Tag Archives: Literature

Woman in the Dunes. Kobo Abe.

Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes. Kobo Abe.

The Shifting Sands of Modernity…. June 24, 2000

Shortly after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 narrative writing became heavily influenced by Western literature. Although there are many excellent early fiction writers and those who, like Junichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata, tend to reflect more traditional aesthetics, or those of the “I-novel,” Kobo Abe (1924-1993), a Marxist, is the first significantly modern Japanese novelist. His childhood in Manchuria helped him to look harder and more objectively than other writers at modern Japanese life, particularly in Tokyo, where Abe lived the rest of his life, while his growing up in Manchuria surely added to the sense of alienation that pervades his work. His early stories following World War II already express a profoundly existentialist angst and absurdity that has often led to his being compared to Kafka, Camus, Sartre, or Samuel Beckett. To my mind, though, it is precisely the fact that Abe is Japanese that is important and to view him as a mere imitator of the West would be a mistake. Rather than casting his experience into Kafkaesque terms, he is responding to his own experience of modern Japanese life. I believe Westerners need to think deeply about what that means for modern Japan, especially those dreamy Westerners who romantically idealize the traditional image of medieval Japan, as though it still exists.

In the short story “Magic Chalk” (1950), Abe tells the tale of “a poor artist named Argon.” Flat broke and starving, Argon discovers in his shabby apartment a piece of red chalk with which he mindlessly draws pictures of food and dishes on the wall. Falling asleep, he groans, “I’ve got to eat!” Suddenly, he is awakened by the sound of food and crockery crashing to the floor: “The pictures he had chalked on the wall had vanished.” Seeing food all around, he eats his fill and reflects, “the laws of the universe have changed.” He then draws a bed, since he lacks one, as well as other furniture and food. The realization hits him that he can create an entirely new world and spends four weeks contemplating just how to do it. Driven to despair by the burdensome responsibility, he finally decides merely to draw a door to the new world, but upon opening it finds, “an awesome wasteland glaring in the noonday sun.” He would have “to draw the world all over again” and begins with Eve, “stark naked,” to whom he identifies himself as Adam and “also an artist, and a world planner.” Eve, however, borrows his chalk, draws a gun, and shoots him. Other people in the building hear the gunshot: “By the time they ran in, Argon had been completely absorbed into the wall and had become a picture”:

“After everyone left, there came a murmuring from the wall. ’it isn’t chalk that will remake the world . . .’ A single drop welled out of the wall. It fell from just below the eye of the pictorial Argon.” (tr. Alison Kibrick)

Writing shortly after World War II, Abe understands modern Japan has lost something of immense value, and a mere artist can not replace it.

In Kobo Abe’s masterpiece The Woman in the Dune (1962), the protagonist Niki Jumpei, an amateur entomologist, travels to the seaside to collect specimens. He happens on a village built in the midst of the dunes with houses at the bottom of huge craters or cavities of sand. Peering down into one of the cavities at a small house “submerged in silence,” he muses, “no matter what they did . . . there was no escaping the law of the sand.” This “law” soon becomes clear when village men trick him into going sixty feet down in a cavity to spend the night at an old woman’s house. Before long, he realizes that there is probably no way to get back out. The “ceaselessly flowing sand,” “this shapeless, destructive power,” which “had no form” of its own, was continually pouring down on the little house threatening to destroy it and bury its occupants alive. Every night the woman shovels sand into baskets which the village men haul up by rope and carry away, just enough to prevent their suffocation. Watching her, Niki Jumpei remarks, “you’ll never finish, no matter how long you work at it.” Later, the narrator explains, “the only certain factor was its movement; sand was the antithesis of all form.” Despite his many appeals for help from the village men, the village benefits from the sand being fought back and they refuse to permit him to leave.

The men, however, are careful to provide the woman and man with the necessities of life as long as they continue to perform the nightly work of clearing back the everdrifting sand of reality, for the sand is manifestly symbolic. Upon his request, they even give Jumpei a newspaper. Reading the usual headlines of political, business, and domestic crimes and intrigues, Jumpei thinks,

“There wasn’t a single item of importance. A tower of illusion, all of it, made of illusory bricks and full of holes. . . . And so everybody, knowing the meaninglessness of existence, sets the center of his compass at his own home.”

This “illusion” is not the illusion of Buddhism, the floating world of Genji symbolizing a world of spiritual import. It is the illusion of everyday life through which the nihilist sees “the meaningless of existence,” at last confronted, the real truth of human experience. “The world,” Abe has Jumpei say in a simile, “is like sand.” Modern Japanese writers have found the transition easy to make from the illusion of samsara to the illusion of nihilism which is quotidian reality. Similarly, the old woman turns out not to be so old after all, and Jumpei learns social customs are merely illusions too, as he rapes her brutally and repeatedly while she at times enjoys or submits to it. When the opportunity for escape finally comes, drained of all inner meaning, strength, and purpose, he no longer has the will to leave.

In the story “Beyond the Curve” (1966), Abe writes about a man who, while climbing up a hill, comes to a halt before a curve in the road:

“For the life of me, I couldn’t visualize what lay beyond the curve. . . . I knew perfectly well that beyond the curve was the town on the hilltop where I lived. My temporary lapse of memory in no way altered the fact of its existence.”

He stands there agonizing in his mind about what might or ought to be around the curve until he is overcome by anxiety, fearing “the town’s very existence would fade away and then vanish.” He considers, “I myself was no longer myself, but some mysterious other.” Nausea overtakes him. He manages to turn around and walk back down the hill. His “old confidence was gone.” Taking refuge in a coffee shop, he wonders, no longer sure, who he is since he has forgotten his name and where he works. Frantically fumbling with the contents of his wallet and pockets, looking for clues, he realizes, “I had mislaid . . . myself.” Abe expresses here not only the universally modern sense of existential void but especially the Japanese fear of the loss of traditional identity under the onslaught of modernity. Abe’s persona significantly and desperately says, “Until I found that town beyond the curve, there could be no resolution.” And so it is for modern Japan. He takes a taxi up the hill, beyond the curve:

“Spatially, the town had a solid physical existence, but temporally, it was a vacuum. It existed–yet horribly, it had no existence whatever . . . the town I knew was gone.”

Though seeking answers from others, he “alone was lost, uncomprehending.” Physically, materially, like the West, Japan exists; in terms of social or psychological time, the “vacuum,” quintessentially the same as in the West, has swallowed everything: “The town I knew was gone.” What lies beyond the curve, if anything, remains to be seen.

Frederick Glaysher


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Vendor of Sweets. R. K. Narayan.

R. K. Narayan

The Vendor of Sweets.  R. K. Narayan.

India’s Kali Yuga…. December 21, 2000

The novelist R. K. Narayan (1906-2001) was born into a Tamil-speaking, Brahmin family. For several years he attended Christian schools in Madras, where he was raised by his grandmother, a devout Hindu who taught him the traditional songs and prayers. His fiction often presents a persona who undergoes a crisis that drives him back in some way to a resolution suffused with an evocation of the Hindu past. Often portrayed as a simple pious Hindu, R. M. Varma, of the University of Jodhpur, more insightfully observes, “Cultural ambivalence is a marked characteristic of Narayan’s fictional technique and he hovers between his Hindu faith and lack of it. He merely uses it as a landscape in his fiction.”

In his brilliant The Vendor of Sweets (1967), Narayan presents a character named Jagan who owns a small shop that sells sweetmeats. Presented as somewhat of a religious crank, he is a follower of Gandhi who still works his spinning wheel and sits in his shop reading the Bhagavad Gita in between customers. Jagan lives in an idealized traditional India of long ago incongruously conflated with the modern present.

Jagan’s only son Mali fully lives in the modern world, not only of India but of America as well. Dropping out of college, as Jagan had as a young man out of misconstrued loyalty to Gandhi, Mali, without consulting with his father, enrolls in a creative writing program in Michigan and helps himself to Jagan’s attic stash of rupees in order to pay his expenses. Narayan consistently portrays Mali as a son who has lost all the traditional Hindu virtues while Jagan spoils him and makes excuses for him.

After three years in America Jagan abruptly receives a cable announcing Mali’s return with “another person” whom upon arrival at the train station he introduces as his wife, Grace. Jagan suffers a severe shock. His son has not only gone to America, where he in fact does begin to eat beef, but married there without informing his family. Further disoriented because the girl is a Korean-American, Jagan thinks she is Chinese and reflects, “Don’t you know that one can’t marry a Chinese nowadays? They have invaded our borders. . . .” Having stopped reading the Bhagavad Gita while receiving letters he believed were from Mali in America, but were actually from Grace, Jagan starts reading it “becoming mentally disturbed once again.” Narayan subtly dramatizes his reading of the Gita as linked to his disturbed relationship with his son and thereby with modern India. Before long Grace, his new daughter-in-law, begins to take charge of the house and care for Jagan, his wife having died while Mali was in America. Soon she transforms the part of the nineteenth-century house in which she and Mali live with modern Western paintings and furnishings.

In one of the few revealing statements by Mali, “with a gesture of disgust,” he says to his father, “Oh, these are not the days of your ancestors. Today we have to compete with advanced countries not only in economics and industry, but also in culture.” Satirizing the trash creative writing programs churn out in America, Narayan underscores simultaneously the gulf between father and son, traditional and modern.

Shock upon modern shock rolls over Jagan. His son not only lived unmarried with a foreign woman of mixed descent in his ancestral home but shamelessly concealed it from his father. As Jagan explains to the cousin, “Even my grandfather’s brother, who was known to be immoral, never did this sort of thing.” His “dirtied” home, “which had remained unsullied for generations, had this new taint to carry.” Since all of Jagan’s traditional, conventional relations have already “ostracized him” over the “beef-eating Christian girl for a daughter-in-law,” Jagan realizes they would “remove themselves further” should they learn of the “latest development.” In a significant moment of honesty, Jagan observes he “felt grateful for being an outcast, for it absolved him from obligations as a member of the family.” Jagan sits in the dark by the Sir Frederick Lawley statue, a relic from the British past, and meditates on his own arranged marriage in a richly embellished chapter that brilliantly evokes the traditional marriage customs of the joint family system in India and devastatingly insinuates the decayed state of his own house and modern India.

Jagan awakens in the dawn from his night of memories, fantasizing again of entering “a new janma.” In regard to the traditional ceremony marking a man turning sixty, the narrator honestly concedes again that Jagan himself “had had his fill of these festivals.” In his own way, the narrator frequently intimates, Jagan has picked over and repudiated various customs from the past. So one relative is imagined as saying how could the son Mali be different with “a father like Jagan.” Narayan suggests a subtle, logical, and culminating connection of decline between father and son.

The values of the Ramayana and other sacred texts have no resonance for Mali. Jagan, lost and faltering, unable to cope fully with the clash of his traditional values with the modern world, resolves absurdly to retreat across the river, taking his bank book with him, after agreeing to pay for a lawyer for Mali and offering an airline ticket for Grace to return to America: “It’s a duty we owe her.”

V. S. Naipaul has remarked of Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets that it is “a novel in which his fictional world is cracked open, its fragility finally revealed, and the Hindu equilibrium . . . collapses into something like despair.” In his “On Alternative Modernities,” Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar has similarly observed, “Everywhere, at every national or cultural site, the struggle with modernity is old and familiar.” Narayan has so thoroughly undermined and complicated Jagan with the tensions of twentieth-century life, deep within the structure of the narrative voice itself, only the most shallow or tendentious reading can fail to perceive the scathing critique of both the antedated and bankrupt, traditional and modern, values of India and Western civilization.

Frederick Glaysher

My epic poem, The pp_150Parliament of Poets, is partly set in India, at Kurukshetra, the Himalayan Foothills, Fatehpur Sikri, and elsewhere, with Vyasa, Valmiki, Tagore, Kabir, Lalan, and many other Indian poets and sages as characters, on Earth and on the Moon…
Read a free chapter online at Amazon, India.

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