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The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (thoughts)

April 17, 2013

Woman in the Dunes
I knew that it had to happen. Eventually, my streak of reading all four or five star reads would have to come to an end. I didn’t realise it would be such a spectacular crash and burn, though. It’s not merely that I didn’t care for The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe. No, I loathed it.

It started out well enough; I enjoyed the straightforward prose style combined with the fantastic plot events (the main character sets off on a vacation and never returns), and I loved the line drawings sprinkled throughout (done by Abe’s wife). After a couple of chapters, I realised it was going to be an existential parable, but I can appreciate that when it’s done well. And Abe’s powerful imagery, of a man stuck in a hole in the sand, with sand constantly falling and being blown in and getting everywhere and sticking to everything, was certainly well done. The metaphor between spending all day shifting the sand so that the ‘house’ wouldn’t collapse, only to have to do it all again tomorrow, rather than simply leaving the hole and finding a new house, was one I could easily connect with modern society. I was concerned about the potrayal of the woman, who has been in the hole for a longer time, but I’ve dealt with sexism in novels before and it’s not always a deal breaker for me. All in all, I expected to end up thinking of it as a worthwhile read, if not a beloved one.

So what changed my mind? Well, the narrator became more and more focused on sex, with meditations that I found more than a little tiresome. I also had to roll my eyes at the idea that any woman would sleep naked and let sand pile up on her; only a male author would think cleaning sand out of female privates is easier then wearing some undies. But still, I could deal. Until this scene happened (trigger warning, this is graphic & terribly dehumanising to the woman involved):

The woman, who had been entreating him at first, manifested obvious fright at this frenzy. He was seized by a feeling of prostration, as if he had ejaculated. Again he spurred his courage, forcing himself on by a series of helter-skelter lewd fantasies, arousing his passion by biting her breasts and striking her body, which, with the soap, sweat, and sand, felt like machine oil mixed with iron filings. He had intended to let this go on for at least two hours. But finally the woman gritted her teeth, and complaining of pain, crouched away from him. He mounted her from behind like a rabbit and finished up within seconds. Then he threw water over her to wash off the soap; he forced her to drink a teacupful of the cheap sake along with three aspirin tablets. She would sleep straight on through without awakening until night…

What. The. Fuck. I almost never swear on this blog, but sometimes it’s necessary. Words cannot begin to describe the fury, revulsion, and filthiness I felt upon reading that. Having to reread it & type it has brought them all back up, and I only put it on my blog because I felt that a summary could not convey just how problematic the writing was.

I did actually finish the book, which went on for another eighty pages, although I read more quickly than usual. I finished it because I was trying to find a redeeming factor, something that would account for all of the positive, glowing reviews I’d read of this, something that would make the book worth reading, valuable, despite Abe’s complete portrayal of women as repulsive sex objects. I didn’t find it. I was also shocked that of the six blog posts (including a Guardian article) I read discussing it, only one (Tony’s) described up Abe’s portrayal of the woman as troubling. Seriously? I can understand not having as extreme a reaction as I did, but to completely overlook it when writing about the book? And one or two mentioned the book’s ‘climactic sex scene.’ For the record, I would not describe the passage above as a ‘sex scene.’ That is a rape scene, or a sexual assault scene at the very least. Despite the narrator’s later delusional imaginings that the next morning the woman will wake up smiling, happy that she’s been satiated (and yes, this infuriated me even more).

I will clearly not be reading any more of Kobo Abe’s work (I feel towards him as I do towards his compatriot, Yoshiro Tatsumi, whose book also made me feel as if I needed to scrub myself clean). I would not recommend him to others, despite the fascinating & well written sand house of this book, because he has crossed my intellectual line from ‘problematic gender issues’ to ‘completely unacceptable.’ Apparently, though, this is a well-regarded and enjoyed novel. So, take that for what you will. Personally, I would rather spend my time with the myriad of intelligent, talented writers who don’t subject me to scenes like the one above. I have read rape scenes that are portrayed sensitively, even by male authors, and which are part of books that explore the psychological and physical consequences for the victims. These are important books, valuable books. I have also read books that portrayed misogynistic characters in a way that made it clear that their philosophies and practices are separate from the author’s beliefs. These are also books worth spending the time and extra mental or emotional effort reading. The Woman in the Dunes is the antithesis of that and thus roused my unapologetic wrath. I will not be including suggested reads in this post, since I don’t want to sully books I loved by association.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2013 3:58 am

    I’m not sure if I warned you about this before you started, but if not, I should have as I was fairly sure that you wouldn’t enjoy this. There’s a lot to like in the novel, but the rape scene really spoils it. As I said in my post, there is a different set of cultural norms at play here, but even so…

  2. April 17, 2013 4:11 am

    I remember reading this maybe 6 or 7 years back and having to put it down and swear to never pick it up again after that scene. I did finish it eventually, but only just.

  3. April 17, 2013 6:47 am

    I’d never heard of this book before…sounds as if I could have happily lived on that way. I so hope your reading will head straight back to another long string of 4 and 5 star reads! You certainly deserve it after that reading experience.

  4. April 17, 2013 7:17 am

    Laughed aloud at your first paragraph-then read entire review-ugh…not a pleasant read-hope your next is MUCH better

  5. April 17, 2013 9:16 am

    I watched the movie and thought the same thing and thought to myself-”yeah, let’s not read the book this based on.” I guess I’m glad my instincts rang true. That paragraph is okay in exactly no contexts and the level of detail “three aspirin” is disturbingly telling of experience or too much fantasy-neither of which is something comfortable

  6. April 17, 2013 5:03 pm

    I felt similarly after reading A Quiet Life by Kenzaburo Oe. In that book there is an attempted rape. It is definitely portrayed as a bad thing, but it seems like a strangely minor bad thing. The victim is upset for a day or two, but after that is just fine. And justice for the perpetrator? Well, he’s expelled from the swim club.

  7. April 17, 2013 6:13 pm

    Blech. What a nasty thing. I hope your next book is better! I hope you get straight back onto your reading hot streak.

  8. Steve permalink
    April 17, 2013 7:08 pm

    It puzzles me, Eva, when I read books that were favourably reviewed and they turn out to be duds, or in the case of this book, thoroughly repulsive. I wonder if I’ve missed something. Or if there’s something else going on. Thanks for reviewing this book. Hopefully you’ll save a lot of people from wasting their time.

  9. April 18, 2013 6:05 pm

    Okay, there’s no real way to react to this without getting fairly upset. If ever a paragraph to destroy the potential of an entire book…

  10. April 23, 2013 7:44 am

    Ewww…that’s all I can say. How terrible, that passage you quoted in the review makes me feel physically ill.

  11. boardinginmyforties permalink
    April 26, 2013 5:00 pm

    Thanks for the warning. The is not one that I would enjoy.

  12. Helen permalink
    June 19, 2013 3:42 am

    Great literature has the ability to terrify and shock the reader sometimes. I think it’s sad how people in the comments are saying that they will never read the book. Stepping out of our comfort zones is often required for personal growth to happen, for new ideas to form. If people will just keep on reading fluffy, “enjoyable” stuff that never challenges their ideals, they are effectively limiting themselves by closing their eyes from different aspects of reality and themselves.

    What I want to say is that despite that one paragraph, horrifying as it may be, I think the book is great and reading it is definitely not a waste of time. The whole novel is allegorical on many levels and it has deep philosophical themes underlying. In fact it’s one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s terrifying and provoking at times, but there is a hidden wisdom in there.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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