The aimless flight of time: Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes

First published 1964; translated from the Japanese in Penguin Modern Classics 2006 by E. Dale Saunders. 

This ‘oneiric masterpiece’, as David Mitchell aptly calls it in the Introduction, establishes an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere from the start. First we get a tonally flat forensic report on the disappearance of an unnamed man. His fellow teachers and partner assume he’s killed himself. As no trace of him is found after seven years, he’s pronounced dead.

Kobo Abe, cover of The Woman in the DunesThe next chapter begins his story in flashback from the moment he arrived in a coastal village, on holiday to search for an as yet unknown beetle to add to his entomological collection. From the outset it’s apparent that this is not a conventional, realist narrative. First there’s the bland acceptance of those he left behind that he was clearly Oedipal in his insect-collecting, and therefore (an odd logical leap) suicidal – a clear indication of his ‘weariness with the world.’

Then when he arrives at the village the behaviour of people he encounters is like those frightened townsfolk in western movies where the drifting stranger enters a town that is being terrorised by psychotic bandits or a deranged bullying sheriff, and they hope – or fear – that he’ll be the latest would-be hero to take them on – and fail.

The topography of the village is also bizarre: the houses ‘seemed to be sunk into hollows scooped in the sand. The surface of the sand stood higher than the rooftops.’ When he reaches the expanse of dunes by the sea and looks back,

he could see that the great holes, which grew deeper as they approached the crest of the ridge, extended in several ranks toward the center. The village, resembling the cross-section of a beehive, lay sprawled over the dunes. Either way, it was a disturbing and unsettling landscape.

From that point it comes as no surprise that he’s lured into a terrifying trap, with a young, attractive widow the bait. At first he struggles with all his strength and ingenuity to escape, then his will to liberate himself fades.

Like the landscape he’s ensnared in, the narrative is disturbing and unsettling. The lack of clear signs explaining why this is being done to him adds to that nightmare aura. He becomes a victim, struggling to extricate himself like one of his insect specimens on a pin, or a fly in a web. The imagery from the field of insects (and to a lesser extent, birds and animals) provides further layers of ‘unheimlich’ atmosphere.

The widow, who remains unnamed throughout, and the man, whose identity is finally revealed as Niki Jumpei, are present in every scene. The ghastly villagers, who act as the man’s guards and tormentors, play a peripheral but still terrifying role.

So what’s it all about? David Mitchell provides a plausible interpretation:

The woman is the animate; the mortal; the flesh; the impetus of sex; consolation in the cell of the unendurable. The dunes – the sand – is the inanimate; the eternal; what flesh is fated to fight against; what confines us; the unendurable self.

This sounds a lot like Sartre’s notoriously provocative account of slime – ‘le visqueux’ – and holes in Being and Nothingness. The novel relates constantly how the man and woman perspire or excrete moisture (from their eyes especially, but also from more suggestive orifices) to which the sand irritatingly, abrasively adheres. Even when they have sex there’s an uncomfortable focus on the intrusiveness of the sand. Sartre equates the slimy with the feminine (especially in a sexual way); the vulva is another void or hole that gapes open, evoking horror in the male. Slime is stagnation; like holes, it appeals to Being, is base and repugnant.

Not surprising that feminist critics (until recently, anyway) have found this account misogynistic and repugnant in itself.

I’m not sure this is what Abe is about in the novel. As Mitchell suggests, interpretation rests ultimately with each reader. There’s no pat answer. The fact that the man falls into a sand-trap, a deep hole at the bottom of which lives the woman, seems to support some kind of gender polarity and conflict or tension. There’s a paradoxical repulsion in the man from the woman and all she represents and inhabits, and simultaneous attraction. Is the sex impulse, that is, an impulse towards self-annhilation?

Not really. It also seems likely that this is an existential parable of a Kafkaesque kind. Like Joseph K, the man’s entrapment and struggle to break free could represent the human condition: that everywhere we are enslaved by everyday life, and are doomed to fail in our quest for liberty. It’s also notable that he’s made painfully aware of the futility of his existence with ‘the other woman’ in the world outside the dunes by his more overtly painful futile toil with the sand with the woman in the dunes; at least the trap in the sand is what it looks like – futile, meaningless, ineffable.

There’s Camus, too: his The Myth of Sisyphus seems apposite, given that the man and woman are sentenced to filling cans of sand that are taken away by the villagers in order to stop the relentless, inexorable shifting sands from engulfing their hut, but also the whole village. Each night they clear the sand away, and next day it’s all been replaced and they must start again.

In the Greek myth Sisyphus is forced, as punishment for his crime against the gods, to roll a rock up a hill; at the top, it rolls back down again and he must repeat the task for ever. For Camus this represents man’s doomed search for meaning or clarity in the face of an unintelligible world in which there is no God, eternal truth – or meaning. Life is absurd: ‘The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’

The man in Abe’s disconcerting parable may achieve by the end a similar kind of resigned acceptance of the hopelessness of his fate.

This may all sound too cerebral and abstract to appeal; but it’s a compelling read, full of tension and narrative drive – more Stephen King in its relentless, frightening drive than Sartrean intellectual obfuscation.

It’s an existential fiction – acknowledging the futility, absurdity or unreadability of life – that was also being explored by Beckett, Borges and others in the mid-20C.

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s profound, truly terrifying and strangely uplifting.

Here’s a final quotation that maybe indicates the kind of thing I’ve been trying to suggest; it’s when the man has rebelled against his captivity and refused to co-operate with the sand-digging:

When he actually began working, for some reason he did not resist as much as he thought he would. What could be the cause of this change? he wondered…Work seemed something fundamental for man, something which enabled him to endure the aimless flight of time.

‘For some reason’; ‘seemed’; this view of life’s narrative is that it’s elusive and defies attempts to interpret it. Soon after this scene he tells the woman a Kafkaesque parable of a guard who protected an ‘imaginary castle’, ‘an illusion.’ He then brushes sand from his head, looks at the wind-driven ripples of sand at his feet [ellipses in the original]:

Supposing they were sound waves, what kind of music would they give? he wondered. Maybe even a human being could sing such a song…if tongs were driven into his nose and slimy blood stopped up his ears.,,if his teeth were broken one by one with hammer blows, and splinters jammed into his urethra…if a vulva were cut away and sewn into his eyelids. It might resemble cruelty, and then again it might be a little different. Suddenly his eyes soared upward like a bird, and he felt as if he were looking down on himself. Certainly he must be the strangest of all…he who was musing on the strangeness of things here.

 

 

Lars Iyer, ‘Spurious’ – a review

Lars Iyer (photo from Bomblog website)

Lars Iyer (photo from Bomblog website)

Lars Iyer, Spurious  (Melville House, New York: 2011) paperback, 188 pages.

I bought and read this book in response to glowing reviews by people I respect like John Self (on his Asylum book blog) and Sam Jordison at the Guardian (‘a brilliant, engaging read’).  Although I’m mostly in accord with their positive views, I finished it with decreasing enthusiasm and, by the end, a fair amount of…well, boredom.

It’s certainly an engaging, curious and highly individual work.  It doesn’t conform to most of the conventions of a novel: there’s little plot to speak of – the spread and growth of damp and spores in Lars’ flat, perhaps, and occasional gin-fuelled dérives with his pal W., perhaps (there are several in jokes about the Situationists; many more – too many – about other philosophical, literary figures).  The largest part of the book consists of raucous dialogues between the character called Lars, who like his namesake the author lives and teaches in the NE of England (Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle), and his ‘frenemy’, the acerbic W. – we never learn his full name.  W. lives in Plymouth where he seems also to have a fitfully rewarding academic career.  These dialogues are almost entirely narrated as reported speech by the impassive Lars:

I am something to explain, W. says.  He has to account for me to everyone.  Why is that?  I don’t feel I have to account for myself, W. says, that’s what it is.  I’ve no real sense of shame.  It must be something to do with my Hinduism, W. muses.

This appears on the first page, and typifies the oblique style and muted, absurdist tone.  Most of what W. says to Lars, as reported by Lars, anyway – he’s not the most reliable of narrators – is cruelly insulting.  He frequently singles out Lars’ stupidity, obesity and all-round uselessness; this is apparent from page 1, just a few lines on from my previous quotation:

‘You’re an ancient people, but an innocent one, unburdened by shame’, W. says.  On the other hand, it could simply be due to my stupidity.  I’m freer than him, W. acknowledges, but more stupid.  It’s an innocent kind of stupidity, but it’s stupidity nonetheless.

This kind of love-hate relationship with its banter, this deadpan, relentless insulting (which is usually placidly accepted by Lars) has been likened by most critics to the clownish antics of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

Samuel Beckett (photo: Wiki Commons)Samuel Beckett (photo: Wiki Commons)

Iyer himself, in an article in the Guardian in 2012, acknowledged his debt to Nietzsche, quoting his statement: ‘In your friend you should have your best enemy’.  Such a friend, Iyer continues, should be one who ‘badgers, bothers, enrages, and insults you’, and he claims to detest the blandly spurious ‘kidult’ friendship promoted on platforms such as Facebook.  And that probably explains this book’s title.

There are nine other literary pairs of ‘frenemies’ that Iyer identifies in that article (in addition to Vladimir and Estragon); all are clear influences on Spurious – here are some of them:

Don Quixote and his ‘comic foil’ Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote and Sancha Panza: picture from Wiki Commons, from an engraving by Gustave Doré, 1863

Don Quixote and Sancha Panza: picture from Wiki Commons, from an engraving by Gustave Doré, 1863

In the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel The Loser the pianist prodigy Glenn Gould sends his less gifted fellow music student Bertheimer into a downward spiral of misery ending in suicide after Gould labels him a ‘loser’, and plays with inimitable virtuoso skill.

Thomas Mann’s Settembrini and Naphta in The Magic Mountain, ‘the former embodying the positive, hopeful ideal of the Enlightenment, and the latter, the more chaotic, order-threatening aspects of fascism, anarchism and communism. The two men debate furiously, and end up fighting an improbable duel, foreshadowing the coming clash of ideologies that would tear the continent apart.’

The cutting, nihilistic sharpness of W.’s invective is mildly amusing for a while: ‘You always have administration to fall back on’, W. says. ‘You never really experience your failure’.  The back-handed compliment is compounded in the next sentence: ‘With neither a fear of unemployment nor a fearful skill as an administrator, W. is alone with his failure, he says.  It’s terrible – there’s no alibi, he can’t blame it on anyone’.  After this uncharacteristic, Kafka-esque flash of self-criticism W. returns to his usual theme: ‘You’re like the dog that licks the hand of its master.  You’ll be licking their hand even as they beat you, and making little whiny noises.  You’re good at that, aren’t you – making whiny noises?’

Nearly 200 pages of such pessimistic, one-sided badinage has limited appeal for me:

We were disgusted with ourselves.  We were mired in self-disgust, our whole circle.  We hung our heads.  If we could have hung ourselves at that moment, we would have done so.

Yes, it’s inventive, clever, thought-provoking and idiosyncratic.  Look at the whimsically studied development there from ‘hung our heads’ to ‘hung ourselves’, and the other patterned repetitions here and in much of the dialogue, presented (as in the quotation above) in staccato bursts of short sentences or paratactic, loosely linked sentences of greater lengthy.  But I think it’s just too damn up itself to be fully successful in literary terms.  It’s an intelligent curiosity, well worth reading, but ultimately sounds too few notes too frequently.  Its origins as a blog are also apparent: it’s got an episodic, non-linear structure, and lapses too often into repetition.

The most interesting aspect of the text for me was the more profound, less quirky forays into philosophical debate, presented with the bleak wit of Lars and W.’s literary hero, Kafka, and their cinematic hero, the Hungarian Bela Tarr:

Of course, I should take my life immediately, that would be the honourable thing, W. says.  I should climb the footstool to the noose…But it would already be too late, that’s the problem, W. says.  The sin has already been committed.  The sin against existence, against the whole order of existing things.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924); photo - Wiki Commons

Franz Kafka (1883-1924); photo – Wiki Commons

Iyer is to be congratulated for producing such a daring attempt at a shaggy-dog story based on the principle of turning apocalyptic-messianic pseudo-philosophical musings by a pair of smug, self-styled idiots into Nietzschean, angst-ridden comedy:

We know we’re failures, we know we’ll never achieve anything, but we’re still joyful.

Iyer’s competitive chums are capable of beautiful lyric episodes:

We’re only signs or syndromes of some great collapse, and our deaths will be no more significant than those of summer flies in empty rooms.

There are some genuinely funny (but weird, absurd) passages, like this one, where W. has been viciously berating Lars for not reading the chapters he’d sent him for comment:

‘You didn’t read chapter five’, says W., ‘with the dog’.  He was very proud of his pages on his dog, even though he doesn’t own a dog.  ‘You should always include a dog in your books’, says W.  It’s a bit like his imaginary children in his previous book, W. says. – ‘Do you remember the passages on children?’  Even W. wept.  He weeps now to think of them.  He’s very moved by his own imaginary examples, he says.

He wants to work a nun into his next book, he says.  An imaginary nun, the kindest and most gentle person in the world.

It’s for sentences like these that I think Spurious is worth a look; but be prepared for some longueurs and donnish, highbrow namedropping among the comical repetitions.

 

Typically enigmatic cover image of 'Spurious'; photo from the Guardian website

Typically enigmatic cover image of ‘Spurious’; photo from the Guardian website