Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Japanese Novel

Before mentioning my take on the first Japanese novel I have attempted to read (in a fine translation by Jay Rubin), I should mention that my habit of reading is not always conducive to  fiction. I tend to have two or three books going at the same time and dip into each of them for an hour or two, as the mood strikes.

When faced with a 600-page novel, as is the case with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, I must ask myself, What does it take to get me to complete this lengthy piece of fiction, an amusing, original concoction whose plot seems to go nowhere and whose characters talk a lot, at great length?

It takes, I find, the ability to sit still for long periods (which is not always easy). That is my function. The author's function, which in this case is mainly successful, is to stimulate and maintain my interest to forge ahead with a narrative that moves quickly but whose overall significance remains, at the half way point, unclear. It has to be more than about the search for a lost cat, which ostensibly occupies much of the initial action.

Strange, supernatural events occur here, a la magic realism, and neither the narrator nor the author seem to care whether they are real or imagined.  The narrator is a not uncommon postmodern creation: a thirty-something young man, passive and a bit lazy, a stay-at-home suburban Tokyo husband and unemployed lawyer who encounters a series of wacky, assertive females, most of whom assault him with a volley of words that seems unending, with descriptions that can be at times annoyingly repetitious, at times hilarious. One of them asks him, "tell me, have you got guts?"

"No, I was never one for guts. Not likely to change either."

Do I want to follow such a character through several dozen more escapades and exchanges, knowing he will remain, at the end of his urban odyssey, the same rootless young man we encounter on the first page when he is at home cooking spaghetti and listening to Rossini?

The first thing that struck me about the narrator and his world is how Westernized (Americanized) his Tokyo is, with its Dairy Queen hamburgers and a virtual absence of Japanese cultural references. I gather that Mr. Murakami is gently satirizing the loss of native culture in post-war Japan, where a certain bland boredom coexists with an unpredictability that the Coen brothers would appreciate.

The novelist has had many successes; and this book, from 1997, is his attempt at a "big novel," full of important ideas, yet the emphasis is on the mundane details that make up the world of Toru, his wife, her missing cat, and his weird female companions. Whether this Proustian attention to detail adds up to something significant depends on my ability to finish it.

So far, the main idea I have noticed is the difficulty, often the impossibility, of knowing one another. Love, as Flannery O'Connor once said, is the effort to understand the mysterious fellow creatures we encounter. Life is full of mysteries.

What else? What is real in the narrative, and what is imagined? Are the voices Toru hears on the radio real?  What do we make of the fantastic stories of World War II, as told by an amusing fortune teller: did they happen or are they fairy tales? More important is whether Toru, the passive narrator, will be able to understand his troubled wife and the other women who confront him as he drifts through Tokyo.

Do we, the readers, care?  The experience of reading a long novel has to involve more than being intrigued by a series of quirky characters.

I hope Toru meets a few shy people who, instead of being compulsive talkers, listen to him. I suspect I will not learn a great deal about Japan from him in the second half of the novel and that the missing cat will never be found. But then I could be in for another surprise in this novel of surprises.

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