Monday, 28 January 2013

'Coin Locker Babies' by Ryu Murakami (Review)

Pushkin Press, one of my favourite publishers, is well known for its European fiction, but (alas) it hasn't had any J-Lit on its books - that is, until now.  You see, in 2013 Pushkin is going Japanese by bringing out four books from J-Lit bad boy Ryu Murakami.  As you can tell from my picture, they won't be out for a while yet, but if this first taste is anything to go by, they'll be worth the wait :)

Coin Locker Babies (translated by Stephen Snyder) gets off to an explosive start.  A woman leaves an unwanted baby in a train station coin locker in Tokyo, but the boy is luckily found before he comes to too much harm.  The officials name him Kikuyuki, and he is sent off to an orphanage where he eventually becomes friends with Hashio, the only other of that summer's coin locker babies to survive.

Kiku and Hashi become inseparable, but after Hashi displays some unusual behaviour, the two boys are packed off to see a psychiatrist.  His unorthodox techniques have short-term benefits, but the two boys are destined to have trouble later in life.  Kiku takes up athletics in an attempt to control his latent anger while Hashi's way of coping with reality, one he adopts after running away to Tokyo, is slightly more glamorous...

Coin Locker Babies is a bleak look at what happens when you have a bad start in life.  Kiku and Hashi, rejected by an uncaring society, grow up to plan revenge for its negligence.  While Hashi is at times suicidal and full of self-loathing, the enigmatic Kiku is slightly more homicidal, hatching a secret plan to take revenge on the city that spawned him.  Ever heard of DATURA?  No?  Well, that's probably for the best ;)

A very unfamiliar city it is too.  While the usual bright lights of the metropolis are there, Murakami invents a new area of Tokyo.  Toxitown is an abandoned quarter, a chemical waste dump surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and government security officers with automatic weapons.  However, it's far from impossible to get in, and once you do, you find yourself in a parallel society where anything is possible.  Sex, drugs, rock and roll and casual violence - for a pair of messed up kids with a death wish, it's just like coming home.

It's hard to avoid comparisons with a certain other Japanese writer, and not just because of the nameThe two Murakamis were born just a few years apart and burst onto the literary scene around the same time.  Both write books about people who feel alienated from Japanese society - but the similarities stop there.  While Haruki writes fairytale fantasies, Ryu's tales (on the strength of this one) are decidedly more Grimm.  Haruki's characters exist on the margins of respectable life; Ryu's live deep in the alternative underground world.  Haruki's creations are trying to cope with society, but Ryu's are attempting to destroy it...

Coin Locker Babies is a great story, a 500-page novel which avoids the usual quaint J-Lit clichés and takes a good hard look at the underbelly of Japanese society.  There are no tea ceremonies or beautiful gardens here - it's urban sprawl for most of the way.  As Hashi muses:
"From outer space, Tokyo must look like a big, bright blob with no place to hide from the light.  It seemed to penetrate every barrier, the smokiest glass, the thickest membrane, to find its way into every corner of every room, every nook and cranny, every bird's nest and beehive.  There was nowhere to run, nowhere they couldn't find you by your shadow."
p.70 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Kiku eventually ends up down in Okinawa, swapping the urban jungle for the real thing, but no matter how hard the two boys try, they can't escape their fate.  Despite all apparent progress, they are still trapped in a prison of sorts:
"Nothing had changed, not one thing - not since he'd let out that first scream in the coin locker.  The locker was bigger, maybe; the new one had a pool and gardens, with a band, people wandering about half-naked, and you could keep pets - yes, this one had all kinds of shit: museums, movie theatres, and mental hospitals - but it was still a huge coin locker, and no matter how many layers of camouflage you had to dig through if you felt like digging, in the end you still ran up against a wall." p.400
Don't expect a happy ending...

To finish off, I thought I'd just let you know of Pushkin's plans for Ryu Murakami in 2013.  They will be releasing four of his novels in May (currently scheduled for 9/5/2013).  This one, 69 and Popular Hits of the Showa Era are all rereleases of previous translations, but From the Fatherland with Love is being published in an English translation for the very first time.  Whether you're a fan or not, this is great news for J-Lit lovers (and a welcome new direction for Pushkin Press)...'ll have to wait a few months to get your copies though ;)