Murakami: a great writer or only a novel maestro?
I read many articles and reviews about Murakami’s novels, and, of course, I read several books of this famous writer. Since the reviews are contrasting, passing from hyperbolic praises to melodramatic criticisms; since Murakami’s success is extraordinary; and I liked, I enjoyed “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle”, and not so much “Norwegian Wood” and “Kafka on the Shore”; I had to find a key to read “1Q84” with higher awareness, trying to deeply understand it, to better make sense of this ‘post-modern’ writer, and Murakami’s reasons of appeal.
So I read “1Q84” and, contemporaneously, “Life and Fate” by Vasilij Grossman, a book that I already read and that for me is a masterpiece. This mixture is arguable, I know, maybe misleading (blasphemous, unprofessional?), but for me useful because I needed to compare something that I recognised like a solid point of reference, so close to my cultural background, with that example of a new style, that impressive new way of writing.
In short, in Grossmann’s book there is a historical depth, a formidable cultural thickness, and a complicated human texture that fit perfectly with my enzymes – so for me it is easy to digest this book. In Murakami, there is no depth at all, only a perfect, flat present. While Grossmann touches deep sentiments and speaks about life and humanity, about the crucial events and movements that characterized the last century, strongly designing a world in which men are like leaves – and you sense the rough wind of history –, Murakami arouses curiosity, surprise and interest but always remaining on the surface. I used to be touched by several pages of Grossmann (and the entire book is moving, with a terrible sentiment of caducity); I admired, professionally admired reading the pages of Murakami. Impressed but surely not touched.
Grossmann is a poet; Murakami is a maestro, a precise architect who builds a perfect construction using all the available means for a splendid, post modern (I agree) piece. ‘Post modern’ because the story is beyond history, or rather, because it left history behind, without regret. His world stays inside a soap bubble, aseptic, divorced from reality. So it corresponds impeccably to the strange things that Murakami invents. Starting from the bottom, in fact, if you have to speak about “the Little People”, what stage do you utilize in the novel?
“… She was assigned to look after a blind goat. All the children in the community had work assignments. Though the goat was old, it had special meaning for the community, so the girl’s duty was to make sure that no harm came to it. She was not allowed to take her eyes off it for a second. One day, however, in a moment of carelessness, she did exactly that, and the goat died. As her punishment, the girl was put in total isolation for ten days, locked in an old storehouse with the goat’s corpse. The goat served as a passageway to this world for the Little People. The girl didn’t know whether the Little People were good or bad (and neither did Tengo). When night came, the Little People would enter this world through the corpse, and they would go back to the other side when dawn broke. The girl could speak with them. They taught her to make an air chrysalis…”
In this case, I think, you are forced to create a scene like that in one of the Manga cartoons, of course, not a Tolstoy’s or Grossmann’s one. The right stage is a world utterly aseptic, free from contamination caused by harmful historical bacteria, or other culturally devastating viruses. A new landscape, a Tokyo with two moons, in fact.
I have now to make two digressions. The first one concerns the language. I like Murakami also because he is so easy in his English, or rather: because the translation from his Japanese is easy. Speaking about similarity, the (English) language used by the Murakami’s translators looked like that one of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, just to make an example:
“… Long before you and I were born there reigned, in a country a great way off, a King who had three sons. This King once fell very ill, so ill that nobody thought he could live. His sons were very much grieved at their father’s sickness; and as they walked weeping in a garden of the palace, an old man met them and asked what they ailed. They told him their father was so ill that they were afraid nothing could save him…”
It is a language that fits with tales, so well coherent.
The second digression concerns the aspect of (strategic) positioning. I think that Murakami reaches his peak when he deals with ambivalence, in the middle of an indefinite scale. When he goes down the scale, detailing the world until then evoked, he risks becoming less effective.
“… Tsubasa slept with her cheek pressed against the pillow, her mouth slightly open… Soon her mouth began to open wider, and from it emerged, one after another, a small troupe of Little People. Each one carefully scanned the room before emerging… There were five of them altogether. When they first emerged, they were the size of Tsubasa’s little finger, but once they were fully on the outside, they would give themselves to their full one-foot height. They all wore the same clothing without distinguishing features, and their facial features were equally undistinguished, making it impossible to tell them apart. They climbed down from the bed to the floor, and from under the bed they pulled out an object about the size of a Chinese pork bun. Then they sat in a circle around the object and started feverishly working on it. It was white and highly elastic. They would stretch their arms out and, with practiced movements, pluck white, translucent threads out of the air, applying them to the fluffy, white object, making it bigger and bigger… ”
Frankly, these passages remind me of Richard Bachman/Stephen King’s novels.
On the other side, when Murakami goes up the scale and forgets ambivalence, as in “Norwegian Wood”, I think that he is not so agreeable. I know that “Norwegian Wood” is a cult in Japan, but for me the ’right Murakami’ is that of “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle”, where the ambivalence is treated with more brilliant pen and coherence, without bouncing up and down along the scale. Also in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle there is a passageway between this world and ‘the other side’, in the bottom of a well, but everything is more evoked than detailed and the background more stable and credible.
I was saying that history does not exist in “1Q84”, does not affect the world and the protagonists. It is only a mean used to complete the descriptions and to introduce the first protagonist of the novel, Aomame. Speaking about Murakami’s craft ability, I can recognise the following main elements:
Music. He would often use a sound track to give thickness to the story. In “Kafka on the Shore” it was Beethoven, specifically the Archduke Trio. In “1Q842 it is Janacek’s Sinfonietta. The music is good glue, it is universal and at the same time, being a classical one, elitist.
“… The music gave her an odd, wrenching kind of feeling. There was no pain or unpleasantness involved, just a sensation that all the elements of her body were being physically wrung out. Aomame had no idea what was going on. Could Sinfonietta actually be giving me this weird feeling?…”
Reading, you feel a bout of pride, being affiliated with this circle of people that listens to Janacek. Marketing, smart marketing (that arouses aspiration to participate, to be in) is one of the Murakami’s asset, starting from the titles that pay homage to Kafka, to the Beatles or to George Orwell, ok, and are valid keys to catch you.
“Janacek composed his little symphony in 1926. He originally wrote the opening as a fanfare for a gymnastic festival. Aomame imagined 1926 Czechoslovakia: The First World War had ended, and the country was freed from the long rule of the Hapsburg Dynasty. As they enjoyed the peaceful respite visiting central Europe, people drank Pilsner beer in cafés and manufactured handsome light machine guns. Two days earlier, in utter obscurity, Franz Kafka had left the world behind. Soon Hitler would come out of nowhere and…”
Even though I understand the goal of these phrases, what I feel reading them is a strong impression that Murakami is a brilliant marketing man and that he uses culture like an evident trick, a mean to obtain some result. Being his target young people, Manga readers, it is easy to impress them quoting Janacek, Hapsburg Dynasty, Kafka and Hitler. If I have to give thickness to a world divorced from reality, suspended in a limbo, a world that could be true science fiction in the end, I’d use those tools too, I agree with him. Nevertheless, to describe a country using “… people drank Pilsner beer in cafés and manufactured handsome light machine guns… ” is the proof that culture is not a gift.
History. As I said before, history here does not exist, is only a mean to anchor the account and to describe characters.
“… Listening to Janacek’s music, Aomame imagined the carefree winds sweeping across the plains of Boemia and thought about the vicissitudes of history… Aomame loved history as much as she loved sports. She rarely read fiction, but history books could keep her occupied for hours. What she liked about history was the way all its facts were linked with particular dates and places…”
In “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” there is a compelling story set in Mongolia, and the history of the war between Japan and Russia in the northern lands is well conveyed into the novel, is an essential part of the story. The stage of “1Q84” is rather different, more surreal.
Characters. They are one of Murakami’s points of strength, together with his extraordinary imagination. Not only the characters of the two protagonists, Aomame and Tengo, well developed across the novel, also of a multitude of people that come in the pages. Here one example:
“… The middle-aged driver didn’t seem to be listening very closely, either. With his mouth clamped shut, he stared straight ahead at the endless line of cars stretching out on the elevated expressway, like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents…”
So there is never superficiality in describing people, scenes and events, but attention and considerable care of particulars, detailed information that fit with Murakami’s craft philosophy, expressed I think in this phrase:
“… Think of it this way, Tengo. Your readers have seen the sky with one moon in it any number of times, right? But I doubt they’ve seen a sky with two moons in it side by side. When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you can eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen…”
My first conclusions are dubitative. Murakami is certainly a maestro. A great writer? Let’s wait for other evidences.