I love Japanese fiction. A woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe, I happened to pick this book at random and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

A thoughtful book about existence, short read but it goes at its own pace. The main character of the book, a schoolteacher with a hobby of collecting rare insects, is living a monotonous life. One day, decides to break the routine and go on a trip to collect beetles in sand but doesn’t tell anyone about where he is going. Soon he is captured by the villagers and made to live in a hole with a woman where his daily job is to keep digging sand.

If it was any other novel, maybe written by an American author, you would be anticipating some satanic or cult type events happening in the sand holes…But nothing of the sort happens, it’s a simple village, rotting with poverty, no one caring about the disasters sand brings to people living there and they are left on their own to save themselves. The captured man holds little value in his real world but is easily replaceable (school teachers can be changed, right), however, in the sand village, he is extremely valuable, they need him to help clear the sand everyday.

Everyday, the man imagines to try and run away, keeps planning his escapes and one time he is almost successful also. He experiences emotions that keep changing with the shape of sand, he is angry, frustrated, upset, sad, disappointed, aroused, caring. A person used to the routine and hustle-bustle of city life is bound to feel frustrated when forced to live in a small hole where time seems to move in a fashion that you cannot know whether its been 4 days or 4 months.

But somewhere in this slowness, he finds calm and a sense of achievement when he is able to make a water pump by collecting water from sand. At last when the woman is taken away, he is free to walk away but something holds him back. He doesn’t want to leave without showing his achievement and gathering praise for what he accomplished. His only audience can be the villagers who will appreciate what he has done, no will care about it in the city where he lived in a different lifetime. He decides to continue staying in the sand village, maybe because freedom without struggle somehow loses the essence of being free.


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