Tag Archives: Haruki Murakami

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

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Breasts. Some of us have them. Do you have them? How often do you think about them? (You may answer this question even if you are not thinking of your own.) Do you worry about their size, what people you meet think about their size, or whether sexual partners are turned off by their size? Are you always comparing your breasts to those of others? Do you find it impossible to enjoy even long-wished-for experiences because of thoughts like these? Even in moments of danger does your mind stray to the size of your potentially inadequate breasts?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ and you are a highly sought after physical therapist with a sideline in lucrative contract killings, you should probably do everyone a favour and stop obsessing. Call a plastic surgeon, use some of the pile of money you have sitting in a safety deposit box and get the blooming things done. Go up a cup size. Or two! Get the silhouette you have always known you deserved. And then we can get on with the rest of the book because you are one of two main characters in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and frankly, there are bigger things to worry about than the size of your breasts (sorry… Not sorry.)

In over 30 years of breast-owning, I have never thought about a pair as much as I have about Aomame’s. It feels cruel to a writer whose books I have enjoyed in the past, but someone needs to say: ‘Haruki, give it a rest, lad’. In his defence, it could be argued that Aomame is living out a suspended adolescence, where girls can fixate on such superficialities, and that when given the chance to change her appearance in order to evade capture more effectively, she declines. However, when this happens:

Aomame mourned the deaths of these two friends deeply. It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts – breasts that had vanished without a trace.

The reaction is laughter rather than sorrow. Only the weight of the tome and an unreturned rental deposit on my apartment prevented me from throwing it across the room with great force, à la Dorothy Parker. It isn’t as if Mr Murakami is some crazed misogynist who doesn’t know any better. Countless examples prove that he can write women well, when he manages to lift his literary gaze higher than their chests. Aomame’s boss, the Dowager, is the kind of kick-ass old lady that everyone needs on their side: tracking down powerful abusers, maintaining a haven for their victims and dispensing quiet justice from a hothouse filled with butterflies. Fuka-Eri is a precocious literary talent, despite suffering from something akin to dyslexia. Yet her ‘beautifully developed’ full breasts are the feature that rates a mention almost every time the teenager appears. To add balance, so do her small, beautiful ears, if you are playing Haruki Murakami Bingo. Prepare to shout ‘full house!’

What bedevils 1Q84 is the makings of a great story trapped somewhere within these pages, that unfortunately isn’t one you can read unless you want to get busy with a red pen, scissors and glue. Editorial input seems to have been limited to pats on the back while waiting for the Nobel Prize Committee to call. It is all the more frustrating because the amount of time that a book this size demands in investment would suggest that readers be rewarded in return. There are small glimmers of interest. The author is particularly good on the subject of cults, the origins of the Sakigake group are gripping and the menace and influence they are able to wield genuinely alarming. Underworld lawyer Ushikawa’s backhanded property dealings are a nod to the asset price bubble which is about to inflate, hobbling Japan’s economy for two decades and counting. The Little People are another frightening entity on first appearance, albeit later defanged and left woefully under-utilised. Tengo’s co-conspirator Komatsu has a great deal of interest to say on the nature of publishing stardom and the manipulation of the reading public, bestseller lists and the patrons of literary prizes (ahem). Unfortunately these potent elements are diluted in a soup of double moons, cats and small breasts, until it begins to feel like a parody.

Perhaps the biggest letdown, remembering the many memorable characters that inhabit Murakami World, is the weakness of the two leads. It is difficult to feel the affection with which we regard, say, Watanabe’s meanderings into maturity in Norwegian Wood, for the romance of breast-obsessed Aomame and her opposite number, Tengo. Tengo could be an early forerunner of the much lamented ‘herbivore men’, except that he seems to be getting more than his fair share of the sex, which even by Murakami standards is decidedly icky. Haunted through his most intimate moments by a brief sexual memory from infancy concerning his mother, fantasising about the 10-year old Aomame, a sex scene with Fuka-Eri so cringe-y it was nominated for a Bad Sex award, Tengo could be a poster boy for abstinence. Vaginas are hairless and appear ‘freshly made’, in which case they are entered, or possess ‘thick, rich [pubic] hair’ in which case they are not. Murakami could be satirising the youth-fixated sexual landscape and its effect on women’s bodies – or he might just dig really young girls. And we are meant to root for Aomame and Tengo as star-cross’d lovers, despite him getting his rocks off with young girls and her prowling Roppongi bars to pick up balding middle-aged men. It is all a far cry from Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League.

Much has been made of the inspiration provided by Nineteen Eighty-Four (nine in Japanese is ‘kyu’, hence the ‘Q’, the Little People as the opposite of Big Brother) but it is a struggle to note any deeper connection between the two. However, if Mr Murakami is looking to George Orwell for inspiration, there is this passage, from Why I Write:

I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it…

Perhaps Murakami has outgrown his own motifs, writing with more than half an eye on the judges in Stockholm blurred his focus, or it is possible that he went and sat in a well halfway through and the publishers got a ghost-writer to finish it from screwed up notes retrieved from the bin, or via a box marked ‘patent pending ACME MURAKAMI THEME GENERATOR’. Like Fuka-Eri’s work, Air Chrysalis, this is a book crying out for a determined editor backed by a ruthless publisher. In tests, 8 out of 10 talking cats said ‘It’s no Kafka on the Shore, now, is it, mate?’

J. C. Greenway’s copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is 266 pages long and she has never tried to throw it across a room.

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A year in reading

It seems that ‘inspired by’ is the term to use when one is shamelessly borrowing another’s good idea. With that in mind, this post is inspired by/pinched from Sean Lotman’s wonderful post of the same name. You are encouraged to take a look at the original as well as this weak derivative.

An earlier post on ten minutes hate details my early designation as the family bookworm and the part that public libraries have played in creating my reading habits. There are times when a ‘to read’ list is put into use, but more often it is the joy of discovering something unintended that makes a trip to the library worthwhile. So it was around the time that borrowing took over from buying books that, realising that some gems would no doubt be forgotten along the way, I started making a note of titles and authors as I travelled.

Engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

The writer, engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

Looking at my list, the first failure to note is that it doesn’t come close to Mr Lotman’s staggering 42 books. Shamefully, mine is barely half that. It is interesting that in the comments to the original post, the balance between reading and writing is mentioned and it is true that, for the first half of the year at least, writing took up almost every available moment of my free time. Then there was the temptation of reading long-form journalism on my phone instead of carrying physical books on commutes and journeys. Although some of the listed books were read on a Kindle app (being too lazy to buy yet another gadget) the majority of them were paper and ink and, however much technology adds to other areas of my life, I foresee that continuing.

Another notable trend is that, while reading will always be something done primarily for pleasure, there are words here that I took a more professional interest in. Mr Lotman talks about the joy of reading, saying that often, too many readers see it:

as a way to pass the time rather than an action worthwhile for its own sake.

Usually I would be in complete agreement, however other motivations for reading have intruded this year. My list contains a few books that were of interest for research purposes, or read in draft stage and edited, or – in perhaps the biggest leap of personal development – read in order to develop a hopefully interesting and stimulating literature curriculum. Teaching classes based on loved books, having hated everything school forced me to read in English class, was at times tough, although ultimately enjoyable. Still, it is rare for a book that you feel you ought to be reading to become as much of a favourite as one you are free to delight in.

This joy of discovery shows in the publication dates of many of these titles, few are contemporary, perhaps only a couple would have been marked ‘the book of the moment’ or reviewed by a Sunday newspaper. That is due to distance: picking up books via second-hand bookshops and swapping with fellow expats tends to rule out hardbacks and new releases. Many of my list were gifts or recommendations and there is something lovely about hearing ‘I think you will enjoy this book’ from a friend before finding that to be true.

Here then is my list of books read in 2012, in chronological order, with links to reviews I wrote along the way and some further thoughts following:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. Let’s Start Again, ABCTales short story compilation
  3. Hana Walker’s Half-Life 2:46, Our Man in Abiko
  4. Babylon Revisited, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Musings of a Monkey, Steven Baxter
  6. Hunger, Knut Hamsun
  7. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
  8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Moonraker, Ian Fleming
  10. Manituana, Wu Ming
  11. Never Come Morning, Nelson Algren
  12. In Pursuit of the English, Doris Lessing
  13. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
  14. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
  15. A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch
  16. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  17. From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  18. Dr No, Ian Fleming
  19. Mourning Ruby, Helen Dunmore
  20. The Mammy, Brendan O’Carroll
  21. Bon Voyage, Mr President, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  22. A View from the Chuo Line, Donald Richie
  23. The Maginot Line, Fiction Desk short story compilation
  24. Care of Wooden Floors, Will Wiles

I managed 24 books, two for each month. Four were re-reads, six were ebooks, eight were purchased by me and the rest were passed on by friends.

Impossible to choose one favourite, but the books by Doris Lessing, Wu Ming and Knut Hamsun were particularly enjoyable, for wildly different reasons. With Lessing taking her ‘pursuit’ into a post-War London suburb, the Wu Ming viewing the American Revolution from an unconventional perspective and Hamsun’s anti-hero lurching around late 19th century Kristiania (Oslo), my love of stories set outside my own time is clearly demonstrated. Despite their differing subject matter, all three were lively, gripping tales, fascinating and relevant.

Publishers will tell you that compilations of short stories never sell, however a busy year meant this format was far easier to dip into and out of than a 900-page novel. From the Fiction Desk compilation, The Maginot Line, Benjamin Johncock’s The Rocket Man was a haunting tale of a small girl grappling with an uncertain future, soundtracked by Bowie. My first reading of a Helen Dunmore novel also provoked the first negative review I have ever been bothered to write, while Haruki Murakami demonstrated more flaws than claims to greatness and Will Wiles’ first book sadly did not make me long for another from him.

Finally, it is with a sense of guilt that I note that there are five downloaded but yet to be either started or finished books lurking on my Kindle app. This is something that I hope to address very shortly, as an extended holiday break in England with typically wintry weather offers little incentive to venture outdoors. With a little luck, 2013’s list will offer even more gems than this one.

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Reading list

So you take a look at this:

and then you factor in this:

to which you add the latest issue of Tsuki magazine with its mix of great fiction and other writing from Japan, the essential life guide ‘Feel The Fear And Freelance Anyway’ by Kris Emery and a host of other well-written posts and updates and it all leads to one thought:

Can I have a week off please?

So tell me, what’s on your ‘to read’ list – virtual or otherwise – at the moment?

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The question of Murakami

I can do tact and diplomacy when they are required, so a couple of months after arriving in Japan, when it dawned on me that even those students who were happy to talk about books and authors were going lukewarm on the topic when Murakami’s name came up, I stopped mentioning him at all.  I was puzzled though.  So when I got to know a student with some literary aspirations a little better, I asked him what the deal was.

Of course, he’s very popular in the West

the student told me, in the same tone of voice you would reserve for a relative committed to a institution after an unfortunate incident likely to bring shame on the whole family if too widely discussed.  And you thought Britain did ‘build them up, tear them down’ well!

Haruki Murakami, thanks to some excellent translations that I have heard are very accurate from someone lucky enough to be able to read them in both languages, is indeed popular in the West.  He has won many prizes and rightly been acclaimed as one of the greats.  But he was also once so popular in Japan that, after Norwegian Wood was published in 1987 and sold millions of copies, he left the country and spent most of the next decade abroad trying to escape the weight of notoriety.  Perhaps it is that abandonment that people find so hard to forgive.

Delicately, I broached the subject again with another student, a serene lady in her early 40s who might have been one of those teenagers buying the million copies of Norwegian Wood. She spoke carefully.

Maybe the problem is that Westerners come to Japan and believe it is really like that.  You think that what he writes is real

I am not so sure.  I would be lying if I said I hadn’t fallen for his off-beat perspectives on life, yet I think what makes Murakami’s books so special is that they contain just enough reality to convince.  Everyone has probably met a character like Toru Okada from The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, passive in the face of his lost job, lost cat and eventually even his lost wife.  The boredom of a suburban summer captured in short story The Last Lawn of the Afternoon, from The Elephant Vanishes, isn’t unique to Japan.  Then, having spent some time here, it is easy to imagine missing the last train and deciding to spend the early hours reading in Denny’s like Mari in After Dark, speculating on the other people passing by.

But I wasn’t expecting to find wells in back gardens containing secret tunnels that lead to the past, or a world that exists in the space between reality and dream, such as the one where Mari’s sister has been sleeping for a year.  I knew it would be fairly unlikely I would stumble into any situations like those encountered by the hero of Kafka on the Shore, a book so baffling and other-worldly that even its author can only offer this advice to readers looking for answers:

the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. This may sound self-serving, but it’s true. I know people are busy and it depends, too, on whether they feel like doing it, but if you have the time, I suggest reading the novel more than once. Things should be clearer the second time around. I’ve read it, of course, dozens of times as I rewrote it, and each time I did, slowly but surely the whole started to come into sharper focus.

Sharper focus, maybe, but still recognisably unreal, even if you have never visited Japan.  Instead Murakami’s books create a world that, as in a dream, manages to remain rooted in what’s real, while being not very real at all.  And I know this, just as I know that Midori and Watanabe from Norwegian Wood – arguably the author’s most realistic novel – aren’t out there somewhere, arguing and laughing and cooking and loving each other, maybe taking a break from their wandering around the city to relax in the park on a Sunday afternoon.

Definitely not.

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The seven stages of gaijinhood

Like Douglas Adams’ deadlines, recently the milestones keep making great whooshing noises as they go by.  This is both my ninth month in Japan and my 200th post on ten minutes hate and, although it has been a mad rush of a week after the previous serene holiday temple wanderings, that seems to offer enough of a reason to stop and survey the scenery.

So already pondering my navel, this excellent post on the seven stages of gaijinhood* perfectly chimed with the mood.  It also includes a handy chart, to map your progress on the descent to something even your closest friends will take pleasure in shunning.  It was intriguing to wonder where I might fall.

On the one hand, I am happy to be a ‘wide-eyed wonderer’, still ticking off the firsts: first trip on a shinkansen, first visit to Kyoto, even (slightly shamefacedly) the first faltering steps towards learning some Japanese.  Yet at the same time, perhaps not so wide-eyed.

Often I struggle to answer the question of why I came to Japan when people ask, because the reason seems quite mundane.  I was tired of London and looking for something new, afraid of slipping into the dread routine and worried I would never make it out.  People told me I was crazy to give up a secure job and although I know they were rooting for me, I don’t think even my best friends thought it would really happen until we were celebrating at my leaving do.

In spite of that, and even though just before I left the UK I was writing that Haruki Murakami was about 68% responsible for the whole adventure, maybe not having a clear obsession, with manga or martial arts or anything else, helped.  Hopefully, my lack of a clear reason for choosing Japan meant that I managed to side-step some of the notions that set people up for rapid disillusionment soon after the plane lands.  The real, if slightly dull, reason I came here was that I wanted to see it for myself.

But if the ‘wide-eyed wonderer’ stage is the most self-aware of them all then it is important not to get too self-congratulatory.  It is essential to keep a handle on how gauche you are, still wet behind the ears, so required to bow (like a rice stalk in the wind, according to one guidebook I brought with me) to the superior knowledge of others.  While running counter to the spirit of adventure that got you onto the plane, on arrival, it is both safer and easier to walk in the footsteps of those who have trod the path before.

As a writer in Japan, it is inevitable that writing about Japan would rear its sometimes-ugly head.  Our Man in Abiko skewers some of the more terrible afflictions of the genre in this post:

Do not use pictures of Japanese people behaving normally, such as shopping at CostCo, walking around IKEA or eating a hamburger, as this will imply to potential readers that you don’t know the real Japan.

The Westerner’s fear of the neonsign also offers some words of caution:

Every blog about Japan – and there are too many to count – reveals a dossier of prejudices that the author either held already or nurtured during that vital first year in the country. It’s no surprise that blogs are appended so innocuously – ‘a blog about my life in Japan’, ‘thoughts on Japanese society’, ‘visual culture in Japan’ – since this is all the author believes himself to be doing.

Maybe because this site existed before I arrived, it was easier to resist the urge to document every new thing I stumbled across in those early ‘barely able to get on the right train’ days.  My posts from that time are notable either because they don’t contain much Japan, or because they don’t contain many words, although that last does include not one, but two strange flavoured Kit-Kats.  I could die of shame.

I started ten minutes hate to vent spleen at the utter uselessness of the UK’s politicians and at first it was difficult to resist the lure of or foresee an end to that topic.  That was until the time difference and distance began intruding, when it didn’t seem like I could offer any new perspectives on the cuts and the protests against them.  My last post on the subject, written on 10 March, was largely unloved and unread.

I wasn’t sure what else to do, but I knew I wanted to avoid writing another ‘weird Japan’ blog.  As an English teacher I couldn’t feel comfortable mocking attempts to use the language, especially not with six words of Japanese to my name.  The seedier aspects of life might have boosted the hit count, but apparently there are others out there making a much better fist of that, so more power to their elbows.

Maybe in the end, your subject finds you.  As with so many other areas of life, the Tohoku earthquake must have altered the gradual progressions noted in the chart.  Perhaps it has made me jump a few steps to ‘ill-informed activism’ as, horrified by the UK media’s take on the situation, I determined to tell the ‘real’ story.  That this has proved popular shows that people are keen to hear from other perspectives.  My posts since 11 March have often strayed far from what I would consider ‘newsworthy’, seeming to endlessly concern the tea I have been drinking and accompanying cakes.  Maybe there is a ‘keep calm and carry on’ nature to such posts that make them comforting to read.

I am aware of Japan slipping down the list of stories, at the worst possible point for those affected, when they need assistance and attention more than ever.  All I can do is, in a small way, keep the stories of survivors, their needs and the relief efforts directed at them, in the thoughts of people around the world who may be able to help.  To keep plugging Quakebook and other fundraising efforts and to report on efforts being made in other countries, so that Japan doesn’t feel alone, as one of my students said it did in March.

I hope that will keep ten minutes hate going for another 200 posts, although on the way there will be times when I am just as unsure of the right direction.  In Gakuranman’s post he notes that:

self-doubt and questioning is at least a step in the direction of humility.

I would argue that a little – not too much – self-doubt is an essential part of a writer’s arsenal.  You want that small voice whispering in your ear ‘it’s not good enough’, to spur you on to better things.  When strolling around new cities, as well as when writing, getting lost is usually the best way to find your way to something unexpected but ultimately more rewarding.

* A gaijin is a foreigner in Japan, lovers of wordplay will note that this was recently amended to ‘flyjin’ in response to the numbers of foreigners who made arrangements to move elsewhere when faced with earthquakes and nuclear meltdown.

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When it’s perfect, it falls

The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time. . . I think that only we Japanese understand that, don’t you?

– David Mitchell, Ghostwritten

Thanks are due to Sam for reminding me of the David Mitchell quote.  One day I hope to get closer to understanding the fleeting beauty of the sakura.  These pictures were taken a week ago and already it has gone, mushed underfoot as the trees blaze green and the hayfever has Tokyoites sneezing into their face masks.  This year more than others, understandably, we have longed for the release of the hanami, the joy that the sakura brings, the feeling that, like the trees, we can begin again.

And even as we begin, know that it must come to an end.  We are, after all, like petals on the wind.

Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive

– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Be sure to enjoy as many perfect moments as you can before the fall.

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Norwegian Wood

Needless to say, this whole adventure was probably at least 68% inspired by Haruki Murakami.  Therefore I am almost as excited about this:

as I am about the fact that I am now a mere three days away from arrival in Japan.

Isn’t it good?

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1Q84

Very excited to read today that Haruki Murakami has revealed some of the inspiration for his new book:

Murakami has now admitted that he had “long wanted to write a near-past novel similar to George Orwell’s futuristic novel 1984”

Only slightly tempered by this:

It proved an instant bestseller in Japan when it was published at the end of May, but there is no word yet about when an English translation will be forthcoming.

Now that should be all the inspiration I need to become fluent in Japanese…

In the same article, Mr Murakami also talks about how he writes, something he also covers in the excellent and translated into English, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’,

In my case, if I start out by thinking about the plot, things don’t go well. Small points, such as my impression of what is likely to occur, do come to mind, but I let the rest of the story take its own course. I don’t want to spend as long as two years writing a story whose plot I already know.

This is the way I write too, although it is definitely more time-consuming that way, so it is heartening to learn that Murakami’s been working on his book for two years!  It is also not the way my English teachers at school would have encouraged anyone to write, insisting when we wrote stories in class that we spend time planning them out, ensuring they had a beginning, middle and an end, before we were allowed to start writing the things.  I am sure they meant well, but it leads to formulaic writing as well as taking some of the fun out of discovery.  Part of the appeal of writing something longer, which I’ve been doing for about a year now, is that I am telling myself the story first.  I only have a vague idea of how it is going to end and a faint hope that if I am enjoying the tale, one day other people might do too…

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