Thursday, 8 January 2015

'Almost Transparent Blue' by Ryū Murakami (Review)

While I was looking for a couple of Korean books in the University library recently, I accidentally stumbled upon something I hadn't noticed on previous visits - the rather larger Japanese section just around the corner.  With January in Japan coming up, I realised that this was a sign, so in addition to the two K-Lit books I took with me, I decided to get a couple of Japanese offerings too.  Today sees the first of these reviews, and while the source is new, the writer will be very familiar to regular readers of the blog ;)

I read my first Ryū Murakami book just in time for the first January in Japan event two years ago, and since then I've tried a few more, but one I've been meaning to try for some time is his debut work, Almost Transparent Blue (translated by Nancy Andrew).  A novella running to around 120 pages, Murakami's first publication won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1976, and it made waves in Japan with its shocking depiction of drug use and sexual freedom.  Even today, it can be a confronting read at times.

The book starts as it means to go on, with the first few pages not only introducing our narrator, nineteen-year-old Ryū, but also casually detailing group sex, violence, squalor and explicit drug use:
"Reiko pouted and glared at Okinawa as she took the leather thong and made a tight tourniquet around my left arm.  When I made a fist with my hand, a thick blood vessel stood out in my arm.  Okinawa rubbed the spot with alcohol two or three times before plunging the wet needle tip in toward the bulging vein.  When I opened my fist, blackish blood ran up into the cylinder.  Saying Heyheyhey, Okinawa coolly pushed the plunger, and the heroin and blood entered me all at once."
p.15 (Kodansha International, 1981)
From there, the story continues into a description of a life spiralling out of control as Ryu and his friends drift from one 'party' to another, the playthings of American soldiers, scorned by mainstream society - at times rightly so.

Ryū is an interesting character, a bisexual, crossdressing teen at the centre of a group of friends determined to make every moment of life count.  These are hedonistic times, and the friends are open to any and every experience, no matter how unsettling they might appear to the sensitive reader.  The orgy (or 'party') scenes are particularly strong at times, with some of the action verging on rape, even if the participants don't see it that way.

As the book progresses, Murakami widens the scope a little, and we see the group venturing into the outside world of 'normal' society.  This then develops into a clash of cultures, where the drugged-up youths disturb the daily routines of the mainstream citizens, vomiting on trains and scaring schoolchildren out on an excursion.  However, when police burst in on them, we see that in truth they're just a gang of overgrown kids, hiding away from the real world.

Almost Transparent Blue is written in the form of short chapters which, while chronologically in order, appear disjointed and discrete, each an experience in its own right.  While they depict people living for the moment, the reality is that there doesn't appear to be much joy involved; often, the scenes seem mechanical, numb, emotionless.  This is a look at the lost boys (and girls) of a rebellious generation, a group of young people reliant on each other, scared about what's on the other side of their crazy years.

One of the first characters Ryū encounters in the book is Lilly, a prostitute, one of the more grounded characters in the story.  The scenes in her bedroom are the calm amongst the storms, a chance for Ryū to centre himself.  In fact, he's a contemplative soul, teased by the others for his ability to withdraw when he wants to:
     "Well, you mean with Acid?  You'll experiment with stuff like that?  I don't get what you want to do."
     "Yeah, I don't get it myself, I don't really know what I should do.  But I'm not going to go to India or anything like that, nowhere I want to go, really.  These days, you know, I look out the window, all by myself.  Yeah, I look out a lot, the rain and the birds, you know, and the people just walking on the street.  If you look a long time, it's really interesting, that's what I mean by looking around.  I don't know why, but these things really look new to me."
     "Don't talk like an old man, Ryū, saying things look new is a sign of old age, you know." (pp.97/8)
Ryū is definitely a little different to some of his friends - we do wonder though whether he'll be able to come out of the whirlpool of hedonism with soul and body intact...

The intriguing title comes from a scene near the end of the book, one in which Ryū sees a broken shard of glance and marvels at the colours he can see in it.  As he walks towards his apartment at the start of a new day, there's a sense that this is his opportunity to turn things around.  By this time, though, it might already be too late for our impressionistic young friend.  Having come too close to the eye of the storm, it's going to take a major effort to make his way out again.

Almost Transparent Blue isn't for everyone, but it's an excellent (quick) read and a shock to the system - little wonder that it stood out on its publication.  Murakami's novella is a window into a world most of us will never be a part of, and in many ways the choice of the author's own name for his central character is apt.  Ryū is our ticket into the chaos of the scenes depicted in the book; while following him through the streets of Tokyo, we feel that we are being sucked into the hedonistic world of the sixties... I said, this won't be to everyone's tastes ;)