Thursday, 29 September 2011

Murakami in Small Doses

It's been a very long wait for 1Q84 to be translated into English, but the moment is almost here when Haruki Murakami's latest work finally becomes available to those of us who are less than fluent in Japanese.  A reason why I am particularly looking forward to this event is that I have now completed my second full circle of the Japanese maestro's fiction.  That's right, I have now read all of Mr. Murakami's novels, novellas and short stories (at least) twice, with today's offering being the last one to receive this distinction...

The final step in this journey was Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a book which has no equivalent in Japanese.  It is actually a collection of various short stories which hadn't previously been published in English in any kind of collection.  The tales here vary in length from a few pages to mini-novellas, and represent all stages of Murakami's writing career, from early efforts to a twenty-first century collection of stories.

Within the large array of randomly-assorted stories, there are some noticeable similarities.  A number of them (e.g. A Perfect Day for Kangaroos, The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes) are brief, fantastic and (some might say) confusing vignettes, gone almost before they have really arrived.  Others (like Firefly and Man-Eating Cats) are stories which wouldn't leave the writer alone and which Murakami eventually expanded into novels.  A third group is formed by the final five stories in the collection, which were originally published as a separate collection in Japanese, entitled Tokyo Kitanshu (Strange Tales from Tokyo).

The stories abound with the usual Murakami themes.  We see multiple examples of the extraordinary in the ordinary, strange things happening to perfectly normal people.  A good example of this is A Poor Aunt Story, one of the first stories Murakami ever wrote, where one day a man realises he has a poor aunt permanently attached to his back - and goes about his life with her in tow...

In The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes, we are introduced to a successful snack food, whose quality is checked by some very unorthodox feathery workers, the first-person narrator being the only one who sees anything strange in these proceedings.  Another tale, The Seventh Man, puts us in the middle of a kind of group therapy session, where a man wearily recounts a haunting tale of a traumatic event from his childhood.  This frame narrative approach is actually quite common in this collection, and many of the stories are filtered through two or three voices.

Another common thread running through the stories is unexplainable ennui, where the writers describes with great care and attention the loneliness and unhappiness of people who shouldn't be unhappy.  In The Year of Spaghetti, a man cooks and eats a pasta-based meal every day for a year, in what turns out to be a sign of some deeper mental issue.  At the end of the tale, he tells the reader:
"Can you imagine how astonished the Italians would be if they knew that what they were exporting in 1971 was really loneliness?" p.223, Vintage (2007)
Another example of this is The Ice Man, a strange tale of a mixed marriage between a normal woman and... well, an ice man, which takes us all the way from Tokyo to the South Pole.  This allegory of a mistaken marriage shows the wife regretting her decision to marry a man whose heart is (literally) made of ice...

Murakami continually focuses on this kind of petty suburban tragedy, and many of his better stories have women as the main protagonists (unsurprising when you consider the relatively fixed gender roles that can exist in Japanese society).  In the final story in the collection,  A Shinagawa Monkey, another unhappy woman realises that:
"If her life were a movie, it would be one of those low-budget environmental documentaries guaranteed to put you to sleep." p.411
The stories in this collection are translated by Phillip Gabriel and the incomparable Jay Rubin.  As you can probably tell, my preference is for Rubin's style - although I really couldn't explain why (it may even have more to do with the stories they are translating than with the translators themselves).  Nevertheless, I always felt that Rubin did a better job of creating a seamless story, and (with the translator's name always coming at the very end of the story), I was surprisingly accurate at guessing who was on duty each time.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a great read and, of course, a must for any true Murakami fan.  However, I would have to say that I prefer afterthequake and The Elephant Vanishes.  This is partly owing to a slight lack of cohesion which the collection shows; there are, perhaps, too many stories for one collection, and they don't all gel.  This feeling is confirmed by the way the final five stories (all from Tokyo Kitanshu), which take up around 135 pages, appear much more cohesive, and do form a book within a book, even though Murakami claims in the introduction that:
"...they do not form a clear-cut, single unit as did the stories in afterthequake." pX (introduction)
Despite these small misgivings though, I enjoyed my brief journey around the great man's collection of odds and ends.  All that remains is to wait a few weeks until I can finally immerse myself in his latest work, which may, quite possibly, be the final convincing entry in his CV for a Nobel Prize.  Stranger things have happened (many of them in this collection!).

All that remains to be said is thank you for reading this review...

...and if anyone with an Advance Review Copy is looking for a Murakami fan to read and review 1Q84, you know where to find me ;)