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Haruki Murakami - outside looking in

Sam North


It is a curious thing to be entranced by such an enigmatic writer as Haruki Murakami.
Since the very moment 'A Wild Sheep Chase' was translated into English almost a decade ago, or longer, I wait each year for a new book from him. Sometimes it is a very long wait indeed, two, three years and then suddenly several come along in the space of a month. Last June in the UK ‘Norwegian Wood and ‘Underground’ were released and a revised version of ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ issued. Murakami is in danger of becoming ‘popular’.

My interest with this author began on the recommendation of the scholar John Lewell who spent years putting together an anthology of Japanese fiction in translation published in Japan and New York near the beginning of this decade.

He would say read so and so it would be different, always interesting and some of the stories still haunt me, but Murakami was immediately different. He caught my imagination and soul in much the same way that Kafka once spoke to me when I was young or in particular Albert Camus with 'L’Etranger' and 'La Peste.'

These were extraordinary books and I know they deeply affected a generation of people and still do. Nevertheless, I would read, be amused, be thrilled, be bored, but nothing again entranced me and placed flesh on my shadow, not until ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ that is.

Here was a rare tale of an alienated Japanese man lured into a netherworld, a mystical world where sheep were exotic (they were late in being introduced to Japan) and the young women were eroticised not by their sexual antics, but by simply possessing perfect ears, or the most exquisite nose. There were characters who sole purpose in life was to wait for the main character to arrive and if he didn’t, one felt they would still be waiting in that strange hotel with a lift that stops between floors. Japan was transformed from an industrial giant into a quirky, magical, ethereal place filled with highly erotic characters and others who could not understand the society they lived in.
I suspect that Murakami found the Japan hard to live in once he found fame and I know that between 1991 and 1995 he lived and taught in America, shunning publicity.

He does not attempt to explain Japan. I don’t think he writes for us, or them. He writes about lost souls who find an unsatisfactory salvation or a fragment of happiness. Somehow, I who appear to be one thing, find myself to be another, just by reading these books.

The novel ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World ‘ was at once difficult and frustrating and yet, years on I have found myself reading it many times over, always buying it to give to students to read and if pushed to explain why ...it is simply the most poetic, all embracing, acceptance of inner despair that could exist on paper. This is the book about death that makes it seem wonderful, this is a book about life that makes it absurd and funny at the same time. The wonderful minutiae of a daily recorded life, the mystical elements of underground tunnels and river inhabited by the terrifying inklings beneath Tokyo that we know do not exist, but should. The chubby leading girl who is at once clumsy and strong and strange and sexual.

Murakami begins where Camus left off. His characters are nihilist, but if pressed choose life and choose one shrouded in mystery, denial and shunning logical explanations. Sometimes it is absurd and funny as if we are reading a Tin-Tin graphic novel, and at other times the spare writing breaks your heart. The death of a shadow is done so well, the image will not fade from memory.

Then came 'Dance-Dance-Dance' and 'The Elephant Vanishes' which didn’t quite succeed but when ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicles' was finally published all was forgiven.

At first I was disappointed. I had read the first three or four chapters elsewhere and could not recall where, but slowly I was drawn in. A young man has lost his cat and his wife on the same day, but somehow finding the cat seems more important and the philosophy that drives him is simple yet the most astonishing of all. There are parallel stories within parallels and sometimes you are not sure if a character really exists at all. He repeatedly lies at the bottom of a well and experiences the most erotic hallucinations that might just be real in an underground room beside the well. He tries to negotiate with his wife for her return, but his love for her is so great, he would not have her back if this would make her unhappy. There are mysterious shadowy people who tell fortunes and pay him to do things of little consequence. Life is absurd and relationships so fragile and yet ...there is hope. The erotic moments at the bottom of a deep well are absurd and strange and deeply affecting. Murakami weaves sex into the very earth and he is obsessed by tunnels, silent lovemaking, awakward, tense sex and ultimate longing. His characters are always longing for someone else, no matter who they are with.

It is stupid of me to think I could explain these books, because to do so is to negate them - only to read them do you find inner peace and that peace comes at a price because it will unsettle you, the mask that real life clasps to our faces will slip a little and you will never again be comfortable.

Which brings us to 'South of the Border - West of the Sun' the title of an old Nat King Cole song. Here we take a left turn. This is not the familiar touch of Murakami. At first you think he is writing a thinly disguised autobiography about his love life. The life story in fact from age 12 to 40. Every partner, real and imagined. But then if at first you frown and think, this is not going anywhere, it subtly shifts. A boy of 12 Hajime feels deeply for a girl, Shimamoto, of the same age who had suffered Polio when young. They share everything, all thoughts and friendship and sexual but unrealised awakenings. They are parted when they go to different schools and they do not know why exactly, but they find that both go through the motions of living a life until one day, Shimamoto walks back into Hajime’s life. By this time he his is married with two daughters and runs two successful Jazz bars. He has much to lose by having an affair.

They meet and everything melts away to the day they were 12 together. Nothing has mattered since then and nothing will matter again unless they can get together, but she will tell him nothing of her life or promise him when she will see him again.
Here at last is the exquisite torture of Murakami’s novels. We cannot have what we want without paying the price and what is that price? How far will you go and how much will you pay. Everything? Your very life?

“May I come to see you again” she asked me softly as she opened the door. “You can still stand being around me?”
“I’ll be waiting,” I said.
Shimamoto nodded.
As I drove away I thought this: If I never see her again, I will go insane. Once she got out of the car and was gone, my word was suddenly hollow and meaningless.

And now, just to make things awkward, Murakami’s 1987 best seller ‘Norwegian Wood’ has just come out in the UK. Opening this wonderful gold box that contains the two paperbacks inside is akin to being given something special when you are a child. Anticipation is the key to his work and ‘Norwegian Wood’ is no exception. Of course, one would have liked to have read this in 1987 before the others. It is as if one has begun the Harry Potter books with number three or four. But at once you are in familiar territory, a little too familiar at first. Isn’t this similar to ‘Wind -up Bird Chronicle’? Love and death, estranged characters, longings and unrequited love, all done in other books, but one quickly settles in and you are suddenly overwhelmed by the spare quality of his portraits of young students set against the turbulent times of 1969.

Yet again, one has the distinct impression of reading the author’s biography (and this is closer to the real story since he was a student in Tokyo in 1969) but like 'South of the Border,' we get to spend every waking and sleeping moment with just a few very intense, real, passionate and dispassionate characters that burnish themselves upon your psyche.

Toru Wantabe and Naoko are sweet, confused, very confused young people looking to make sense of their lives. Toru lives in residence at the University in a very political environment and he is poor. He is an able student, but unambitious and unfocused, cynical of others’ political beliefs. Naoko is his only friend and the ex-girlfriend of his best friend, who killed himself at 17. Naoko is burdened with guilt that she lived on and on a path to self-destruction, perhaps oblivious to the growing love that Toru has to offer.

Alienation is key to Murakami’s books and from them one comes to understand Japan a little better. Externally we see a nation conforming in dress and looks and attitudes. We see pictures of teens girls with crazes, buying millions of copies of one object or another. There appears to us to be a national will to conform and that is why Murakami’s characters seem to be so strange and yet so popular with the Japanese. They are about people who cannot fit in, or make sense of the society they live in. They struggle to obey the rules and reject normal life, even when claiming to be ordinary. ‘Norwegian Wood’ is a cry from the heart. Relationships are either extremely casual or destructively intense. There are mysterious places, always remote and hard to get to and the ordinary is always extraordinary. I am not sure whether Japan does have the remote areas that Murakami describes but one can understand that readers would like to believe it has.

"Imagination is the most important asset of mine, so I didn't spoil my imagination by going there."

MURAKAMI, interviewed in Salon.com

As you progress with the non-relationship between Toru and Naoko and the growing one with Midori, one cannot help being alarmed that this is invention, it is so real, often so painful and yet tender and loving. You cannot peel characters like this off your mind so easily. Do you know them, did they know you? His characters seep into your own memories and dreams. Once again one recalls Camus. One is sat on a chair beside a dead mother in 'L’Etranger' and yet this is not an exercise in nihilism,but life affirming. Even the senseless waste of Naoko as she hides away from reality yet still needs Toru to write to her, love her, want her. These are people with extreme passions and self-will. Even secondary characters stake out their pages with authority, no single person is a whim or an afterthought, but is strategically placed to cause or reflect or enhance and one can only say that the experience of reading about nights in the wooden hut in the snow with the guitar being played by the amazing Reiko, Naoko’s roommate; it is so intense and erotic, the pages are electrically charged.

Sex and death worry these young people a great deal. Midori is a strange, almost contemporary feisty character. A college girl attracted to the strangeness of Toru Wantabe. She is a college girl, sharing one class with Toru. Her family own a comic bookshop, but her father is fatally ill, the mother having already died of cancer. She is obsessed with dying like her parents, yet of course smokes. She is demanding and strange, yet always vivid and alive:

Midori put a Marlboro between her lips and lit it.
“That’s the kind of death that frightens me. The shadow of death slowly eats away at the region of life and before you know it, everything's dark and you can’t see and the people around you think of you as more dead than alive. I hate that.”

Death and the separation of body and soul and mind and matter concern his characters a great deal. ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World ’ delt with the theft of a man’s shadow and the onset of brain death, yet was curious one of the most uplifting books one could read about death.

Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is fantastic, in it’s true sense, an exotic fish in a dark sea. To read him is to open a door in your soul. You do not have to be Japanese, or even desire to go there, contemporary Japan comes to you and become one.
Toru is in the process of becoming human and for that he must experience pain and discipline. Sex is never far away, yet seemingly unattainable with the women who love him. It is like exquisite torture and it tears him apart. To be twenty, this was always so. Life is at once frivolous, full of long nights with long intense conversations about life and death solutions and everything is either wonderful or beyond hope. Hearts are being worn down to hard little diamonds so you can face the rest of life. It’s those who soften who seem to die.

’You mean, if you knew me better, you’d force stuff on me like everyone else?’
‘It’s possible,’ I said. ‘That’s how people live in the real world: forcing stuff on each other.’
‘You wouldn’t do that. I can tell. I’m an expert when it comes to forcing stuff and having stuff forced on you. You’re not the type. That’s why I can relax with you. Do you have any idea how many people there are in the world who like to force stuff on people and have stuff forced on them\? Tons. And then they make a big fuss, like ‘I forced her’. You forced me!’ That’s what they like. Bit I don’t like it. I just do it because I have to.’
‘What kind of stuff do you force on people, or they force on you?’
Midori put an ice-cube in her mouth and sucked on it a while.
‘Do you want to get to know me better?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, kind of.’

© Sam North 2000


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