Friday, 7 January 2011

It's All In the Mind

As a Murakami fan who has read virtually all of his fiction, I have frequently been asked for recommendations as to a good starter Murakami book, and I have given various answers: Norwegian Wood (his most 'normal' work); The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (perhaps his best novel); Hear The Wind Sing (often good to start right at the beginning, even if it is a difficult book to source outside Japan); after the quake (a short collection of stories, a good Murakami 'taster', and the one I read first).

One book I have never recommended as a good first Murakami book, however, is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, and after rereading this novel for the start of my Murakami challenge, I'm not about to change my mind.  Would you like to know why?  Step this way (watch out for the wells, and don't trip over the cats...).

Hard-Boiled Wonderland... is a story told in two alternating strands.  The first follows a man described as a Calcutec, a government agent responsible for encrypting top-secret data in his head, and the slightly bizarre adventures which he falls into after completing a routine job.  The second is set in a mystical town, surrounded by an impenetrable wall, where unicorns roam the streets and where nobody has any memory of how they got there.  As the story progresses, the two strands gradually start to throw up parallels, before the reader realises how the stories are connected and what the town actually represents.

As well as differing in content, the two halves are also differentiated by the language used.  Alfred Birnbaum translates these genre differences by setting out the events in the Town in the present tense and using more neutral language, thus creating a sense of distance.  The story set in the real world (although that is a very arbitrary judgement in Murakami's writing) uses a lot more colloquial language, with some characters speaking in slang or regional dialect, with the idea translated from Japanese to English by the use of (I presume) American slang.

Without giving too much away, Murakami is looking, as usual, at identity and individuality, and the way what makes us ourselves is locked away inside our mind, unreachable and unknown.  As is common in his novels, none of the characters are named, and this adds to the feeling of anonymity and isolation.  At times, it can be a little down-beat and depressing, but by the end Murakami gives his character enough individual traits to make him interesting.  For anyone interested (and with access to academic databases), I recently read an interesting journal article** about the meaning behind Murakami's work - warning: not for those allergic to the prose of academia :)

Hard-Boiled Wonderland... is an intriguing book, a little different to his other novels, but well crafted and definitely worth reading.  So why am I so hesitant to recommend it to beginner Murakami fans?  Well, there are a few things which make this less than perfect.  One is Alfred Birnbaum's translation and, perhaps, the editing.  While Murakami's writing style is influenced by many American writers, Birnbaum's translation overdoes this; compared to later translators (Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel), Birnbaum doesn't capture the smoothness you expect from Murakami, and there were a few sentences which simply did not make sense to me.  Also, I noticed several glaring editing errors (repetition of words, 'is/are' missing) - I think that later books were handled with a lot more care.

This book is also a little difficult as it is at the far end of the Murakami spectrum.  With Norwegian Wood being his most 'normal' novel, and many of the others being slightly left of centre, Hard-Boiled Wonderland... is virtually a fantasy novel at times, a little un-Murakami-like.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I don't think that this book would give a first-time reader a true impression of his writing.  There's also a huge info-dump in the middle, lasting two of the real-world strand chapters, which just feels long and clumsy.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which also uses this multiple-strand technique, achieves this much more skilfully, making the clumsy handling here even more glaring.

Don't let me put you off reading this book - it's great in places, and I really enjoyed the start and the end, where the writer slows the action down and makes us concentrate on the little things in life, sifting through what is really important.  It's just not his best, and definitely not the gateway to enjoying Murakami.  Disagreement and complaints to the usual address :)

** Strecher, M. (1999). Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki.  Journal of Japanese Studies, 25(2),  263-298