Thursday, July 20, 2006

Haruki Murakami, part one

A former girlfriend and I once had a fairly intense argument about the opening short film in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. (1990). (As I don’t have Dreams handy (and YouTube has let me down), I’m going on nearly ten-year-old memory in the following description. I apologize if I get anything wrong.) In the film, a young boy (Kurosowa?) slips away from his caretakers and deep into the forest, where, to his surprise, he sees an uncanny procession of people in odd costumes, glowing like angels or ghosts. He watches, spellbound, until one of the figures notices him. She races over and angrily informs him that, having accidentally witnessed the foxes’ wedding, which no human is to see, he can’t be allowed to live. Terrified, he breaks away and runs home, where he is safe. We’re left to assume that he wonders about the foxes’ wedding for the rest of his life.

The argument that ensued began when my girlfriend asked me what I thought Kurosawa meant by the film. Who were the foxes supposed to be? What did their wedding signify? I fairly heatedly replied that Kurosawa meant that a boy sneaked away from his home and accidentally saw the foxes’ wedding, thus bringing down on himself a curse. The foxes were the foxes, the boy a boy. To ask for deeper meaning from this simple, powerful film was a way of inadvertently destroying it.

Unexpectedly, the question had really gotten to me, seeming to point to fundamental differences in the way she and I viewed art, which itself was part of the glue of our relationship. I’m willing to accept some pieces of art as wholes, needing no further connection to my world, no simply explained meaning. Francis Bacon’s exploding-head paintings, for example, are like that for me. And certain of Kafka’s parables, despite the reams of commentary they’ve spawned, are, I think, best appreciated as hermetic jewels of sculpted prose, containing within themselves all you need to know to understand them. Leave their strangeness unexplained; accept that some things, especially in art, proceed from too deep in the self to have answers.

This introduction is my roundabout way of getting to an author who it took me years—and the adamant recommendation of my wife—to attempt to read, Haruki Murakami. For nearly a decade of keeping an eye on him (which is how I tend to think of that legion of writers whom I’m perpetually wondering about but not reading), I thought he probably wasn’t for me. His novels, after all, were frequently described as hyperkinetic, hip, and post-modern; not, as readers of this blog would guess, my cup of tea.

But Stacey knew I was wrong. So about a year ago, I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995, English translation 1997), which is generally regarded as Murakami’s best. I was utterly captivated. Murakami sinks his fairly ordinary, thirty-ish Japanese narrator into an increasingly bizarre plot, along the way obliquely relating the narrator’s isolation to such disparate elements as the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the way that modern cities continually layer the new over the old. There are themes and scenes that don’t fully cohere and plot turns that don’t, strictly speaking, make sense, but the book as a whole, with its multiplicity of tales within tales, overcomes those problems and succeeds.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle ultimately feels deeply organic, its frequent inexplicability proceeding from some essential, irreducible strangeness that obviates clear connection to theme, allegory, or an outside world. It doesn’t have the feel of the contingent that I find myself harping on so often; no one would mistake Murakami’s world for any part of the one we live in. But it definitely is a world, operating according to its own logic (or logics?), even if Murakami almost never makes explicit the connections, almost never explains. Like the narrator, I found myself shrugging my shoulders and plowing ahead; that’s what you do in life, after all.

This post being long enough to test people's tolerance for reading online (and Lord knows, I don't have enough readers that I can afford to alienate them!), I'll continue it tomorrow.

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