Archive for the ‘Haruki Murakami’ Category

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage

September 17, 2014

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For over thirty years I’ve been a fan of David Bowie. Throughout the seventies he produced a series of albums that remain unrivalled in creativity and variety, culminating with Let’s Dance entering the mainstream in 1983. Only once, however, have I seen him live, and that was on the Glass Spider tour in 1987 at Roker Park in Sunderland. That tour, and the album that it was promoting, Never Let Me Down, is generally regarded as being far from Bowie’s finest hour. There was a sense that he was uncertain where to go next and instead cannibalising previous ideas (most obviously the spider reference) in a way that was dangerously close to caricaturing them.

And so to Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colourless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (and that’s the last time you’ll hear that in full). Like Bowie, Murakami has gone from having a devoted cult following to global superstar – well, in book terms at least. And, similarly, his new novel seems to show an artist struggling with his own legend. When its title was first released their were many comments about how ‘Murakami-like’ it was (a quick glance at my bookshelves shows this simply isn’t true) but to me it sounds more like a parody of a Murakami title, reaching back to an earlier hit (Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – the only other title with ‘and’ in it) and drawing heavy-handed attention to symbolic elements of the novel.

The set-up itself is intriguing, as it always is with Murakami: Tazaki is part of a close-knit group of five teenage friends. He alone leaves Nagoya for Tokyo to study but is still surprised when the other four drop him entirely and refuse to see or even speak to him:

“I’m sorry but I have to ask you not to call any of us anymore.”

No explanation is offered and it is only years later, encouraged by a new girlfriend, Sara, that Tazaki decides he needs to discover what caused this breach. (If this was a realist novel we would assume it was simply because Tazaki is one of the most boring characters ever created, however, this is Murakami and we expect a more metaphysical solution, as indicated by the fact that his four friends all have colours in their names, while he is ‘colourless’). The novel charts his investigation into his own past as he tracks down his friends and visits them, while at the same time recounting his relationship with Sara which becomes increasingly important to him.

Thrown in alongside this is the story of another failed friendship, a story told by that character’s father about death, a series of dreams (especially sex dreams) and various musical references, particularly to Franz Liszt’s ‘Years of Pilgrimage’. It would be unreasonable to criticise the novel for not choreographing all of these into a comprehensive world view. Murakami has explicitly stated he is not an analytical novelist and has always been more suggestive than schematic. However I worry that some of these elements are appearing because he feels his readers expect them.

Haida’s father’s story was very Murakami but only its inclusion of references to colour seem at all connected to the narrative, and they seem out of place in the story itself. We are told:

“Each individual has their own unique colour, which shines faintly around the contours of their body. Like a halo. Or a backlight.”

Are we to assume that Tazaki is (metaphorically?) dead (colourless)? That his journey is that of return from the underworld? We are told (and much of the novel feels like telling) after his friends disown him that:

“For five months after he returned to Tokyo, Tsukuru lived at death’s door. He set up a tiny place to dwell, all by himself, on the rim of a dark abyss.”

This reading is hampered, however, by Tazaki’s unchanging nature – the Tazaki of the final pages seems very like the Tazaki of the first.

The references to ‘Years of Pilgrimage’, and in particular ‘Le mal du pays’ (homesickness) seem intended to highlight the novel’s concern with home. Tazaki speculates:

“He had no place he had to go, no place to come back to. He never did, and he didn’t now.”

But picking out these ideas makes the novel seem more coherent than it is, and where Murakami in the past has made up for a lack of coherence with imagination and narrative power, the story itself is ultimately rather dull, not to mention often poorly written, with some jarring images (“he’d swallowed a hard lump lf cloud”; “their pubic hair was as wet as a rain forest”) which cannot be blamed on the translator, Philp Gabriel (though I am blaming him for: “I am too telling the truth”). The novel has a sentimental idealisation of teenage friendship, and a Freudian level fear of sexual fantasy – in that sense it would, perhaps, make a good pop song. Murakami certainly seems to have adopted a pedestrian version of Bowie’s ‘cut-up’ approach to lyrics.

(Of course, were you to ask me how I felt about that concert 27 years ago, I would tell you that I loved it).

1Q84 Book Three

September 1, 2012

Although Haruki Murakami is one of the favourites for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, there is a feeling that, had 1Q84 been the magnum opus that we all hoped, he would be a certainty. Many of the reasons why this three-book, thousand-page epic is not a masterpiece can be clearly seen in the third and final book. Even its existence might be questioned as at times it reads like an extended addendum to the first two books, adding little that is meaningful in either plot or characterisation.

Its main purpose seems to be to bring together the two main characters, Tengo and Aomame (this is not a ‘spoiler’ as the contents page makes it clear that the two narratives unite at the end). It will be no surprise, then, that Aomame, who we left contemplating suicide at the end of Book Two, does not go through with it but instead goes onto hiding from the religious cult Sakigake having killed their Leader. Tengo, meanwhile, is at the bedside of his comatose father. This makes for a rather static novel: Aomame spends most of it unable to leave the flat where she has been secreted, the action limited to a few phone conversations; Tengo spends most of his time in a hospital room, occasionally interacting with the nurses. A third narrative is added, that of Ushikawa, a private detective who has been hired by Sakigake to track down Aomame. This clearly provides some dramatic tension (though Ushikawa is soon stuck in a room too, watching Tengo’s apartment) but this is dissipated by the fact that almost all that Ushikawe discovers the reader already knows.

Book Three is also guilty of the under-development that was evident in the first two books. Murakami frequently drops inspired images or events into the narrative, but then seems unwilling to go very far with them. A perfect example would be the world of 1Q84 itself: apart from the two moons (an effective shorthand for a different world that has been used in countless science fiction films), there is little attempt to differentiate 1Q84 from 1984, even though it is made clear in the opening volume that the history of the two worlds is not the same. In Book Three Murakami introduces a mysterious, threatening NHK (television subscription) collector:

“You can’t escape, Miss Takai. As long as you get the TV signal I will be back. I’m not the kind of man who gives up easily. That’s just my personality.”

With so many characters in hiding, the relentless knocking at the door is one of the most effective elements of the novel, appearing at Aomame’s door, and at Fuka-Eri’s when she is staying in Tengo’s apartment. However, it’s an element that removes itself as suddenly as it appeared with a suggestion that it is somehow linked to Tengo’s comatose father who was a NHK collector. Similarly, there is a hint that one of the nurses Tengo befriends is linked to his murdered mother:

“What I remember is the moment I died. Someone was strangling me. A man I’d never seen before.”

(His mother’s death is one of the few things which Ushikawe discovers that was not already known from the previous volumes). After making this comment, however, the nurse does not reappear. Even Fuka-Eri, so central to Books One and Two, seems to simply to fade away.

Book Three also contains some less than sparkling prose:

“It was like his head was filled with frozen lettuce. There must be some people who don’t know you’re not supposed to freeze lettuce. Once lettuce has been frozen, it loses all its crispness – which for lettuce is surely its best characteristic.”

However, even when the writing deteriorates to a lengthy explanation of a weak simile, there is something almost hypnotic about Murakami’s style – he draws you through the banality because you know some wonder will appear eventually. Overall 1Q84 suffers from indulgence, and book Three is the most indulgent, but it still contains moments of great writing and he shouldn’t be denied the greatest prize of all.