Kobo Abe (1924-1993) is a Japanese writer
who has been compared to German writer Franz Kafka.
Abe's The Women in the Dunes is one of
the premier Japanese novels of the twentieth century. It combines
the essence of myth, suspense, and the existential novel.
The main character, schoolteacher Niki Jumpei, travels to a remote
seaside village to collect insects for his research. In the evening,
he misses the bus back to the nearest city, however. The villages
then find a place for him to stay with a young woman in a shack
at the bottom of a vast sand pit. The walls of the pit are so
steep that Jumpei must climb down a rope ladder to enter the
The mysterious woman spends each night
shoveling the ever-advancing sand dunes that threaten her shack
and the village. She places the sand in buckets which the villages
retrieve using ropes. The villages then sell the sand to construction
companies for concrete production. In return, the villages provide
food and water for the woman.
Jumpei is rather perplex at the woman's
way of life. He asks her "Are you shoveling to survive,
or surviving to shovel?"
The next morning, Jumpei awakes to find
that the rope ladder is gone. He frantically realizes that he
is being held captive.
Jumpei is pressed against his will into
helping the woman in the Sisyphus-like task of shoveling the
sand. He initially fights against his surreal predicament and
makes numerous unsuccessful attempts to escape.
At one point, Jumpei even ties up the
woman to prevent her from shoveling the sand.
Jumpei undergoes cycles of fear, despair,
pride, and sexual desire until he finally succumbs to and accepts
The theme of the novel is that freedom
is an illusion and that one has to create his own meaning in