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Maybe Don’t Read This Book: The Woman in the Dunes

Well, I don’t know. Maybe do. Maybe don’t. It’s a good book.

I picked up my copy of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes years ago at a library book sale, I think. Probably the Friends of the Phoenix Library book sale, because that book sale was always incredible. Abe came recommended by someone–John Gardner, I think, but I’m not sure–and I read another pair of books by Abe years ago, also purchased at a library sale. I kept one of them and tossed the other and the difference between the two is probably what makes me ambivalent about recommending this book. But I shouldn’t be ambivalent about it. Or I should. I don’t know.

This book is Ecclesiastes. At least, it’s half of Ecclesiastes. And I love the book of Ecclesiastes.

In Ecclesiastes, you have a pair of themes running hand-in-hand: Fear God and Enjoy Life. And they go together because you can’t have one without the other. You can’t live with a biblical fear of God and at the same time refuse to enjoy the good gifts He’s given you: your spouse, your work, your family, the food on your table. It’s no good saying to God, “I love You, but I hate all these things that You’ve put in my life.” That’d be like saying to your wife, “I love you, but I don’t really enjoy the many kind things you do for me.” It just doesn’t cohere. And additionally, you can’t really enjoy life if you don’t have a right relationship with God. What joy is there in suffering 18 awkward years of childhood and youth, running a miserable rat-race for another 50 years, and then spending your final decade or three (depending on your genes) watching TV and raking your lawn, if at the end of all of that, the best you can hope for is to cease existing? (Though in fact, you won’t cease existing, so even the little joy you might catch during those decades is ultimately vaporous.)

And it’s the reality of this perspective–that without an eternal God with whom we might enjoy a right relationship for eternity–that informs the entire novel. And it’s brutally honest. It’s not as honest as Ecclesiastes, but it’s about as honest as any non-inspired literature can be on the subject.

And like the author of Ecclesiastes, Kobo Abe explores all of human existence in light of its apparent futility: he treats family, work, food, sex, learning, relationships, etc. And in each, he shows with stark clarity just how pointless they all are, how ultimately un-enjoyable all aspects of life are, if we are meaningless accidents waiting to slip over the threshold into the final null state. It’s shocking that this was so well received by the critics of the time, but yet, it’s not shocking, because this disturbing sermon is delivered with art and love and humanity.

The story is simple and absurd: A man goes out to collect bugs in the sand dunes near the ocean, and the residents of a nearby village kidnap him and dump him in a pit in the dunes to help a strange woman preserve a house at the bottom of that pit. Every day, they shovel away the sand that has collected again at the bottom of the hole. They sweep the sand off the roof of the house. They eat a gritty meal and drink the little water provided by the villagers. And he fights for his freedom.

It’s a quick read–I read it in about 4 ½ hours. And as I said above, it’s a good book–well-written, well-drawn characters, engaging storyline, etc. So why am I ambivalent? My ambivalence is strictly on account of some sexual content in the middle. And I feel a responsibility not to recommend something that would cause harm to a brother or sister in Christ. I wouldn’t call it erotic, but it was frank and I wouldn’t be happy to know that people were reading it on my recommendation. So I don’t recommend it.

It should be pointed out though, that even in his treatment of sex, Abe lays bare the total joylessness of sex from a godless perspective.

If you do decide to read this, do so with care and discernment (as with all books).

Some quotes:

One day in August a man disappeared.

Rarely will you meet anyone so jealous as a teacher. Year after year students tumble along like the waters of a river. They flow away, and only the teacher is left behind, like some deeply buried rock at the bottom of the current. Although he may tell others of his hopes, he doesn’t dream of them himself. He thinks of himself as worthless and either falls into masochistic loneliness or, failing that, ultimately becomes suspicious and pious, forever denouncing the eccentricities of others. He longs so much for freedom and action that he can only hate people.

It only happened in novels or movies that summer was filled with dazzling sun. What existed in reality were humble, small-town Sundays…a man taking his snooze under the political columns of a newspaper, enveloped in gunsmoke…canned juices and thermos jugs with magnetized caps…boats for hire, fifty cents an hour–queue up here…foaming beaches with the leaden scum of dead fish…and then, at the end, a jam-packed trolley rickety with fatigue. Everyone knows this is fact, but no one wants to make a fool of himself and be taken in; so, on the gray canvas of reality, he zestfully sketches the mere form of this illusory festival. Miserable, unshaven fathers, shaking their complaining children by the shoulder trying to make them say it has been a pleasant Sunday…little scenes everyone has seen in the corner of some trolley…people’s pathetic jealousy and impatience with others’ happiness.

“My friend, what you’re doing is consoling yourself with the means of your escape and not keeping your eye on the goal.”

Beautiful scenery need not be sympathetic to man.

(Radio and mirror…radio and mirror…) As if all of human life could be expressed in those two things alone. Radios and mirrors do have a point in common: both can connect one person with another. Maybe they reflect cravings that touch the core of our existence.

What was the use of individuality when one was on the point of death? He wanted to go on living under any circumstances, even if his life had no more individuality than a pea in a pod.

So, there you have it. On the reading list, my next book is supposed to be Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I also made a comment that I might change a couple of the books on that list out for something else. I’m considering switching out The Idiot for a collection of short stories by either Anton Chekhov or Abram Tertz. I wanted something Russian, but after several novels, I’ve been in the mood for some good short fiction. Maybe I’ll replace The Idiot with both collections.

Anyhow, happy reading,
Dan J.


Editing this post to add: After a couple of days of reflection, I decided to replace The Idiot with the two collections of stories I mentioned above.

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