In 1955, Jumpei Niki, a schoolteacher from Tokyo, visits a fishing village to collect insects. After missing the last bus, he is led, by the villagers, in an act of apparent hospitality, to a house in the dunes that can be reached only by ladder. The next morning the ladder is gone and he finds he is expected to keep the house clear of sand with the woman living there, with whom he is also to produce children. He eventually gives up trying to escape when he comes to realize returning to his old life would give him no more liberty. After seven years, he is proclaimed officially dead. [citations removed.]
Yes, there is a Sisyphean task here; the labors are joint–crucially, involving both a man and a woman–but seemingly infinite and never-ending anyway. The mystery over why Niki is treated as he is by the villagers is never given a satisfactory solution, and indeed, as in the case of those who counterproductively continue digging in holes, efforts to solve this conundrum only heighten its inexplicability. Bafflement, bewilderment, anger, frustration are Niki’s primary responses, and they are all equally efficacious–that is, they are not in the least.
A perplexed protagonist, a brutal, unrewarding task, an unsolved mystery, the realization that deliverance is not forthcoming; yes, this is an existentialist novel.
There are two interesting embroiderings of these basic existentialist themes in Abe’s novel. First, the novel is set ten years after the end of the Second World War, ten years after hell was dragged up from its depths and deposited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus, on the Japanese nation. This is a world in which the firmness of an older universe has been replaced by the shifting and transient sand of a new relationship with the world; sand, as Abe reminds us, is ‘fragmented rock,’ once solid and imposing, now beaten down. The Japanese, of whom Niki and the woman are as good representatives as any other, might yet be buried by this relentless invader of their older world. Second, Niki is not just any man, any Japanese. He is a schoolteacher, and moreover, he is a man of science. He is an entomologist; he studies sand as well, and is fascinated by its physical properties.
As a man of science, Niki expects his situations in this world to be infected by the same reason he sees underwriting the cosmos. He is, precisely because of this intellectual orientation, unprepared for the villagers’ mysterious, criminal behavior: Why have they kidnapped him? Do they really think they can get away with this absurd plot? The villagers do not care; they are absorbed in their task. The woman does not know and she does not too, seem to care too much. If there is a concern for consequences, it is a narrowly circumscribed one: what will happen if the sand is not kept at bay? This encounter, this futile dashing of the hopes of the man of science that a reasonable explanation will be found for all that afflicts us, that the methods which have made so much of the world comprehensible will make the villagers and their task less mysterious, gives Abe’s novel its most acute sense of desperation and despair.