Hear the Wind Sing

Title: Hear the Wind Sing
Japanese Title: 風の歌を聴け (Kaze no uta o kike)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Publication Year: 1979 (in Japanese); 1987 (in translation)
Publisher: Kodansha English Library (講談社英語文庫)
Pages: 130 (plus 15 pages of translation notes)

I love A Wild Sheep Chase. The narrator’s daily life in Tokyo, the narrator’s sojourn in Hokkaido, the mystery of the sheep, and the philosophical musings on genius and individuality all come together into an interesting and compelling story. There’s this one weird bit, though, after the narrator leaves Tokyo but before he reaches Sapporo. This is the chapter describing the narrator’s visit to a place called J’s Bar. He doesn’t visit J’s Bar in real time; rather, he remembers having visited it in the past. J’s Bar, we learn, is where he and a character called “the Rat” used to drink when they were younger. I always felt that there was something about the narrator’s relationship to the Rat and J’s Bar that Murakami wasn’t telling us. As a result, this short, atemporal section connecting Tokyo and Hokkaido felt disjointed and out of place. Perhaps the reason it felt this way to me is because I had never read Murakami’s earlier novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. A Wild Sheep Chase is part of a tetralogy (which is concluded by Dance Dance Dance), so it only makes sense that I would be missing something by having started in the middle.

Hear the Wind Sing is a short I-novel in the style of Shiga Naoya, by which I mean that it involves a young man who wanders around aimlessly while thinking about how pointless his life is. I don’t mean to imply that the novel isn’t worth reading, because it certainly is. There just isn’t much of a plot. The narrator, who is a college student majoring in biology, has returned from Tokyo to his hometown by the sea for the summer. He spends his days chilling out and his nights drinking in a small, run-down pub called J’s Bar. J is a middle-aged Chinese man who has befriended the narrator and his drinking buddy, a young college dropout nicknamed the Rat (“Nezumi”). One night, the narrator goes to the bathroom in J’s Bar and finds a young woman passed out on the floor. He gets her address from her purse, takes her home, puts her to bed, and then falls asleep in her apartment. The novel meanders between the sporadic interactions between the narrator and this woman, about whom neither the narrator nor the reader ever learns much before she disappears forever. Between these interactions, the narrator briefly reflects on his past romantic relationships and thinks about writing and literature, which he discusses with the Rat. The story is bookended at its beginning and end by sustained discussions of Derek Heartfield, a (fictitious) early twentieth-century writer of speculative fiction whose life and work, the narrator concludes, showed promise but ultimately went nowhere.

Hear the Wind Sing is a short novel, and it feels even shorter because of its frequent chapter breaks (about once every four or five pages) and frequent page breaks within chapters. There’s no real pattern to the narration, which includes conversations, reminiscences, literary speculation, song lyrics, and a bit of linear storytelling. Despite this lack of cohesion, everything flows together nicely, and the way that the main themes of the novel (such as the inability of any one person to really know any other person) are elliptically approached is fairly effective. The narrative voice contains far more humor than self-pity and keeps the reader moving easily through the novel. This narrative voice is broken a few times by the insertion of the voice of a radio rock station DJ, who has some of the best passages in the whole book. Such a fragmented narrative style effectively captures the experience of being a college student at home for the summer, moving through the days without a clear sense of purpose and half-heartedly wondering what the future will bring. There’s no grand mystery of the sort that forms the core of A Wild Sheep Chase, but the narrator is same amiable personality who sees the world through a perceptive yet detached perspective. If you can get your hands on this book (which is fairly easy to do at major Japanese bookstores or through Amazon.co.jp), it’s a quick and enjoyable read, especially for fans of Murakami’s writing style. Birnbaum’s translation notes at the end of the book are also a nice treat for people who are interested in that sort of thing.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Title: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Japanese Title: 世界の終りとハードボイルド・ワンダーランド
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上春樹)
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Publication Year: 1993 (America); 1985 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 400

Upon re-reading my reviews of Lala Pipo and Audition, I realized that sexism in narratives penned by male authors has been one of my major preoccupations during the past few months. I suppose I have been reacting, in part, to a school of thought that seems to hold that anything written by a man is inherently sexist, whereas anything written by a woman must be feminist. This way of thinking is flawed for several reasons (one of the most obvious being that if gender is performative, then the act of writing gender is exponentially so), and I object to it because it unthinking dismisses the work of several of my favorite authors as unworthy of attention. Are powerful female characters in books like Gerald’s Game, Rose Madder, and Dolores Claiborne to be automatically labeled as sexist creations simply because Stephen King is male?

Another writer that I feel often comes under unfair criticism is Murakami Haruki, who is ridiculed by one faction of thinkers (like Miyoshi Masao and Ōe Kenzaburō) for being too accessible and not literary enough while at the same time attacked by another faction (of mainly French and American scholars) for being a stereotypical representative of the male-dominated literary establishment. In either case, I am confounded by the intensely negative evaluation of his work as politically disengaged, sexist, or, most damningly, just not very well-written or enjoyable in general.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is one of my favorite novels, ever, not simply because it’s very, very fun to read, but also because it’s intensely engaged with several social and philosophical issues that have become increasingly relevant since it was first published in 1985. What is an individual’s relation to a global government and economy that he cannot even begin to understand or affect in any way? What is a individual’s relation to the endless cycle of consumption imposed by these superstructures? What is an individual’s relation to a reality that is increasingly virtual; and, within that reality, what sort of responsibility does he owe to society? What sort of responsibility does he owe to himself? Surrounding these issues is an extended meditation on the nature and power of fantasy, both in its utopian and dystopian dimensions, that is woven into the very structure of the text.

The narrative of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is divided into two parts, the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, with each providing the setting for every other chapter. The Hard-Boiled Wonderland is very much like present-day Tokyo, although it has been enhanced by futuristic technology and conspiracies surrounding the development and use of that technology. The protagonist of this part of the story is not a traditional hard-boiled detective but rather a skilled and deadpan Calcutec who encodes information using a special ability artificially implanted into his brain. His life runs smoothly and predictably until he is given a job that plunges him into a secret conflict between the government and an organization of information pirates called the Factory. On the other hand, the End of the World is a quiet, pastoral fantasyscape centered around a small town and surrounded by an enormous, insurmountable wall. The protagonist of this half of the story has recently come to the area and settles in as the new Dreamreader in the town library while exploring the surrounding countryside.

Both the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are equally engaging as the reader becomes immersed in them and as curiosity builds concerning to how each world operates. Mysteries abound in either world, and the key to solving them lies at their intersection, which the reader suspects early on but whose full implications don’t become clear until much later in the story. Both protagonists are in mortal peril, from which they can escape only by solving the riddle of the two worlds. The hero of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland does this by dashing through sewers and abandoned subway lines, and the hero of the End of the World does this by strolling through the hills and woods, but both quests become increasingly urgent as their stakes become increasingly clear. One thing I appreciate about Murakami’s narrative style, however, is that his action is never non-stop. He gives his characters plenty of downtime to go about their daily lives, enjoy the worlds they live in, and interact with other characters on a casual basis. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World in particular is a perfect blend of modern realist novel and postmodern fantasy; and, even though it occasionally acknowledges genre conventions, it is never formulaic.

Another thing I appreciate about Murakami is his writing. He has an incredible ability to make mundane things interesting. For example, the protagonist of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland is in an elevator:

Every last thing about this elevator was worlds apart from the cheap die-cut job in my apartment building, scarcely one notch up the evolutionary scale from a well bucket. You’d never believe the two pieces of machinery had the same name and the same purpose. The two were pushing the outer limits conceivable as elevators.

He also makes mysterious and fantastical things mysterious and fantastical. For example, the protagonist of the End of the World introduces the existence of a herd of imaginary animals:

With the approach of autumn, a layer of long golden fur grows over their bodies. Golden in the purest sense of the word, with not the least interruption of another hue. Theirs is a gold that comes into this world as gold and exists in this world as gold. Poised between all heaven and earth, they stand steeped in gold.

Certainly, his stories are told from a male point of view…

Around young, beautiful, fat women, I am generally thrown into confusion. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because an image of their dietary habits naturally congeals in my mind. When I see a goodly sized woman, I have visions of her mopping up that last drop of cream sauce with bread, wolfing down that final sprig of watercress garnish from her plate. And once that happens, it’s like acid corroding metal: scenes of her eating spread through my head and I lose control.

…but both of the protagonists of this novel are male, so that’s only natural. Whether a male writer having his male characters speak from a male point of view is inherently sexist is open to debate, but I don’t think that’s particularly the case in this novel.

The idea that feminist writing is writing that resists the patriarchy and champions the cause of the weak, regardless of the anatomy of the body that performs that resistance, is a well-established argument that has its roots in the work of French feminists like Julia Kristeva and its branches in the tracts written by contemporary Japanese feminists like Ueno Chizuko. My own personal stance on the matter is that, in this light, Murakami can definitely be seen as a writer with a “feminist” agenda, as both protagonists of Hard-Boiled Wonderland are marginal and relatively powerless figures struggling against a much larger organization that directly references certain overtly patriarchal power structures in contemporary Japan. The ending of the novel severely complicates this resistance, but figuring out what the ending means in terms of politics and philosophy, as well what it personally means to you, gives it a great deal of impact.

To say that Hard-Boiled Wonderland is beautifully written and compelling from its very first pages to its very last is an understatement. It is simply a great novel, easily on par with masterpieces like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. I should also mention that Alfred Birnbaum has turned the book into one of the finest translations that I have ever had the pleasure to read. He captures the tone of Murakami’s style perfectly and renders it into English that is never bland and literal but always colorful and exciting. His translations of specific fantasy words, like “semiotics” (for kigōshi) and INKlings (for kurayami) are brilliantly creative.

In conclusion, I suppose that haters are going to hate and that critics are going to judge, but I personally agree with the overwhelmingly popular opinion that Murakami is one of the most interesting and important living international writers – and he’s also one of the most enjoyable to read. If you’ve never read him before and aren’t quite ready to commit to a six hundred page monster like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles or Kafka on the Shore, I think Hard-Boiled Wonderland is the perfect place to start.

Dance Dance Dance

dance-dance-dance

Title: Dance Dance Dance
Japanese Title: ダンス・ダンス・ダンス
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上春樹)
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Publication Year: 1994 (America); 1988 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 393

One of my favorite passages in Dance Dance Dance is the ending of one of the last chapters in the novel:

When I was little, I had this science book. There was a section on “What would happen to the world if there was no friction?” Answer: “Everything on earth would fly into space from the centrifugal force of revolution.” That was my mood.

Indeed, that is the mood of this entire novel, which is perhaps the strangest, most nihilistic, and most off-center Murakami novel I’ve read.

Dance Dance Dance is the sequel to Murakami’s popular 1982 novel A Wild Sheep Chase (羊をめぐる冒険). It concerns the unnamed narrator’s quest to return to the Dolphin Hotel and rescue his former girlfriend Kiki, who had disappeared at the end of A Wild Sheep Chase. Upon returning to Sapporo, the narrator finds that the old, run-down, mystery-haunted Dolphin Hotel of his memory has disappeared, and the Sheep Professor is nowhere to be found. A large, modern, high-class resort hotel, also called “The Dolphin Hotel,” has gone up in the same neighborhood, but the managers and staff claim to know nothing of the former hotel. One receptionist, however, responds the inquiries of narrator by telling him about a cold, pitch-black phantom floor at which the hotel’s elevator sometimes stops. In order to recover Kiki, and, in doing so, save the part of himself that had been damaged by the events in A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami’s protagonist attempts to pursue these mysteries, albeit in a somewhat half-hearted way.

Of course, this being Murakami, there are many side stories that need to be explored along the way. The narrator catches a glimpse of Kiki acting in a bit part in a high-school romance movie alongside an actor named Gotanda, who had been an acquaintance of the narrator in high school. This connection leads our protagonist to a series of misadventures with his former classmate, who has been accused of killing a call girl rented out by a mysterious organization. Also, during his first stay at the new Dolphin Hotel, the narrator encounters and befriends a thirteen-year-old girl named Yuki, who has for all intents and purposes been abandoned by her famous artist mother and her famous novelist father, who have their own ties to shady organizations. Yuki is charmingly cynical, one of her best lines being, “I don’t give a damn what people say. They can be reptile food for all I care,” and she leads the narrator all over Tokyo, Yokohama, Enoshima, and Hawaii.

Do these plot points ever come together? Are the mysteries presented by the novel ever solved? If you’re familiar with Murakami’s fiction, you can probably guess the answer.

Even though this novel is dark and rambling and bears very little thematic resemblance to A Wild Sheep Chase, it should be an interesting and enjoyable read for Murakami fans. Although Dance Dance Dance is only a loose sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, there are many things that don’t make sense without knowledge of the events of the previous novel. That being said, I also don’t think Dance Dance Dance should be read immediately after A Wild Sheep Chase, as it isn’t so much a sequel as an appropriation of characters and places for the purpose of creating an entirely different story. Alfred Birnbaum is, as always, a fantastic translator, and his rendition of Murakami’s prose makes this novel a fun, if somewhat gloomy, read.