Saturday, April 15, 2023

Another Abe

Joke title, referring to Kafka's idea of another Abraham.  I am thinking of Kōbō Abe in fact as another Kafka. 

Because I was teaching Woman in the Dunes yesterday -- mainly the movie but also Abe's novel.  He  wrote the very faithful screenplay.  Among the writers Abe knew well was Kafka -- Abe had visited Prague a few years earlier (after the Hungarian revolution, whose suppression disgusted him), so roughly the time the movie and novel start, and when there he did the Kafka tour.

One of the important things I think he saw in Kafka was just how realistic Kafka is.  You're thrown into the world not your own and not yourself but the only world there will ever be for you now, and you live in it.  We all do.

So the explicit allusions to Kafka are at least these: the man in the movie (and novel) is an amateur entomologist, looking for a new kind of beetle (the tiger beetle), which is to say that Gregor Samsa might be there in the sand somewhere.  Well he is -- the easiest irony in the movie is that the man is just like the beetles he's collecting, trapped in the dunes as they in their jars. Eventually he becomes focused on the crows around the pit where he lives, trying to catch one (which he can't), to treat as an unimperial messenger, putting one in mind of Kafka's parable: "The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens. There is no doubt of that, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for heaven simply means: the impossibility of crows."

As has long been pointed out, the word for crow in Czech is a pun on Kafka's name (the aphorism is in German, but his name does mean crow.  Murakami will do something similar with the character Crow in Kafka on the Shore).  And there's the complaint that the man makes that he is living "like a dog," Josef K's last words in The Trial.

But I think the most crucial connection may be in the moral of the story, which is never quite specific, although the man tells the woman that he has no desire to be in Tokyo, the place she imagines is so wonderful. If he'd liked Tokyo he wouldn't be doing entomology in the dunes.  The moral seems to be from Kafka, from the land-surveyor K's sublime rhetorical question: "Was hätte mich denn in dieses öde Land locken können, als das Verlangen hierzubleiben?“ - "What could have drawn me to this desolate land, if not the desire to stay here?"

That's what the entomologist realizes at the end, his desire to stay there.  The story is about his understanding that he's not the main character.  The woman is.  It's her sorrow, her need, her mourning, her experience that he must learn to take seriously.  So the absolute realism of the movie is this: it's a realistic portrait of a marriage -- of the best that a marriage can be, perhaps, or that human relations can be over time -- which is learning to commit yourself to what you've already been committed to, what circumstances, fate, life, being in the world, have committed you to.  A commitment to commitment in spite of everything.  To others in the same boat, wrecked (as in an early shot in the movie) on the dunes.