Abe spent his boyhood in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, whose desert landscapes made a strong impact on his consciousness. The constantly changing, wind-blown shapes of the desert sands came to symbolize to him the fluid and transitory nature of what people take to be “reality” in the everyday world. Abe’s sand imagery in his novel presents an existential vision of reality that rejects any conceptualized and rationalized view of the world–the objective attitude of science, for example–that posits enduring and fixed absolutes through which human beings experience and manipulate nature. All that humans have is subjective human existence, which is experiential and ephemeral. Abe was influenced by European existentialism, and his point of view is consistent with his Japanese Buddhist heritage, which also posits the ever-changing nature of being as it truly is and rejects the false dualism of an absolute reality that is created under the illusion of ego consciousness.
Village and sand pit. Isolated coastal village at an unnamed location in Japan, where Niki takes a brief holiday from his job to look for insects common to the coastal sand dunes. He falls into a sand pit in which there is a small house and a lone woman. She sleeps during the day and toils at night in a vain effort to remove the always encroaching sands that threaten to engulf the pit and the entire village. Niki believes he is being held captive in order to force him to aid the woman in holding back the sands.
The isolated village and its shifting sand pits function as a surrealistic expression of the character’s alienated existence. Abe was greatly influenced by the existential themes and surrealistic style of Franz Kafka, and this novel owes much to Kafka’s work. His character Niki is an alienated and lonely man who is unmarried and has few friends. He is described at one point as a man who uses a psychological condom that protects him from any intimate emotional contact with others. In extreme paranoia, he refuses to aid the villagers in their efforts to hold back the sands and abuses the woman in the pit. Niki is a man who lives in psychological denial about the true conditions of his life. His refusal to join the community efforts to survive and his reluctance to establish a meaningful and supportive relationship with a partner clearly condemn him to a lonely and alienated existence. The novel’s conclusion has Niki, after a vain attempt to escape the woman and the village, accepting his fate and joining in the daily communal efforts to combat the sands. He enters into a mutually supportive relationship with the woman and comes to live a peaceful life.