Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reviews: Haruki Murakami: Wood Kafka

One of the side effects to teaching English to adults is that you're exposed to a wider variety of pop culture and interests than normal, and if you want to hold a conversation with your students, you need to have at least a passing understanding of the more well-known writers, directors and musicians. So far, I've compiled a list of about 10 authors that have come up in the lessons more than once, and of that list I've been able to read English versions of novels from Edogawa Rampo, Miyuki Miyabe and Kido Okamoto. Recently, I received books from Haruki Murakami and Sakyo Komatsu. I'll write about Komatsu later.

Haruki Murakami is probably one of the better-known modern novelists in Japan today. He recently published "1Q84" and although the only advance information regarding the book was the title, it sold out in the first day, and hit 1 million copies within a month.

It's hard to make general blanket statements about a writer based on only two of his books, but there are a couple similarities that surface that might be considered part of a larger web.

(Image from Amazon, used for review purposes only. Click to go to the Amazon page.)

"Kafka on the Shore", (2002, English translation 2005 by Philip Gabriel), is a symbolic fantasy set in modern Japan, starting out in Tokyo and moving down to the island of Shikoku. 15-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from his home in an area west of Shinjuku, Tokyo, for reasons that are mostly just hinted at. Kafka tells us that his father was abusive, but we're never told in what way or given examples. Kafka is occasionally accompanied by "the boy named Crow", who may or may not be a shape-shifting crow, or just an "imaginary friend". At the same time, the mentally-challenged cat whisperer Satoru Nakata discovers himself being drawn into a plot to create a destructive huge flute out of the souls of murdered cats. Kafka runs to Shikoku, where he settles into a private library operated by the flawed Oshima and the scarred Miss Saeki. It looks like Miss Saeki had opened a door to a mysterious world of creativity when she was younger, one that Nakata must close, and that Kafka may disappear into forever.

A major theme in "Kafka" is that of two people joined to form a larger whole, essentially soul mates that get separated and spend the rest of their time trying to reunite. These soul mates can be male-male, male-female, or female-female pairs, where each person contains properties missing from the other. Each of our major characters are lurching forward to a confrontation that will resolve their current lack of their other halves.

Another theme is that of the importance of memories. Memories in the form of remembered past experiences, written diaries, recorded song lyrics, and so on. And how having these memories, or not having them, shapes us. A third theme is sex, and how sex can be symbolic as well as a simple physical activity.

Murakami is big on dropping references, from the names of modern pop musicians, to ancient Greek playwrights and various philosophers in between. But, he doesn't go into a lot of details regarding these sources, expecting the reader to either already be familiar with them, or to research them on your own. He also throws out a lot of Japanese place names without giving much description of them. Granted, his original audience lives in Japan and is likely to be familiar with many of these places, but to readers from other countries, these are just disassociated names with no sense of place or culture. Since I have been to some of the locations in Tokyo, such as Shinjuku and Nakano, I knew what he was talking about, but the general western reader is probably going to feel lost without at least having a map in front of them.

In the end, there are as many unresolved loose ends as there are solid conclusions, Murakami has said that the only way to really understand "Kafka" is to read it multiple times. But, this is a book where it's up to the reader to decide for themselves what things like "Johnny Walker", "Colonel Sanders" and "the rain of leeches" are really supposed to mean. What is Kafka really running from, and why is it important that he be the one that gets saved?

I've written before about the importance of the translator for Japanese authors, and "Kafka" is no exception. The book starts out with a string of wooden cliches and never really gets out of that rut. Given the option, I'd suggest reading "Kafka" from several different translators and then pick the version you prefer best. Philip Gabriel may not be the best choice of translator in this case.

(Image from Amazon, used for review purposes only. Click to go to the Amazon page.)

"Norwegian Wood" (1987, reprinted in English in 2000, translation by Jay Rubin) stands out from the rest of Murakami's works (reportedly) due to it's being a straight work of fictional literature, lacking the symbolism and metaphysics of, say, "Kafka on the Shore". Toru Watanabe, his friend Kizuki, and Kizuki's long-time girlfriend Naoko grow up together in Kobe. One night, at age 17, Kizuki commits suicide. 2 years later, Toru and Naoko reunite while attending university in Tokyo, and try to overcome the emotional trauma they've been suffering. The story is told from Toru's point of view as he stumbles through the months from 1969 to 1970, at the height of the student unrest of the time. People come and go in his life, but, along with Naoko, the ones that stay are the eloquent womanizing Nagasawa; Nagasawa's long-suffering girlfriend Hatsumi; the brittle, fickle female student Midori; and Naoko's eventual roommate in an asylum, Reiko.

Again, the main themes are sex, memories, soul mates and western references (Beetle's music, Greek tragedies, and John Coltrane jazz). Here, though, we have the exploration of death as a part of life, as Toru meets people that either are affected by a family member's passing, or who also eventually wind up committing suicide. While the student uprising does take place halfway through the book, it mostly happens off-stage, doesn't affect Toru at all, and takes up no more than just a couple of paragraphs. Mostly, "Norwegian Wood" is a soap opera drama/coming of age story where not everyone makes it out alive.

And, also again, Murakami neglects to describe his locations in very much detail. He expects his readers to already be familiar with locations like Shinjuku, Yotsuya, Shibuya, Ginza and Kichijoji, so that western readers aren't going to get a sense of place while reading this book.

Once more, too, the choice of translator is vital. Jay Rubin produced this version, and his sentences tend to be stiff, and his choice of wording for the more erotic sequences are awkward and unnaturally worded. Rubin is not a skilled fiction writer himself, and it shows in his translation. The book is heavy on mood, with most of the details being reserved for Toru's mindset, and for the physical description of the mental asylum in the mountains, but in other places it feels too thin and sketchy.

Summary: Murakami is one of Japan's most popular modern fiction writers, and "Norwegian Wood" and "Kafka by the Shore" are two of his more well-known books available in English. If you want to know more about the state of Japanese literature, these books are a good choice. But, if you're a big fan of western fiction or SF, then you'll probably want to try something else - something less wooden and stilted - instead.

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