Posts Tagged ‘haruki murakami’

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).

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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.

1Q84 Book Two

March 13, 2012

(This follows my review of Book One)

Book One of 1Q84 ended with the line:

“With his eyes closed, Tengo could not be sure which world he belonged to.”

This follows a discussion with his lover about the moon after he tells her that the novel he is writing is set in a world with two moons, an idea he has borrowed from Air Chrysalis. Two moons in the sky have already been identified by Aomame as a facet of 1Q84:

“Overhead, the two moons worked together to bathe the world in a strange light.”

In Book Two, remembering again the one time they have met, Tengo pictures

“…the moon – standing out against the sky, about three quarters full…Like him, Aomame was staring at the moon in broad daylight, still gripping his hand, her face deadly serious.”

When he opens his eyes, he sees “another moon in the sky”:

“The moon was as taciturn as ever. But it was no longer alone.”

This occurs shortly after he decides to look for Aomame, and, although Fuka-Eri suggests that his perception of the two moons is related only to writing Air Chrysalis with her, it seems also to represent his connection with the woman he has always loved but previously made no effort to locate. “What kind of reality mimics fictional creations?” Tengo asks himself, referencing his own writing. But Murakami keeps returning to the song Paper Moon, where the paper moon of the title is made real by love and belief. 1Q84 is the world where Tengo and Aomame are connected by story: in Book One this was largely structural, their two narratives running side by side; in Book Two their stories become increasingly entangled.

1Q84, therefore, is, above all, a love story, and that love becomes central to the action in Book Two. While Tengo’s narrative becomes backward looking – a visit to his dying father, a reunion with Fuka-Eri – and esoteric – an extended interlude based on a story he reads, Aomame’s takes on the tenor of a thriller as she prepares to kill the cult leader Fukado. Murakami’s ambiguous attitude towards the cult (one might say, towards everything) is demonstrated when Fukado not only confirms his more than human qualities, but also asks Aomame to kill him – he, too, is being used by the Little People and his death will leave them without a host. He also explains that, although this would mean that they would hunt her down and kill her, it would keep Tengo safe, allowing her to sacrifice herself for him.

How well you take all this may depend not only on your tolerance of the more fantastical elements, but also how you feel about mixing sex with children. It’s true that we discover that Fukado did not rape his daughter, but that he had intercourse with her Dohta, a shadow self created in an air chrysalis by the Little People – and that he was unable to move at the time. We see the same thing happen to Tengo at the hands (or, more accurately, loins) of Fuka-Eri (who becomes an increasingly creepy character in this Book). Murakami goes out of his way, however, to emphasise her youth during their encounter:

“It seemed inconceivable that his adult penis could penetrate her small newly made vagina.”

He also links it to Tengo’s memory of Aomame. In his own mind, Tengo associates this with a sexual awakening:

“In his memory, Aomame remained a skinny little girl without breasts, but he was able to bring himself to ejaculation with the thought of her in gym clothes.”

Though this physical attraction fades fro Tengo, it is noticeable how frequently Aomame, in the other narrative, refers to the smallness of her breasts, refusing to have them enlarged when she has the opportunity. When Tengo discovers an air chrysalis waiting for him on his father’s bed, it is the ten-year-old Aomame who is inside.

If you’re wondering whether it all makes sense, the answer is probably that it doesn’t matter. 1Q84 isn’t ‘metaphorical’ or ‘symbolic’. Its over-riding concern seems to be with making a meaningful connection between two people. Both Aomame and Tengo lived in solipsistic worlds, estranged from their parents and without close friends. Most other characters in the novel are equally isolated. The cult itself is an example of retreating into a private world; as, one might argue, is the novel itself. The dynamic of the dual narrative is union, and it is the question of whether Aomame and Tengo can find each other that is the novel’s main driving force.

1Q84 Book One

February 11, 2012

Having waited four years since Murakami’s last novel, 1Q84’s near one thousand page length seems somehow too much at once: it’s a little like dieting for a year and then attempting to devour the contents of a baker’s window in one afternoon. I’ve therefore decided to take its division into three books at face value and read them separately, one a month, over the next three months. This will still allow me to be completed comfortably before his original Japanese audience: although Books One and Two were published simultaneously in Japan (in May 2009), there was then almost a year’s wait for Book Three. Its length, and the two and half year anticipation between publication in Japan and in English, were not the only reasons that made 1Q84 probably the most eagerly expected (translated) novel of 2011. There was also a sense that Murakami’s powers as a writer were on the wane, and that this ambitious undertaking would provide proof one way or the other.

Unlike most of Murakami’s work, 1Q84 is not written in the first person, and in fact adopts two perspectives in alternating chapters. In chapter 1 we are introduced to Aomame, a young woman on her way to work assignment who has become stuck in a traffic jam. She leaves the taxi and uses an emergency stairway to escape the motorway. It is at this point she enters the alternative reality of 1Q84 (the novel is set in 1984). The first indication of this is a passing policeman:

“Aomame noticed that there was something unusual about his uniform…His pistol too was a different model. He wore a large automatic at his waist instead of the revolver normally issued to policemen in Japan.”

Later investigation will show that this change resulted from a shoot-out between police and a radical sect at Lake Motosu which Aomame has no memory of. However, before this we will have seen Aomame kill a man she has never met before: her ‘work’, we discover, involves tracking down and murdering men who have been abusive to their wives, at the behest of a wealthy dowager. As Aomame’s back story unfolds we find that she has a personal motivation, her best friend having committed suicide after years of mistreatment at the hands of her husband.

The second narrative focuses on Tengo, an aspiring writer and Maths tutor, who becomes embroiled in a scheme of his publisher to cause a literary sensation by rewriting a story which a teenage girl, Fuka-Eri, has sent to him:

“This Fuka-Eri girl has something special. Anyone can see it reading Air Chrysalis. Her imagination is far from ordinary. Unfortunately, though, her writing is hopeless. A total mess. You, on the other hand, know how to write.”

Fuka-Eri is the daughter of the cult leader linked to the Lake Motosu Incident, although that particular group had splintered from the main sect. Her father, Fukada, hasn’t been seen in years and Fuka-Eri has been living with an elderly Professor and his daughter. It is increasingly suggested that Fuka Eri’s extraordinary imagination is instead a factual rendering of events in her own life, in particular the sinister ‘Little People’. When a ten year old girl who has escaped from Fukada’s commune is taken in to the dowager’s shelter for abused women (the girl has been raped), she also mentions the ‘Little People’, and though the phrase is hardly heart-stopping in English, the scene where they finally appear is:

“Soon her mouth began to open wider, and from it emerged, one after another, a small troupe of Little People.”

Murakami’s two great strengths come into focus here: his ability to create fictional worlds, and then to inject fantastic elements into them without losing credibility. 1Q84 might be seen as representative of this: there is little difference between it and 1984, but it is different. Similarly, Murakami takes reality and twists it slightly; it feels real but we are always aware of its difference.

By the end of Book One, we can see the links between the two narratives. An important connection is clearly Fukada’s commune, and Murakami has been interested in cults at least since he wrote Underground about the Tokyo gas attack. Tengo and Aomame are also connected through a childhood memory. Tengo remembers Aomame as a lonely classmate, isolated by her religious upbringing; they never talk but on one occasion he protects her from some childish bullying. Shortly after this happens:

“She strode quickly across the room, heading straight for Tengo, as if she had just made up her mind about something. She stood next to him and, without the slightest hesitation, grabbed his hand and looked up at him.”

Aomame also remembers the incident:

“I did have one person I fell in love with…It happened when I was ten. I held his hand.”

Murakami has used this rather sentimental image before to suggest some kind of spiritual bond, and here he contrasts it with a series of casual sexual relationships – Tengo’s with a married woman, Aomame’s with men she picks up in bars. However, a little like Dickens (though Murakami is not such a stylist), despite the implausibility and the sentimentality, the power of the narrative is difficult to resist.