Monday, 10 June 2013

'Sixty-Nine' by Ryu Murakami (Review)

Today marks the third stop on my Ryu Murakami tour, and it's time to get away from the capital.  This time we're on the southern island of Kyushu, with a schoolkid who just wants to have fun.  Oh, and we're heading back to the sixties...

Sixty-Nine (translated by Ralph McCarthy, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) is the story of a year in the life of writer Kensuke Yazaki.  At the ripe of old age of thirty-two, he is looking back to his final year of high school in 1969, a time of music, free love and university demonstrations.  Well, in Tokyo perhaps - things are a little different in the provincial town of Sasebo...

Stuck in a small town miles from anywhere, where the only people having fun are the sailors on the US navy base, Ken wants to rebel and comes up with a couple of crazy ideas.  His first plan, a barricade of the school, brings him a certain notoriety, and he then decides that what Sasebo really needs is an arts festival, a celebration of all things cultural (it is the sixties, after all).  He has little clue how to do it all, but he is definitely of the 'if you plan it, they will come' school of thought.  Ken is a young firebrand, a rebel with a cause - the cause just happens to be impressing the beautiful Kazuko Matsui...

Sixty-Nine is a great read.  It's hugely entertaining, very funny in parts, a reminder that our school years weren't quite as bad as we sometimes imagine them.  While the writing occasionally slips into teen fiction, there's always a little more beneath the surface (and Murakami is most definitely an adult writer...).  The story takes us back to the end of the sixties in the sticks, where the kids are desperately trying to imitate what they think is happening in major world centres.

The centre of the book is the character of Ken, and he's the best one Murakami has come up with in the three books I've read so far.  He's brilliantly selfish, completely shallow - and yet he's an irrestible, loveable kid.  Typically hormone-driven, his mad quixotic plans are fuelled by lust, and he'll run any risk (and offend any onlooker) in an attempt to impress the object of his desire.  Cast her in the lead role of his play?  No worries.  Steal a friend's LP to 'lend' to his potential girlfriend?  Done ;)

He's also fairly clever and more than a little sardonic, constantly suckering the reader into believing his tall tales before pulling the rug out from under their feet:
"The winter I turned sixteen I'd run away from home.  My reason for doing so was that I'd perceived a fundamental contradiction in the entire examination system and wanted to get away from my home and school and out on the streets in order to better think about this and to ponder the significance of the struggle that had developed that year between the student radicals and the aircraft carrier 'Enterprise'.  Sorry.  That's not exactly true.  The truth is that I didn't want to take part in a long-distance race at school.  Long-distance running had always been a weak point with me.  I'd hated it ever since junior high school.  Now that I'm thirty-two and wiser, of course, I still hate it."
p.21 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
However, he's not quite as all-knowing as he claims; he's good at talking the talk, but he doesn't always walk the walk (he knows a lot of books, but he's never read them...)

His energy gets things done though.  It's the old miracle of youth - Ken walks through fire and somehow always comes out unscathed, whether he's up against school teachers, political groups or hulking schoolboys with big wooden swords.  While his friends Adama and Iwase help sort out the logistics, it's Ken who is the big thinker, the one who always comes up with the vision (usually an impressive one).

While Sixty-Nine is essentially a humorous book, there are some serious moments.  Ken's rebellion often comes from his libido, but it has a serious side too.  He is rebelling against a stifling world order as he doesn't want to become another drone, and this leads him to question the filtering system Japan's education department uses.  In a world where adults are the enemy, any support is welcome:
"I felt tears brimming up.  Ever since the bust, we'd been under constant attack from adults.  My father was the first to offer any sort of encouragement.
     "If the revolution comes, you boys could end up being heroes, and the principal could be the one hanging from a rope.  That's the way these things go."
     He started waving the sparklers around again.  Sparklers burn themselves out in no time at all...
     But they're beautiful." (pp.106/7)
It's a touching moment, one of several which pop up unexpectedly throughout the story.

At times though, Sixty-Nine is just plain funny.  The chapter on the school barricade is a great one, even if it does descend into toilet humour at one point (and I chose those words very carefully...).  Other scenes are just, well... judge for yourself:
"Whatcha gonna do with 'em?" said the man who ran the place as we walked around inside.  He was a small, bald, middle-aged guy who looked exactly as you'd expect a chicken farmer to look.
     "We're going to use them in a play."
     "A play?  What is it, a play about a poultry farmer?"
     "No, it's by Shakespeare.  And there's just no way to stage it without chickens." (p.170)
Chickens - just priceless...

The novel is typical R. Murakami style, but much lighter than the previous two I've read.  Whether you're into heavy literature or pulp fiction, you'll love it, and you'll be hoping Ken can pull off a miracle and make the festival a success (and get the girl to boot!).

See - he can write a novel without destroying Tokyo ;)

"Ryu Murakami has no connection with Haruki Murakami"
This sentence comes from a press release that came with my copy of From the Fatherland, with Love (a book I'll getting to fairly soon), and I can understand how poor Ryu must be sick of the questions and comparisons ;)  But...

...a few things struck me after finishing the book.  Let's compare Sixty-Nine with one of H. Murakami's most famous works...

Norwegian Wood was published in 1987, but was set in the late 1960s.
Sixty- Nine was published in 1987, but was set in 1969.

In Norwegian Wood, a loner reads books, avoids political events, and drifts into sex with nice girls.
In Sixty-Nine, a gregarious school-kid pretends to have read books, makes things happen, and chases impossibly gorgeous girls.

Perhaps that sums up the similarities and differences better than any essay ever could ;)
But if you want more sweeping generalisations...

This is Toru Watanabe:

This is Kensuke Yazaki:

And do you know what?  There's room for both in this world ;)