essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Shinchosa 1994/5, Knopf 1997) “translated and adapted from the Japanese by Jay Rubin with the participation of the author” (i.e. some text has been cut and some chapters transposed) is a watershed in Haruki Murakami’s career and his eighth novel. The book is 610 pages, divided into three parts. The wind up bird is a migrating bird whose call is heard frequently by the narrator Toru, a peculiar grating sound like someone winding up a clock.
We meet Toru Okada, an out of work legal clerk, and his wife Kumiko, an editor and designer for a health magazine. Toru has lost his cat. Searching for it, and then for his missing wife, Toru encounters a number of individuals, and each tells his or her story.
The terrible part three
I have to confess I found the first two parts as engaging as any Murakami novel I’ve read, but the whole of the third part somehow disordered and quite boring. Reading part three was a bit reminiscent of reading a supernatural thriller by Dennis Wheatley (a best selling but reactionary 30s author of the occult and the supernatural). Part three in fact reads as though written by someone else than the author of the first two parts of the book, someone who takes everything seriously and is not a very good writer. Gone is the slightly off the wall whimsicality that informed the first two parts (and which adds considerable charm to Murakami’s other books).
Notable also is that the characters who populate the first two parts of the book are largely absent from the third part, and so elements of the plot are abandoned as well. These loose ends are a characteristic of Murakami’s next two books, especially Kafka on the Shore. In part three of Wind Up Bird new characters are introduced who seem to repeat the actions of those of the first two parts. It looks almost as if Murakami found an earlier, abandoned draft of his book and added it to a later, more skilled telling of the tale as a discordant part three.
As an example, the first part introduces Kumiko, Toru’s wife. They have a close and loving relationship, but something seems wrong, and Kumiko leaves. She says she has been unfaithful, something she had no control over. In part three of the book this matter is given a different slant: we learn that Kumiko has been taken over and “defiled” by her brother, the evil politician Noboru Wataya, and that now she must for some reason kill him. Toru has fought and defeated Noboru in a dream, and Kumiko visits her brother in hospital and disconnects his life support system, then confesses and stands trial for murder. Relationship drama morphs into supernatural melodrama.
Again, the sisters Malta and Creta, who have mysterious powers and help Toru in the first part, Creta (who has also been defiled by Noboru) taking on some of the identity (for unknown reasons) of the missing Kumiko in the second part, disappear entirely in the third part, after a lot of build up describing their oddball formality of social contact with Toru and strange retro costume and makeup. They are replaced in part three with two other characters with supernatural powers, a woman named Nutmeg and her son, who doesn’t speak, Cinnamon, who perform mysterious actions to help Toru, by running a profitable company which somehow opposes the evil Noboru.
May Kasahara, a 16 year old neighbour with a social adjustment problem who befriends Toru in the first part, and tries for some reason to kill him in the second part, is physically absent in the third part, but sends a number of mundane letters filled with commonplaces (which Toru never receives).
The telephone sex operator who opens the book is never heard from again, except for a vague suggestion in the third part she might be Kumiko. I wish Murakami would go back and write the real part three, so we could find out more about the people in parts one and two. He can hold off on the Dan Brown rip off of the present part three.
What seems characteristics of Murakami’s writing are the prevailing themes, seen here and elsewhere. For example in Kafka on the Shore the story is told by a boy whose mother has abandoned him; Sputnik Sweetheart is a tale told by a man whose lover has mysteriously disappeared into the fourth dimension; and in Wind Up Bird Chronicle a man recounts what happened to him after his wife left him.
In Kafka the hero meets a woman with mysterious powers who wrote a song about him and may be his mother, and who has a mysterious bisexual attendant who acts as guide and mentor; in Sputnik Sweetheart a traumatised woman with mysterious powers is the catalyst for the disappearance of the hero’s lover, and that lover has a mysterious connection both with her and the hero; in Wind Up Bird Chronicle there are not one but two sets of characters with mysterious powers (Creta and Malta of parts one and two and Nutmeg and Cinnamon of part three) who guide and help the hero as he searches for his wife.
Sputnik Sweetheart is shorter than the other two because there is no elaboration; Kafka is twice as long as that title because there is a parallel plot about the adventures of a man with mysterious powers unrelated to the main plot; Wind Up Bird has a series of short stories incorporated in the narrative as various characters are introduced and tell their tales, none of which is connected to the main narrative, and the text is as long as the first two novels combined.
There seems to be this pattern for your basic Murakami book. Hero/narrator is abandoned by woman, and meets another woman with mysterious powers who helps him by revealing mysterious supernatural events of undefined meaning. Exit pursued by a bear.
What Wind Up Bird Chronicle doesn’t do, despite the publisher’s blurb, is deal with the role of Japan in the second world war. “An investigation of painfully suppressed memories of war…a mesmerising saga of personal conscience and the power of history”, says the publisher. What Murakami gives in parts one and two is the long story of Lieutenant Mamiya, who meets Toru when delivering a keepsake from a fortune teller Toru has consulted. This tale is set in Mongolia at the end of the war, and concerns a Mongol tribesman with the unpleasant habit of skinning men alive. The Russian officer in charge of a foray to capture a spy and who employs this monster is revealed In part three as a monster himself, in charge of a Japanese POW camp, and far from the cultivated and sensitive man he was first depicted as in parts one and two. We then hear Nutmeg’s story, of a refugee transport containing women and children which is threatened by an American submarine, which then sails away when news of the surrender of Japan reaches the sub. And thirdly we hear about the evacuating army’s attempt to destroy dangerous animals in a zoo so they will not harm civilians. These are all stories about the war, and more interesting than other stories and events mentioned in part three of the book, but hardly live up to the rhetoric of the publisher’s blurb.
Perhaps the prevailing literary form of the present time is the detective story. It is commercially attractive to publishers (and film makers), easy to follow and sometimes thrilling, and can carry a lot of ‘literary’ baggage such as metaphysical speculation. If you want to be successful as an author write a metaphysical detective story. Raymond Chandler passed on a bit of advice about writing these stories he got from his editor at The Black Mask: when things were getting dull, have a man come in the door with a gun. Or perhaps, have a puzzling and mysterious supernatural event occur and never mind about the plot. I wonder if that explains the other seemingly typical characteristic of a Murakami novel: the mysterious disappearing plot and or character: très postmodern.
A sheepish tale
A Wild Sheep Chase (Kodansha International 1989, Penguin 1990), an accurately titled book translated ably by Alfred Birnbaum (judging for instance by the humour with which passages satirising metaphysical speculation are rendered) is Murakami’s third and first successful novel in terms of sales. It challenges our sheepist assumptions by positing an evil and malicious sheep as villain.
It is a good introduction to his work in terms of both structure and treatment. I enjoyed reading it a second time, though I didn’t find it a riveting experience; rather like paging through a mediocre thriller.
The novel begins in what would become a typical (I mean repeated) way, with the introduction of the hero/narrator and the story of how he lost not one but three women. The first was an ex lover of his student days who believed she would die at 25, and did; the second was his ex wife, who divorced him about the time he read of his student lover’s death; and the third was his current girlfriend, who moves him passionately because of her ears. This third woman disappears suddenly in a snow bound isolated cabin on a mountain during winter at the mid point of the story. All three women have nothing to do with the plot of the novel and make up the matter of the first few chapters before being forgotten about. This is also to become a typical Murakami construction.
The story is indeed about a sheep. A mysterious sheep with supernatural powers able to take over individuals and possess them, like an alien on steroids. We never quite learn why. First the sheep takes over a ‘sheep professor’ living in a remote part of Hokkaido and causing him to obsess about sheep. Then it switches to a local right wing politician who under its influence becomes a major power in Japanese affairs in a behind the scenes way, a kind of Big Brother responsible for all kinds of evil. Then the sheep attempts to take over the hero’s friend, known as the Rat, then living in the same part of remote Hokkaido. We don’t know just why its powers only work in Hokkaido. The plot requires it I suppose.
How an evil, supernatural sheep who possesses humans appears in Japanese I have no idea. In English it seems a weird, off kilter spoof that falls a bit flat. But the publisher quotes critics who were entranced by the book.
The book is obviously influenced by the American hard boiled detective story. Its hero is a down beat cynical loser who manages to stay abreast of the clues and follow them up so as to emerge victorious, even though the book ends, “I brushed the sand from my trousers and got up, as if I had somewhere to go”.
As the story develops we meet the hero’s cat, called, eventually, Kipper. It originally had no name, but we get to discuss why cats should have names, as well as learn a lot on how to care for cats. We meet the usual cast of Murakami eccentrics, and read a lengthy travelogue about the history of a place called Junitaki, from a book called An Authoritative History of Junitaki Township. And we learn about old friends of the narrator, one called the Rat, another a Chinese who runs a bar and is known as J. These two are characters from earlier books by Murakami. The Rat in Sheep Chase is the catalyst of the action.
So there you have it. An evil dictator menacing the hero; a race to find the evil sheep causing all the trouble; the villains outwitted by the Rat with the help of the book’s narrator; and the hero, who gives his fee away to his friend J, is left alone at the end. Back to Tokyo for another adventure perhaps.
A Wild Sheep Chase is funny in parts, weird in others, parodies the hell out of the detective story genre, and, for me, was yet a bit on the dull side. Perhaps I spent too much time wondering what happened to the lady with the ears. Most (American) critics think Murakami is good because his novels are populated with people who seem almost American, and there is “not a kimono in sight” (i.e. a good buy for American readers). I think him interesting in showing Japan post WWII, when a great traditional culture has been ‘defiled’ with elements of American junk culture, and something necessarily postmodern has been created and must be coped with.
So there I was, four Murakami books revisited, two a bit disappointing, two fascinating. And there are two books Murakami has published since Kafka on the Shore. I wonder…
Murakami can write sentimentally, as he does in Norwegian Wood. He can write obscure and confused supernatural thrillers in the manner of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, as he ends up doing with Wind Up Bird Chronicle (which has as much relationship to history as the Da Vinci Code‘s pseudo research into ‘concealed’ Christian history). And he can write clever tales about ordinary men with existential problems, marked by hip references to music, food and trendy literary models, as he does with Sputnik Sweetheart and possibly A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami’s first successful novel, his third. We don’t really know yet how Murakami will last, as most of what we read about him is advertising copy designed to sell his books. I bet most of his readers, most of whom probably buy every book he writes, only like a few of them. Will he end up in critical estimation as another Barbara Cartland or Harold Robbins (both with sales over one billion but not much else to recommend them), or as a more significant writer?
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.