“Hajime,” she began, “the sad truth is that certain types of things can’t got backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”
South of the Border, West of the Sun p.147
For me, possibly the most important passage Murakami ever wrote, as far as understanding his work. He is one of my favorite modern authors, likely my absolute favorite, though it is hard to express why. At times maudlin, at other times a little too cozy and smug… but those moments are luckily few and far between. His work is able to touch me so directly, snaking stealthily under years of disillusionment and cynicism by stoking any lingering fires of sentimentality and, most meaningfully, nostalgia. As Yeats sang so beautifully for wandering Aengus, “I went out to a hazel wood because a fire was in my head…”
Somehow I was introduced to Murakami around when his first English translations were coming out, and the first book I read was a hardcover edition of A Wild Sheep Chase. A wicked mashup of noir, Raymond Carver, and Albert Camus, I had to read it a second time almost immediately to convince myself it was real. Strangely it took me several years to read another one, and once I did, I couldn’t stop until I read them all.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a masterpiece. A Wild Sheep Chase is good, but I didn’t know at the time that it was the third in a loose trilogy, sometimes called the trilogy of the rat after a character who is, by the time of Sheep Chase, already a ghost. Wonderland embodies everything that is so beguiling about Murakami’s work.
(And, curse the powers that be, but Pinball 1973 and Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, are not yet available in English outside of translations for sale only in Japan for Japanese students of English. I want to publicly thank a remarkably kind book rep, Bill Verner, who years ago gifted me his personal copy of Hear the Wind Sing, which, if you find it on abebooks or ebay at all, will cost you over a hundred dollars! Bill has translated several Paco Ignacio Taibo II books into english, by the way, and they’re very well done.)
There are two major elements to his best stories, obsessions that he shares with several other Japanese artists, but that are hard to meaningfully isolate. Often his characters are divided into halves, and seek unconsciously to remedy any blindness this may cause. The borders of memory are fragile, and Murakami exhumes what we hoped would remain buried, the tender sentiment of past regret. What brings me back to his stories, especially Hard-Boiled and one of my favorites, after the quake (originally All God’s Children Can Dance in Japanese) is how he works his way under my skin so that I am inhabited by his nostalgia, like wearing a diaphanous cloth of which I am aware only in the breeze.
Just as frequently, women disappear in his works, literally or existentially, sometimes hard to tell. And yet he manages to turn those moments into haunting ruminations on memory, like an emotional transliteration of the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox. Luckily it doesn’t seem like a parlor trick, except in Sputnik Sweetheart which should be avoided at all costs, because the core mystery is a mystery which bedevils him as well.
He is able, like Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, to communicate an ephemeral dream state so that you feel like it’s your dream, and that it is your consciousness that is divided. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Norwegian Wood make this division quite literal; in Hard-Boiled every other chapter vacillates between two wildly different narratives, and in Norwegian Wood the book was published in two volumes (at least in Japan and in England), a red and a green edition.
(He became so popular at the time, with so many school kids identifying with one book or the other that it became fashionable to dress up in the color of one’s favored book. He fled Japan soon after, unwilling to suffer the widespread recognition, though today I think he does go back.)
I am thinking of him lately because a new novella came out last month, After Dark, and I haven’t read it yet. I was spoiled for years, working as I did in bookstores where everyone knew how much I loved his work, so I would get first dibs on advanced reader editions. When I returned from an absence to work at Malaprop’s Bookstore, the owner showed her appreciation of me by gifting me a signed hardcover copy of after the quake (how cool is that!). I didn’t even see any ARC copies of After Dark at BookExpo this year…did I miss them or is it a sign of tightened purse strings in lean times?
Murakami also features librarians in several of his works, most memorably in Wonderland where a man unwillingly has had his shadow severed from him by an axe-wielding gatekeeper, and is trying to find out how to keep his shadow from an early death. He is called upon by the town librarian to read the skulls of some mysterious animals; reading the skulls summons up magnificent memories while stripping him of his own. Also, in Kafka on the Shore, the main character winds up befriending a gender dysphoric librarian as well as the unusual library director Miss Saeki.
So if you’re up for a bit mental dislocation (a la Philip K. Dick) or an atmosphere of ruminative nostalgia (a la Raymond Bradbury) be sure to check out some Murakami. At least, if you have some time for a new literary obsession.