Tag Archives: Kafka on the Shore

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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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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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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