The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe

This Japanese novel from 1962 starts innocently enough. A man has disappeared after boarding a train to the seashore for a holiday. An amateur entomologist, he told the woman with whom he lives that he planned to collect specimens. Since no body is discovered in the area where he was headed, there is little to no investigation. Most people assume he's gone off with a woman or committed suicide.

After this brief introductory chapter, we enter the man's mind as he leaves the train and boards a bus. He takes the bus to the end of the line and then walks through a small village to the dunes by the sea. He wants to collect insects in the dunes, hoping to find a new variety, something no one has seen before. Perhaps it could be named after him.

He's been studying about sand and finds himself thinking about the size of the particles and the particular way it is somehow isolated from soil and clay and stones to create deserts and sandy beaches. As he wanders, eyes alert for beetles, thoughts circling around sand particles, he runs into several villagers who lure him into captivity, trapped in a deep cavity in the dunes where a woman lives in a shabby house. In return for digging the ever-encroaching sand and putting it in tins for the villagers to pull up and take away, they are provided with minimal food and water.

We now enter the realm of parable. Like something out of Kafka or Poe, the man at first rails against his imprisonment, refusing to work and trying to escape. The joy of this book is the slow, subtle, and thoroughly believable way that his spirit is broken. To build his strength and deceive his jailors, he pretends to accommodate himself to life in the hole. When not digging sand, he helps the woman string beads, extra work she has taken on to earn money for a radio. His “gentle contentment” grows until he remembers that “He had intended this accommodation to be a means, never a goal.”

At every turn I thought of my own long life working in offices. I thought of the salarymen in Japan, trying to hold onto jobs by putting in long hours of overtime and not taking vacation or sick days. When I went to Japan again a few years ago, the train from Tokyo was delayed because someone had committed suicide by jumping in front of it. I was told that this was a common occurrence.

It used to make me sad to think of the way we compromise our youthful dreams as we grow older. Then I decided that such a development was only realistic. Once we have responsibilities—spouses, children, mortgages—we must have a thought for these beloved and freely chosen encumbrances. We cannot think only of ourselves.

And office work gave me more than an income. It challenged me intellectually and forced me to become more disciplined. More importantly, it pulled me out of my shell and taught me to interact with and value people from circles I would not otherwise have breached. Working closely with strangers who became colleagues and, often, friends, rubbed off the rough edges of my eccentric solitary habits.

Yet this story reminds me how easily a temporary adjustment can become a prison.

What book have you read that changed the way you thought about your life?

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