I had a hard time getting into this one until I realized this was your typical existentialist novel along the lines of the stuff I had to read in high school. I guess that's what this project is all about! Stretching the boundaries of what I would normally read. But I don't have to like it.
Woman in the Dunes was written sometime after the end of World War II, and set in the Japan of that period. There's not much resonance with wartime imagery (unless the underlying-pointlessness-of-life theme goes back to some kind of cultural trauma associated with the atom bomb) but the contrast between rural and 'modern' city life is extreme - perhaps this is the true cultural trauma, when Japan as an isolated low-tech Asian culture was abruptly forced into contact with the militarily advanced West.
The main character is an office worker, an amateur scientist, an educated modern man, who finds himself confined in the most primitive type of environment, without any bodily comforts or intellectual stimulation. The situation reminded me of Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi's memoir of his imprisonment by Mussolini in an isolated southern Italian village during World War II. Levi conveyed a kind of condescending awe in his reflections on the simple life and primitive beliefs of the peasants he lived with. Abe's character, Niki Jumpei, doesn't manage to maintain such detachment from his situation - he reacts viscerally and angrily to the change in his circumstances until the veneer of his modernity is stripped away by the never-ceasing rain of sand.
The plot: Niki Jumpei is an amateur entomologist who is captured and imprisoned on a day-trip to the seaside. Unfortunately for him, he chooses to look for beetles near a village that is being drowned in sand and only survives through the constant efforts of the residents nearest the waves to hold back the dunes. He accepts shelter for the night from a woman who lives in a cabin in a deep pit in the sand...waking in the morning, he finds the rope ladder he climbed down on has been withdrawn, and he is trapped.
His hostess is both captor and captive, and they are both at the mercy of the villagers who drop down water, food and the occasional newspaper.
Niki rages, feigns illness, tries to escape again and again. He eventually succumbs to the sexual attractions of his companion but doesn't let that prevent himself from using her as a hostage in his attempts to get out. Months pass, perhaps years, and his body and mind are scoured by the sand. He starts to share in some of the woman's goals, helping her to save money for a radio. He realizes that the world outside has gone on without him, and meditates on the meaninglessness of his previous existence. In his final transformation, he studies the sand that towers above them and, when given the opportunity to leave, declines to accept it.
The book is very effectively written (and I must admit that although some of the long meditations on the fluid nature of sand bored me, at other points I was really drawn in) but I disagree emphatically with what, for lack of a better term, I will call the 'moral' of the story. I don't think life is pointless. I don't think it's just as good to live covered with sand and grit at the bottom of a pit as a life on the surface, enjoying the sun, warm and clean, experiencing all the blessing available through one's five senses.
The only meaning I expect to find in life is that derived from my relationships with other beings. But I'd rather be indulging myself in the 'meaningless' enjoyments of life than otherwise.