Manazuru

Title: Manazuru
Japanese Title: 真鶴 (まなづる)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上弘美)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 218

To return to the issue of sexism in literature (hopefully for the last time before laying it temporarily to rest), I think that, even as a book written by a man should not be automatically dismissed as sexist, so should a book written by a woman not be lauded simply because it was written by a woman. Take Manazuru, for instance. I love Kawakami Hiromi. For example, I think her 1998 collection of short stories, Kami-sama, was an imminently enjoyable exercise in magical realism, successful not only in its popular appeal but also in its critical reception. Her 1996 debut novel, Hebi o fumu, easily deserved all of the attention (like the Akutagawa Prize) that it won. Manazuru, on the other hand, is just plain boring.

The premise of the novel seems promising. Its protagonist is a writer named Kei, who lives in Tokyo with her mother and teenaged daughter. Her husband vanished twelve years ago, and now Kei finds herself inexplicably drawn to the seaside town of Manazuru. She is lead not only by her intuition but also by the ghost of a woman who occasionally appears and has conversations with her, albeit in a mostly antagonistic and cryptic way. Even though Kei is having an affair with a married man, she is still haunted by the memory of her husband, and she believes the key to his disappearance lies somewhere in Manazuru. Meanwhile, her daughter starts spending more and more time outside of the house, finally running away to meet someone whose identity she will not reveal. From this description, it would seem that several mysteries are afoot, each as compelling as the next.

Unfortunately, Manazuru is not the least bit interested in resolving any of these mysteries. What happened to Kei’s husband? We never find out. Who is the ghost that follows Kei around? We never find out. Who did the daughter run away with? We never find out. Answers are suggested in Kei’s garbled stream of consciousness narration, but then they are just as quickly dismissed. Did Kei kill her husband? Is the ghost that follows her around her husband’s dead lover? Did Kei’s daughter meet the ghost of her father? Maybe… But probably not.

In Manazuru’s defense, its plot is not its raison d’être. Its focus instead lies in the depiction of the mind of its protagonist in all of its complexity and confusion. Kei does not seem to know what she wants but is still searching for something, all the while immaculately and poetically detailing her experiences of drifting through life. Her thoughts give weight and meaning to the mundane, and she turns activities like riding the train into an art. Most of the novel is concerned with the details of her everyday life, like putting away her family’s winter clothes with her mother:

Handling so many different fabrics, heavy clothes, light clothes, makes my palms feel silky. I rise quietly, take the folded material from here to there. Bend down, lay it in a box. Fabric brushing against fabric, making the merest sound. Two women, one getting on in years, one starting to get on in years, pacing among the fabrics. With the tips of my fingers, I tear off the paper tag the cleaners stapled to the label last year. Replace the paper that lines the drawer, fold the old paper, throw it out. Straighten the new paper in the drawer, pile in the different materials, layer upon layer.

The same attention to style and detail is carried over into more dramatic moments, such as when Kei wanders around Manazuru, lead by a ghost in the middle of a storm. Such a narrative style drains such scenes of any sense of urgency, however, especially since Kei never seems to accomplish anything. The back of the book describes the novel as “a meditation on memory – a profound, precisely delineated exploration of the relationships between lovers and family members.” Indeed, if you’re into contemplative prose about the love and family lives of women, I suppose it doesn’t get much better than Manazuru.

Even if the front of the book didn’t declare it a “Recipient of the 2010 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature,” I think I still might have gotten the feeling that this book was published because of its close proximity to the stereotype of Japanese women’s writing: meandering novellas about the feelings of women who pay more attention than is absolutely necessary to flowers, plants, and the changing seasons. Kawakami has written work that is playful, creative, and fiercely intelligent. I wonder, then, why such a very very serious and very very emotional and very very “literary” (in a very, very outdated sense of the word) book of hers is the first to appear in English translation. Michael Emmerich is a brilliant translator, as always; but, after his 2009 translation of Matsuura Rieko’s wonderfully subversive The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, I feel that his talent has been somewhat wasted with a boring and rather vacuous book like Manazuru.

To return to the issue of fiction and gender, I was thinking about creating a new category for my reviews: “Women Writers.” However, reading Manazuru has convinced me that a writer should not be judged according to his or her gender; and, furthermore, that the reification of the gender of an author is not something I particularly wish to engage in and perpetuate. For the time being, then, I am going to hold off on the creation of this category and allow female writers to stand on equal ground with their male counterparts without being branded as “Women Writers” and having to bear all the cultural baggage that comes with the label.

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.