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The Woman in the Dune: Learning to Love Lockdown

Kōbō Abe's mind-slipping desert horror about a horny man trapped in a hole is the perfect quarantine companion.

Poster design by Caleb Carter

Her body, the dunes.

In Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a war veteran recounts how he was once left naked and starving at the bottom of a dried-up well on the outer Mongolian Steppe. Broken and thrust into the loneliest darkness imaginable, the veteran’s only respite came at a brief, 10-second interval around midday, when the sun’s bow reached its apex and channelled directly into the well, flooding him with blinding light. In this small moment, he reached transcendence. The interlude is a very Murakami tale of enlightenment in which the literal illumination of the body, at the bottom of a hole, corresponds with the illumination of the cosmic self, at the bottom of the ego. But after living behind closed doors for a year and a half, it's that literality that feels like a fantasy to me. Granted, I wasn’t left for dead on an espionage mission in the Sino-Japanese war. But I was stuck somewhere, and nothing see-sawed like between the highs of infinite brightness and the lows of emaciation. I think, for us privileged enough to have a boring lockdown, its disorienting difficulty lay in how it robbed us of the drama of life and flattened to an undefined, perpetual moment.

There is instead an emptiness to light in a hole. Outside, everything is a sundial. Light is full to the brim with time, pregnant with gushing white seconds that squelch to honey oranges and melt to incense blues. Inside, light dries up, catching up to you like musical statues with a glance out the window. Kōbō Abe’s mind-slipping, desert horror, The Woman in the Dunes, lives here as well, in a hole. Four walls without a vanishing point where time stutters across the ceiling of the sky. Now it’s afternoon, now it’s morning, now it’s night. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s brilliant film adaptation of Abe's novel suggests that the light is empty because the dunes eat it all up: his opening shot shows how you can see the universe refracted in a grain of sand.

Here’s the situation. Niki Jumpei is a teacher whose obscure hobby is entomology, bug collecting. He dreams of renown and is searching for beetles in the dunes by the ocean when he comes across a village pocked, like honeycomb, by holes: large sandpits at the bottom of which sit huts like shipwrecks. Lured like a desert beetle lures out its rodent prey, Jumpei is trapped by the villagers in one of these huts. We learn that the central village uses them and their inhabitants as a buffer against the laws of entropy and for the enslaved Jumpei to earn his food and water he must shovel, every night, the sand into buckets, lest the hut is overrun and he drowns a dry death, lungs filled with stones and dribbling dust.

But he is not alone. Already residing in the hut is a widow, referred to by Abe only as “the woman” (as Jumpei, too, progressively dissolves to “the man”), who by first judgement has given up hope. She all but apologises when Jumpei takes her as a hostage in an attempt to negotiate food. When untied she busily critters around like an ant or an automaton. She is the real victim of the story. Jumpei finds her so frustratingly submissive that she becomes a source of his desperation, his anger, and his sexual angst.

One might think that, in a hole in the desert, sex would be the last thing on anyone’s mind. But sand makes you feel your body like nothing else, and there is an aridness to sex. There is a kind of constriction in the eye of its tunnelled vision, but also a desire to constrict, to subjugate. And, without delving too far down this particularly French rabbit hole (la petite mort!), at its most nude and arithmetical – one replaces zero – there is also inherent violence.

At night, the bone dust of dead stars outlines her breasts as if she, too, has been admitted into the curvature of the sand. As if we all may petrify, crack into billions, and then slip forever across the topography of space.

Jumpei’s hunger, both actual and venereal, is first offset and later taunted by the nothingness of the desert, the always-nothingness, the will-be-nothingness. Suddenly, it makes more and more sense to dance life on the beach of death.

Speaking of life, moisture lurks beneath this sand. “Have you ever heard of a damp desert?” Jumpei refuses to believe the woman’s tales of cucumbers growing in soil fermented from the wood of a buried hut. Sand cannot rot, can it? But Abe and Teshigahara present the dunes like an organism, sending sticky tendrils and viral pores past allied gates. Even if you can’t see it in the empty light, the universe must continue its crumbling pirouette. Jumpei is in a sea of its shed skin, and the book goes to lengths to remind us that everything is floating towards the desert, even other deserts. Them’s the (thermodynamic) rules. If the rotting sand has crept to this shoreline village, if it gets into the man's clothes and his food and his sex, then eventually it will get to Tokyo and beyond. He has no choice other than to shovel time away into the corners of his mind as if dusting off the light to maintain its emptiness. To busy himself with an uphill battle and postpone the inevitable whilst it stares him down.

“Who knew that the apocalypse would be so slow?” She asks beneath her mask, whilst brushing it back beneath the door.

In the film, Jumpei is arrogant, and some clever editing towards the beginning suggests that he is haunted by horniness. But his actor, Eiji Okada (of the suavely melancholic Hiroshima, Mon Amour) is incurably charismatic. In the book, however, Jumpei is a dorky complainant and his life and principles that he is condemned to leave behind are described as anything but ideal. Everything he chooses to do is in service of the next and the dude has major commitment issues, refusing to settle down because he is terrified of being defined, or, as he describes it, ticketed and stamped. He looks down upon his colleagues who don't seem to care about that. If like me, you’ve ever been a particularly angsty teenager, you might recognise that there is an unearned elitism and allure to nihilism. Acknowledging the indifferent physics of decay might feel like a tough burden to bear, but true bravery is found instead in choosing to let things matter. That’s actually the hard part.

For many, lockdown became a game of reprioritization. Of enjoying idiosyncrasies and treasuring quiet. Appreciating bog-standard, ache-in-the-morning health. And cooking. And crafts. Doodling. Gardening. Small acts of cultivating nothingness into somethingness: little prayers. Making meaning.

The book’s emasculation arc might come across as a little tired today, but simple pleasures do require a kind of self-degradation. Jumpei becomes frustrated with himself after he howls in hysterical laughter at a strip cartoon in an old newspaper. “I won’t be made a fool of,” he says. Why not, Niki? Eventually, he does begin a small project, a trap for a crow to tie a last-ditch SOS note to. He nicknames it "hope". Later, that project evolves into something a little more realistic, a little more fruitful, a little less desperate. Also, notably, a little less about escape.

All is quiet and clear now. I think I can hear the waves. I have a 20/20 view down the barrel of a windless exit. Shall I take it?

As soon as he stops waiting for it, Abe offers Jumpei an escape at the end of his novel. And in a genius, perplexing twist, he refuses it. Beyond the hole, Niki Jumpei is bathed in light that moves and he refuses it, gets back in the hole to continue tinkering with "hope", and cuddles up once more with stillness.

Abe once said that "all things that are valued for their stability offend me." He was hard left-leaning but forcibly expelled from the communist party in the same year that The Woman in the Dunes was published. Teshigahara's film, with its rickety taiko drums, taut strings and wailing choir, seems to find the finale to be the eerie usurping of hope by insanity, and it’s easy to read The Woman in the Dunes as a parable of man’s labour-induced pacification. I’m just not sure I agree.

It's no secret that Murakami draws inspiration from Abe but the difference is that Abe wrote of no such celestial, noontime visitation. Abe's work is of absurdity played anxiously straight: there is only the hole. But that doesn't mean there won't be discovery.

Ultimately, the stillness outside your window, above the hole, unveils the illusion of anthropocentrism. We are not so still and empty like the sky, it is only our feverish circles of routine, ritual and vice, solidified across a lifetime, that make it seem so. In fact, the internal movements of the human being are just as fluidly rapid and migratory as that of sand. The denial of this fact is a kind of undeath, a spiritual zombification. We are just so used to feeling like the control at the centre of a vortex of variables and putting the world on pause revealed it as a lie.

“Do you shovel sand to live, or do you live to shovel sand?” Jumpei asks the woman. It’s a stunning poster quote. It also might miss the point entirely. Must one be in service of the other? Work might just be life; life, work. Even when you are doing nothing, you’re still burning up like rocket fuel, you’re rotting at the bottom of a hole, and though it seems totally undivine and counterintuitive to the human plan, that is The Plan. That’s the universe going to work.

I shake the sand from my boots.


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