futility

THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES BY KOBO ABE

One of my favourite topics of conversation is the relationship between man and the natural world. We are, where nature is concerned, both lovers and fighters, protectors and conquerers, but the mountain, the desert, or whatever, is, amusingly, entirely indifferent to us. The natural world cares not a fig for man and his intentions and desires. Yet this does not prevent us from being almost completely at its mercy; we are helpless in the face of the big wave, the punishing sun, the labyrinthian forest…the deluge, the drought…the snowstorm, the earthquake.

Despite being the indoor type, there have been a few times that I have been exposed to this power. For example, I was once caught out in a rainstorm, which came with a force I was unaccustomed to and unprepared for. The rain beat down; it cudgeled me. Within seconds my entire body was soaking wet, so that touching myself was like immersing my hand in a cold river. I could have hailed a taxi, but I had quickly descended into a state close to madness. I took the rain to be my enemy, to be something I had to overcome. I cursed the sky under my breath; I cursed a God I don’t believe in. And I plodded on, in shoes that now had the consistency, and protective capacity, of cardboard. My hair fell into my eyes, grasped at my face. My glasses were useless. I couldn’t see. One downpour and I had stopped being able to function; I had been brought to my knees.

All of which puts me in mind of Kobo Abe’s claustrophobic classic The Woman in the Dunes. The novel begins with a kind of preface concerning the disappearance of Jumpei, an ordinary man, a teacher, who, we’re told, having a keen interest in the natural world, had set out one August day in order to study insects in a sandy region of Japan, and had not returned. A few theories are floated – another woman? Suicide? – but we soon find out that he has, in a sense, been kidnapped, that he has been tricked into staying in a house at the bottom of what is essentially a large, unstable hole in the ground.

“What in heaven’s name was the real essence of this beauty? Was it the precision of nature with its physical laws, or was it nature’s mercilessness, ceaselessly resisting man’s understanding?”

The layman perception of sand, or this layman anyway, is that it is relatively hostile to life. Indeed, Jumpei – who is, if not an authority on the subject, at least fairly knowledgeable – acknowledges that is an ‘unfavourable environment’ in which only certain, especially adaptable, creatures, such as flies, can thrive. So, from the earliest stages of the novel, even before the teacher is captured, one is left in no doubt that it is not compatible with man. In fact, Abe, impressively borrowing from the horror genre, makes it seem almost sinister. At one point Jumpei sits down for a cigarette, and the sand, the ever mobile sand, starts to encroach, to cover his trousers, to almost devour him like a malevolent, hungry beast.

However, it is when he finds himself in the hole, and is denied almost all manmade comforts, that he is forced into a true, dire confrontation with the substance, with, essentially, the natural world. It is interesting, in this regard, that Jumpei is a teacher, a pedagogue, because one generally sees them as logical and assured. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Abe chose to pit such a man against something – sand – that cannot, of course, be reasoned with. Moreover, numerous times the sand does not conform to Jumpei’s expectations, suggesting that it cannot be predicted or worked out either.

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Generally speaking, I avoid descriptions, certainly in list form, of situations, important action or plot, but in this instance I believe it is necessary to fully understand the teacher’s brutal relationship with such apparently innocuous ‘stuff.’ Jumpei finds that it sticks to his face, to his body; it inflames his eyes; it gets into his mouth, and a ‘brownish scum’ oozes from the corners of his lips; and when he pulls his packet of cigarettes from his pocket there is sand there too. It gets, without exaggeration, everywhere, and it is not, as noted, friendly. Even the house, it is said, is being rotted by the sand, so that it unceasingly pours through the roof. In one of the novel’s most absurd, and funny, scenes Jumpei eats his food while the woman holds an umbrella over his head. Meanwhile, there is always the threat of a fatal avalanche or sandslide.

In this way, The Woman in the Dunes is significantly different from the work of Kafka, or certainly his two major novels, to which it is frequently compared. Kafka’s protagonists are oppressed by man; they are thrown into absurd situations and try to get answers, try to make headway, but find that other people, in their irrationality, ignorance or stupidity, prevent them from doing so; they are symbolically, not literally trapped. You see something of this in Abe’s work, for Jumpei is forced to remain in the hole by the villagers, despite his protestations, but their behaviour is not irrational, it is done, perhaps unfeelingly, but for a very specific, logical, reason. Therefore, Dunes actually has more in common with Fowles’ The Collector, or with films such as The Human Centipede or the more recent Room. Moreover, although there is snow in The Castle, it does not act as K.’s oppressor, he does not enter [willingly or otherwise] into battle with it.

“The barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently was due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things. What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out.”

I have not, so far, much concerned myself with the woman of the title. I imagine that you have guessed already that she lives in the house at the bottom of the hole, that it is her home. There was, for me, something amusing about this set-up. Not only is Jumpei kidnapped, and forced to live and work in a sandy hell, he is supplied with what is essentially a wife, one not of his own choosing. For anyone who suffers from intimacy, or commitment, issues this will no doubt cause a few shudders. The woman is referred to by the villagers as ‘granny,’ even though she apparently looks around thirty, one would assume as a way of suggesting that the environment has taken a toll on her, and as a way of making Jumpei’s situation seem even more grim [one thing being locked up with a sexpot, another with a grandmother] and to emphasise her lack of sexual appeal.

The woman is, moreover, consistently submissive. One wonders if this is a tactic she employs in order to disarm the teacher, and keep him calm, in the same way that one might freeze in the face of an agitated animal. Yet, as the novel progresses, it struck me that it is more suggestive of her status as a victim. One tends to immediately sympathise with Jumpei because he has been taken out of his ‘natural’ environment, he has more obviously lost something, been denied something i.e. his freedom. But I came to view the tragedy of the novel to be the woman’s, not his. She is resigned to her fate, to living in such awful conditions; she doesn’t desire anything, it seems, except company, if not from a man then from a radio or a mirror, at least. She, and indeed all the villagers, are, in a sense, social outcasts, they are Japan’s poor, forgotten and abandoned. There was, and perhaps still is, a caste system in the country, and one might see the villagers as representative of the lowest order, called Burakumin.

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Numerous times throughout the novel Abe points out that sand is never stationary, in other words it is free, which is ironic because Jumpei is not, of course. It is hardly a surprise that freedom is the central theme of the book, but it extends beyond the kidnapping. First of all, Jumpei’s holiday, his going to the dunes, is clearly a form of escape. It is something that he does in order to take a break from his unsatisfying existence. So, in essence, he swaps one form of slavery, one unfree mode of living, for another. Moreover, to be imprisoned is, without question, unpleasant, but it is more unpleasant, one would imagine, if your ‘cellmate’ cannot, or will not, acknowledge that you, and she, are actually in prison. I thought that was a clever, subtle twist.

Yet what is most important, most moving, is what Abe has to say about the nature of freedom, about what it consists of. Throughout the book Jumpei is looking for ways to get out, to return to the surface, and he also, at times, refuses to work, to clear away the sand. However, by the end of the novel, he discovers water, or a way of extracting water from the sand, and this discovery delights and stimulates him, to such an extent that he doesn’t want to leave, he wants to stay and work on it. Therefore, the ultimate message of The Woman in the Dunes seems to be that freedom is not about being able to go where you want to go, it is to be free from repetitive action, from mind-numbing work. To live, to be free, is to be fulfilled; it is hope, it is meaningful preoccupation. Which is, all told, a lovely sentiment.

The pictures in this review are stills taken from the 1964 film adaption of the book, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

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BEYOND SLEEP BY WILLEM FREDERIK HERMANS

It is, it seems, a common human desire to want to be remembered for something, to have made a mark on the world, and yet obviously very few of us achieve it. I have quite a few years ahead of me still, I hope, but I’m under no illusions as to the likelihood that anyone will be building monuments to me in Sheffield city centre or that one day school children will sigh and roll their eyes as their teacher does his or her best to make my great achievements interesting to them. I will be forgotten after my death, there’s little doubt about that; in fact, I’m largely insignificant now, only existing in the minds of a few hundred people, out of billions in the world, the majority of whom wouldn’t even know, nor care, if I fell under a bus tomorrow.

The narrator of Beyond Sleep, Alfred Issendorf, is a Dutch postgraduate Geology student who is on a research trip, heading for the Norwegian wilds in order to make a discovery, in order to do something that will make his name [which, in this instance, involves meteor craters]. Therefore, while it is possible to understand the title of Hermans’ novel as referring to death [which features frequently in the narrative] one might equally, or more appropriately, interpret it to mean ‘beyond death,’ or, in other words, the endurance of the self, via one’s achievements, beyond death. Indeed, Beyond Sleep is full of references to famous, important scientists and explorers, such as Robert Falcon Scott, at the side of whom Alfred feels small or insignificant. In this way Beyond Sleep is concerned with well-worn existentialist themes, such as the individual’s place in the world, whether one’s existence really matters, and so on.

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[Finnmark, in Norway]

The novel begins with Albert trying to obtain some aerial photographs for his trip, and one assumes that the tone of the work is set in these opening exchanges, as the young man is faced with incompetence and absurdity at every turn. It isn’t, I ought to point out, a grand, intense Kafkaesque absurdity, but rather the kind of small-scale ridiculousness that people like you and I [definitely I] come across every day. For example, he believes that a meeting has been arranged with Professor Nummendal, but, when he arrives, the professor appears to have no knowledge of it. Not only that, but, instead of explaining that he doesn’t have the aerial photographs, which are the stated purpose of the visit, he treats the young man to a pointless trip around Oslo in his company. Moreover, all three of the major characters that Alfred is in contact with in the first fifty or so pages are in some way disfigured or have a disability. Nummendal is blind, his porter is too, and Direktor Oftedahl has scars on his face and some problem with his throat.

Yet as the book progresses the strange, subtly surreal atmosphere dissipates somewhat. One of the clearest indications of this is that the other students taking part in the expedition – Arne, Mikkelsen, and Qvigstad – are, for want of a better word, ‘normal’; they do not behave in any way out of the ordinary, they have no odd verbal tics or physical features, and so on. Indeed, once Alfred enters the wilds in Finnmark, Beyond Sleep becomes more a kind of anti-adventure novel, i.e. one which shares some of the elements of a traditional adventure narrative – a man entering unknown territory, searching for something valuable – but which is, for the most part, really rather humdrum, or banal, with leaking tents, bad food, minor disagreements, an injured leg, and philosophical exchanges being about as exciting as things get [although philosophical exchanges do excite me, I must admit] for a good two hundred pages.

On this, Alfred makes an interesting point, which is that these kinds of trips only become glamorous or exciting or significant in retrospect, if an important discovery is made, and that, even when that is the case, the successful explorers and scientists don’t share with the public the boring bits. Furthermore, he is acutely aware that very few people make discoveries that change the world, or even their own small part of the world; very few of us, as alluded to in my introduction, will be remembered for our accomplishments. For Alfred, there is a feeling that if he doesn’t discover anything then his time will have been wasted, that it wont mean anything, that his hardship and hard work will have been for nothing, and that it will seem silly, to others and to himself. He believes that success, interest from the world-at-large, or even from just the academic world, is the only thing that can give the expedition meaning; only success can give it significance. There is, therefore, a palpable atmosphere of futility hanging over the book, in that Hermans gives us a man who predicts that he won’t succeed, yet who knows that the only thing that can give his actions meaning is success; and so, as a result, he approaches his work, his life, with a kind of hang-dog half-heartedness.   

“The Aztecs performed human sacrifices on a nightly basis, to ensure the sun would rise in the morning.  They had done so since time immemorial, the way we wind up our clocks before going to bed.  Not a murmur from anyone, not a soul who dared to suggest it might be worth finding out what would happen if they skipped the ceremony for once.”

As a reading experience Beyond Sleep is pleasant enough; it is easy to navigate and yet it does have some depth. And it is at times very funny. However, I do feel as though it lacks focus. Every time I was confident that I had pinned down where the novel was going and what the point was, it shifted slightly, and became something else. For example, in a previous paragraph I wrote about the banal aspects of these kind of scientific endeavours, and that stuff is certainly there in the text, but, then, towards the end, one of the main characters dies, which isn’t, of course, a banal event, it doesn’t happen all the time when people are involved in this work. Moreover, while initially it is Alfred who appears to be the sensible, and sane, man in a world of fools or weirdos, later he is the paranoid, incapable one, who is essentially ditched by his peers. Perhaps that is Hermans’ point, or one of them anyway, that everybody is a dolt to someone.

In any case, more of an issue is that the overriding theme, that to be great is not a position afforded to many, that there are, to paraphrase Hermans, only a small number of geniuses, is hardly profound, is rather obvious in fact, and doesn’t really warrant a 300 page novel. Ironically, Hermans himself was one of these not-so-greats, or not-quite-greats, and has been largely forgotten, or remains undiscovered, except in his native Holland.