (1977; Secret Rendezvous), Hakobune Sakura-maru (1984; The Ark Sakura), and Kangarū nōto (1991; Kangaroo Notebook). Beyond the Curve, a translation into English of short stories drawn from various periods of his career, was published in 1991.

Abe formed the Abe Kōbō Studio, a theatrical company, in 1973. He regularly wrote one or two plays a year for the company and served as its director. The best-known of his plays, Tomodachi (1967; Friends), was performed in the United States and France. In theatre, as well as in the novel, he stood for the avant-garde and experimental. Several of his most successful plays appear in Three Plays by Kōbō Abe (1993), translated into English by Donald Keene.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges: 

Japanese Literature – A Literary Journey

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