December 2011

Christopher Merkel


The Other Murakami

The third and final book of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami was published in Japanese in April of 2010, but it was still on prominent display at most of the bookstores that I visited when in Japan last November. If it wasnít to be found on a new or featured titles table, then copies were invariably stacked so that the cover of the top one was visible on the tableau below the ďMUĒ shelves of the hardcover fiction section. And, invariably, next to the stacks of the third book of 1Q84 were stacks of The Singing Whale by Ryu Murakami, which was also published in Japanese last year.

This most recent November, the Spanish translation of the final book of 1Q84 was equally as ubiquitous at the bookstores I visited in the city where I was in Spain, and the English translation of the book, which was published in a single volume containing books one through three, had also become available and arrived to me in the mail. (Last December, the Spanish government made Haruki what they call an ExcelentŪsimo SeŮor for his original accomplishments in the art of literature.) Neither The Singing Whale nor its author appear to have enjoyed so much international success. And even if The Singing Whale had already been translated into English and published (and Iím personally unaware of any plans for the pursuit of that project now or in the future), its inclusion under the letter ďMĒ in the fiction sections of any bookstores would not have done much to balance the ratio by which Ryu is dwarfed by Haruki on American bookshelves. And anymore, I donít consider the phenomenon a personal slight. Iím used to it.

I was acquainted with Haruki Murakami in college at the age of twenty-one after having already developed a long (for a twenty-one year old) and emotional (the same) relationship with Ryu, to whom Iíd been introduced in high school upon the recommendation of a friend. And Ryuís often lonely depictions of the Japanese as their country made its way from economic powerhouse into the postindustrial morass were, as a teenager, my primary literary points of reference for studying contemporary Japan. Then I encountered Haruki. At the time, I was studying abroad at a university in Tokyo, and that university happened to be the one from which Haruki had graduated -- after seven years as an undergraduate and the opening of his famous Tokyo jazz cafť -- in 1975. Haruki had just published a book called Kafka on the Shore in Japanese, and I was required to read the first volume of it for my required Japanese class.

About half of the students in that class were Japanese nationals who had done most of their compulsory education abroad and had continued on to post-secondary institutions outside of Japan. In our introductory discussion to Kafka on the Shore, the consensus among those of my classmates who were better acquainted with contemporary Japanese literature was clear. Those who were familiar with the subject were familiar with both authors, but, for them, it was definitely ďHaruki over Ryu.Ē

Both of the Murakamis are known and respected literary figures in Japan. They are of the same historical (and cultural) generation, and if the indigenous critical response to Ryu has been more favorable (at least in a comparison of the two authorsí early careers), then Haruki is just as recognized within his country for being acclaimed abroad (just as, outside of Japan, heís famous for being famous outside of Japan). In addition to his renown as an author, Ryu Murakami has enjoyed success as a director of films, and Haruki Murakami studied film at university. The two authors, although unrelated, also share a personal familiarity. Ryu frequented Harukiís Tokyo jazz cafť (of which Haruki was the proprietor between 1973 and 1977) before either author had made his fiction debut. In addition, the former has lauded the latterís international success, even as some of his own supporters have been amongst Harukiís more severe critics. However, Haruki has been notoriously reluctant to receive interviews from the literary press in Japan (for which he blames -- in fine style if I do say so myself -- his having expended a lifetime of conversation as the proprietor of a cafť). He has not, though, been so tight lipped beyond his countryís borders. Conversely, Ryu has positioned himself much more as a domestic intellectual, actively accepting interviews and participating in the judgment of submissions for literary prizes. (One of his books, The World Five Minutes From Now, was even made into a video game for the Playstation 2.)

So, they share a name and something of a collective experience, but the two Murakamis are different. To allow myself a sweeping generalization on the heels of an almost unnecessary understatement: the one writes neatly and expectantly about magical realities, while the other writes complexly and sordidly about the real. (And then, of course, the caveat: that although readers of Ryu Murakami arenít generally required to suspend so much disbelief as readers of Haruki, Ryuís books arenít always confined to the strictures of commonly understood reality, either. The sirenís voice of one of the protagonists in Coin Locker Babies is, indeed, otherworldly, and like Harukiís 1Q84, Ryuís The World Five Minutes From Now takes place in a parallel world.) Simply put, the experience of reading Haruki Murakami versus that of reading Ryu Murakami could be compared against a gradient of chemical or sexual experience (both of which both authors treat to varying degrees): while the former is more akin to playful experimentation, the latter is unquestionably hardcore. †

I have to admit to not having read much at all of Haruki Murakami. I didnít read the second volume of Kafka on the Shore in Japanese (nor did I read the English version when it became available), and, before reading 1Q84, of Harukiís other books I had only read the English translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and that only at the insistence of a friend. And of the one and a half of Haruki Murakamiís books that I had read before this most recent one became available, I have also to admit that I remember almost nothing. I do, however, remember slightly begrudging my classmates in that Japanese class for their refusal to give Ryu a chance.

By the age twenty-one, I had owned at least four copies of Ryu Murakamiís Almost Transparent Blue. I donít think that Iíve read any other book more times than that one, and at the time I liked to know that I had a copy available to read. I still like to think it no small coincidence that Haruki Murakamiís new Japanese translation of The Catcher in the Rye, that book by that author with the reputation for a similarly fanatical following amongst the literary minded youth of the United States, showed up in Japanese bookstores that same year.

Although the selection committee was divided in its decision, Almost Transparent Blue, the story of a group Japanese young people in the shadow of the American military base at Yokosuka who indulge themselves in sex and drugs nearly to the point of self-destruction, was the book that won Ryu Murakami the Akutagawa Prize (arguably Japanís highest literary prize for ďpureĒ fiction) in 1976. Although two of his works were shortlisted for consideration, Haruki Murakami never managed to take that one prize. And among his detractors amongst the prize selection committees were those who criticized Haruki for the degree to which his writing seemed to have been influenced by his reading of foreign literature in translation.

I would have been an exception at age twenty-one, but there are probably very few people interested in international literature who are entirely unfamiliar with Haruki Murakami, and just as few who arenít familiar with the popular opinion that Haruki Murakami might have been from anywhere, regardless of whether or not any one of his works was set in Japan. As far as the selection committees for the Akutagawa Prize and the two Murakamis seem to have been concerned, the significance of foreign influence on a work and its suitability for the prize appears to have been a matter of the level at which that influence was exerted. In Ryuís case, the un-ignorable presence of the American military in Japan and the wider effect of the culture it signified appear to have been, for a Japanese author of ďpureĒ fiction, passable. But that a Japanese should write like an American, or otherwise not intrinsically like a Japanese, apparently not.

I do prefer Ryu. And I do wonder if what I havenít liked (or remembered) of Haruki hasnít been because he seemed (seemed) soÖ American? And not that itís a matter of nationality (obviously) so much as style and focus. But I havenít the experience with Haruki to make confident claims about his entire oeuvre. Thankfully, 1Q84 was different. As itís been pointed out, 1Q84, even for taking place in an alternate reality not entirely the charactersí own, could not have taken place anywhere outside of Japan. Personally, Harukiís descriptions of the one-room apartment life of one of his protagonists in the neighborhood of Koenji made me hauntedly nostalgic for both the year that I lived in a similar apartment in an adjacent ward of Tokyo and for my (literarily intentioned but nonetheless aimless) walks through the neighborhoods of west Tokyo last November when 1Q84 was all but unavoidable at the bookstores.

On top of that there was the whole thing with the NHK fee collector (imagine if back in the eighties that AT&T and MCI had been going door to door!). And beyond all of the other intricacies of the metropolitan geography, there was that one line, delivered by the tersely poetic, no-nonsense, gay, high-class bodyguard -- that line that would be impossible outside of Japan and could only be completely comprehensible to people with a certain experience of Tokyo -- that (logically explaining the illogical) would be, ďAs difficult as finding a real pear in a Roppongi oyster bar.Ē Roppongi, that wonderful little nightlife district in central Tokyo where, as it was explained to me as an absolutely guileless eighteen year old living for the first time in proximity to the city, was the place where foreigners went to exchange sex for drugs and where the rest of the elephants went to die.

1Q84 is ultimately a love story. Itís a convoluted detective story about a mysterious and powerful religious organization as well, but the various investigations of its characters all ultimately serve that other higher cause. The two principals of 1Q84, a fitness instructor and part time assassin named Aomame and a math teacher and would be writer named Tengo, lead solitary lives that are textbook examples of that special experience of alienation that is attendant on living amongst the millions living in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Even if the Tokyo in the book isnít exactly one that could have been found at any point in time in real history, itís very much Tokyo, and that Tokyo is very much in Japan.

But letís talk about that prize. Tengoís storyline begins with a proposition. Heís asked my an editor friend to (re-)ghostwrite a novella by a seventeen year old girl that has been submitted for a new writerís prize. The editor hopes that Tengoís talent can get the girlís strange but captivating (if not exactly polished) story noticed by the Tokyo literary establishment and that the sensation surrounding such a strange story and such a young debut talent could win her, not just any new writerís prize, but the Akutagawa. The rewritten book is a runaway success, and the success of the book drags Tengo into a world of problems that extends well beyond the possible repercussions of his participation in a literary fraud. For the editorís part, after the book seems secure in its position atop the bestsellers list, he could care less about the Akutagawa.

I donít suppose that Harukiís project in writing 1Q84 was to try to have a last laugh on an old professional slight, but I would say that perhaps heís been able to have that laugh anyway. More important to me as I was reading was that the year -- my twenty-first -- of Kafka on the Shore and that new translation of The Catcher in the Rye was also the year that the barely twenty year old Hitomi Kanehara debuted with Snakes and Earrings, the work for which she was awarded the Akutagawa Prize and became a mild sensation. And while that fact itself has, objectively, no bearing whatsoever on the narrative of 1Q84 (and really, nor does the character of the editorís opinion of the prize), it does strengthen the bookís sense of its own situation within a particular time and place -- and if not within the authorís body of work (on which I canít really comment) then certainly within a survey of writing by the authorís generation in Japan.

Still, and for all of its apparent significance to my personal experience, I found myself of the same opinion about Haruki Murakami after reading 1Q84 as I was before. The book isnít unentertaining. In fact, it rarely drags over all of its nine hundred some pages. If the plot does sometimes move too much by the simple force of its charactersí intuition, it remains tight and cohesive to the end. But, although I donít regret giving myself over to the entertainment, I finished the novel wondering why Haruki Murakami had written so much about so little. I donít mean to say that every book should necessarily be about something, and fans of Harukiís style will surely appreciate the bulk of it that theyíre given to enjoy in 1Q84. And, to be sure, the subjects of love and spiritual reconciliation that are the central themes of the book are no small affairs, but Harukiís treatment of them was too daintily romantic for my taste.

Toward the end of the first book, Aomame has hesitatingly befriended a policewoman with whom she shares a tentative relationship. During a dinner conversation, that policewoman gives Aomame her take on Sakigake, the ďreligious communeĒ that emerges as the principal counterforce against which both Aomame and Tengo fight their battles of self-discovery. And when I read it, that take jumped out at me as a surprisingly fitting description of my take on Haruki Murakami:

Sakigake calls itself a religion, and it even has official certification, but itís totally lacking in religious substance. Doctrine-wise, itís kind of deconstructionist or something, just a jumble of images of religion thrown together. Theyíve added some new-age spiritualism, fashionable academicism, a return to nature, anticapitalism, occultism, and stuff, but thatís all: it has a bunch of flavors, but no substantial core. Or maybe thatís what itís all about: the religionís substance is its lack of substance. In McLuhanesque terms, the medium is the message. Some people might find that cool.

I donít mean to say that Haruki Murakami is setting himself up as some kind of literary guru or that his fans are some kind of cult. Rather, that I guess you just have to believe it or not, and that Iím just donít get the Haruki cool.

As Mimi Mamoulian levels at Saladin Chamcha, her famous male counterpart in the shadowed world of voice acting in Salman Rushdieís The Satanic Verses: ďI have read Finnegans Wake and am conversant with postmodernist critiques of the West, e.g. that we have here a society capable only of pastiche: a Ďflattenedí world.Ē 1Q84 is, as I understand the rest of Harukiís books to be, densely (inter-)contextual. That, of course, is a trait that the book shares with many a contemporary novel, The Satanic Verses included. But most of the references made and names dropped in 1Q84 donít ever really point to anything substantive or connect with each other in any significant way, nor do they particularly enrich the text. And for me, whether or not that flattened world happens to be a place for which I have a personal affinity (as in the case of the Tokyo in 1Q84), that world is still flat. Maybe that was Harukiís project?

I canít however dismiss Haruki Murakami out of hand. And I wonít Ė and not only because Iím well aware of how susceptible I would be to accusations of sour grapes. His international success is at least an encouraging sign of the worldís willingness to support translated fiction (even if I might be hoping for the translation of other books). And Haruki Murakami has translated quite a long list of authors (among them not just Salinger but Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver and Grace Paley) into Japanese as well. Heís not a bad guy to have hanging around the literary world, whether or not itís flat from time to time or whether or not the space we share in it is ďreal.Ē And anyway, Ryu doesnít seem to be holding a grudge.

In the end, I didnít take either 1Q84 or The Singing Whale away from any of the bookstores I visited in Japan. I left the country after that last visit with a hardcover of Yoko Ogawaís latest, a half dozen Kazushige Abe paperbacks, the Japanese translation of No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July and a near-future dystopian novel set in Kyoto which was written by the anthropology professor of a friend. Unfortunately, I donít think that Toba Shin has much of a chance of getting that novel translated into English, but reading that other Murakami reminded me that I had it, and I suppose itís time I got around to reading it, because, who knows, it might be worth someoneís trouble.