Granted, my fiction contains more than its share of invention, but when I’m not writing fiction I don’t go out of my way to make up meaningless stories. (from “Chance traveller”, 2005)
This is as good a way as any to commence my review of Haruki Murakami’s recent short story collection, Blind willow, sleeping woman, because it clues you in immediately to the games Murakami plays with his reader. In “Chance traveller”, we are told that the “I” “means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story” and that most of the story is “third-person narrative”. In fact, this short story, like several in the book, comprises a story-within-a-story, a story told to a narrator who is present in the story himself.
It may sound odd to say this about a short story collection but I found it a bit of a page-turner. It comprises 24 stories written between 1980 and 2005. There are a lot of similarities between the stories – the “disconnected” tone, the frequent use of first-person narrator, the story-within-a-story technique, and the regular use of flashbacks – but Murakami’s inventions are so varied and odd that you are compelled on.
What I love about Murakami is the matter-of-fact rather detached tone he uses to tell stories that often start off being quite ordinary but usually end up taking us to the strangest places. By focussing on the ordinariness of people, by including seemingly unimportant everyday and often pedantic-sounding details, Murakami lulls us into believing in his world so that when the bizarre happens – as it often does – we accept it with barely a blink.
Those of you who know about Murakami know that he is enamoured, if that’s not too strong a word, with the West – and his stories are peppered with allusions to Western culture from Elvis to Richard Strauss, from John Ford to Balzac. His cultural knowledge is quite prodigious. It is this “westenisation” that has, historically, put him at odds with the Japanese literary establishment. He explores this amusingly but pointedly in his story “The rise and fall of Sharpie Cakes” (1981/82) which satirises the drive to conformity and tradition. The final words of this story are:
From now on I would make and eat the food that I wanted to eat. The damned Sharpie Crows could peck each other to death for all I cared.
Like Murakami’s novels, these stories tend to be about alienation and loneliness. Most of his characters have trouble connecting with others, and when they do it often doesn’t go as well as they hope. Murakami seems to see being alone as the essential condition of life:
He found it natural to be by himself: it was a kind of premise for living. (“Tony Takitani”, 1990).
In “The Ice Man” (1991) the couple go to the South Pole which “turned out to be lonelier than anything I could have imagined”. “The year of spaghetti” (1981/82) concludes with the narrator alone, cooking spaghetti and suggesting that, in exporting durum, the Italians had exported “loneliness”. And so on, from story to story. Somewhat related to this focus on loneliness is a sort of fatalism, a view that life is not to be understood but just is:
Life: I’ll never understand it. (says Tony Takitani, in “Tony Takitani”, 1990)
Life is pretty damn hard. (says a girl to the narrator in “A ‘Poor Aunt’s’ story”, 1980/81)
That’s life. (says the young man, about something pretty trivial, in “A perfect day for kangaroos”, 1981/82)
He had to be as true to his homosexuality as he was to his music. That’s music, and that’s life. (“Chance traveller”, 2005)
Get all the fun out of life while you’re still able. They’ll serve you the bill soon enough. (“Hanalei Bay”, 2005)
And alongside all this, Murakami explores the fine line between reality and unreality or illusion. His characters tend to either escape reality when they can or find it slipping away from them – or, conversely, find it intruding when they don’t want it. The young couple in “A folklore for my generation” (1989) find “reality … invisibly starting to worm its way between them”. The first-person narrator in “Man-eating cats” (1991) writes that “for a second or two my consciousness strayed on the border between reality and the unreal … I couldn’t get a purchase on the situation” and a little later says “From time to time I was sure that I could make out the cat’s eyes, sparkling between the branches. But it was just an illusion”. And in one of my favourite stories, “A ‘Poor Aunt’ story” (1980/81), the fictional aunt becomes “real”, “stuck” to the narrator’s back, and disconcerts his friends:
‘Gives me the creeps’, said one friend.
‘Don’t let her bother you. She minds her own business. She’s harmless enough.’
‘I know, I know. But, I don’t know why, she’s depressing.’
‘So try not to look.’
‘OK, I suppose’. Then a sigh. ‘Where’d you have to go to get something like that on your back?’
‘It’s not that I went anywhere. I just kept thinking about some things. That’s all.’
Not only do I like this for its idea – the making concrete of the thing you are thinking about – but it’s a good example of Murakami’s facility with dialogue. “A ‘Poor Aunt’ story” has to be a bit of a writer’s manifesto – about the power and the limits to that power of words (and perhaps more generally of art). In fact, the idea of art as salvation appears a couple of times in the book. Earlier in this story it is suggested that writing about something, like a poor aunt, means “offering it salvation” and in “A seventh man” (1996) there’s a sense that art may offer “some kind of salvation … some sort of recovery”.
I could write much more on this book – tease out delicious story after delicious story, and give lots of examples of his expressive imagery, such as “I was beginning to feel like a dentist’s chair – hated by noone but avoided by everyone” (“A ‘Poor Aunt’ story”). However, that might spoil the pleasure for you (if you haven’t already read it), so I will finish with Murakami’s own words from his introduction:
My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left behind. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are the guideposts to my heart, and it makes me happy as a writer to be able to share these intimate feelings with my readers.
All I can say to this is, what a fascinating heart to know…
(Trans: Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin)
Blind willow, sleeping woman
London: Vintage Books, 2007