Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On My Third Murakami

I've been keeping this reader's blog since December 2006, not very long ago: I was surprised to realize that I read Haruki Murakami's 1994 masterpiece The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle before then. The novel seemed so fresh in my mind that it was hard to believe that it's been over two years since I read it. Yesterday I finished with After Dark, a lesser work from 2004, so now it's finally time to post about Murakami.

My first experience with Murakami was A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), which I subsequently learned was part of a larger series of novels. A big part of the experience of a North American reader with Murakami is the devotional and slightly obsessive treatment of American popular culture and of the place cultural America occupies in the Japanese social identity (I gather that for his Japanese readers as well he is memorable partially for this reason). Here is a young Japanese writer doing parody/homage to Raymond Chandler and the campiest conventions of noir, by way of leading us across a Pynchonesque townscape of vaguely realized paranoia. Here are young Japanese characters who grew up on Elvis Presley, Motown and The Beatles, but who are hip enough to prefer Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. The extent of exposure to and assimilation of American culture is surprising and raises questions. What sort of statement is Murakami making with this striking leitmotif that runs through all of his work? How does he relate to, say, French philosophers such as Bernard Henri Levy who stir things up by being openly pro-American, or European writers like Gunter Grass or Harold Pinter who exploit an anti-American shibboleth? Intuitively he seems to be expressing both his real affection for a popular culture of which he is indeed a full-fledged member, and the striking degree to which modern Japanese popular culture reflects the consequences of losing the wars of empire, now receding to oblivion in popular memory.

But as to A Wild Sheep Chase itself, I appreciated the improbable and slightly surreal plot about something in an old photograph that draws Big Labowskian attention, and Murakami's fascination with physical isolation, here represented as remote, snow-blanketed mountain towns. The penultimate image of the man in the sheep costume mysteriously moving about in the snow, although slightly Avengersish and Walruslike, finally struck me as a bit twee: pushed it a bit far.

Still I liked the book enough that I thought I'd give a whirl to what was generally reported to be his masterpiece, the 611-page, 1994 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In that I was not disappointed. If I had only read A Wild Sheep Chase I would have thought of Murakami as a campy satirist with a penchant for upsetting preconceptions. With The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle this writer takes his achievement to another level.
Unemployed and floating away from his working professional wife (maybe being floated away, after all), our hero lives in his uncle's modest but comfortable house in the suburbs, on a quiet (running to silent), sun-bleached cul-du-sac. He is looking for his cat and gets a bit caught up in this landscape that is both fenced in and empty. He starts to explore and meets the only other inhabitant of this particular asteroid, a teenaged girl named May.

There is a recurring theme in Murakami of young women as diffident oracles, seemingly random confidants of slightly older and more floundering men. In W-UBC there are all sorts of women characters, including women possessed of magic powers. The women, maybe, are there to draw something out of the men. The men have lost touch with themselves and with their lives. This brings us back around to the war. There are really good, ambitious passages about a Japanese officer's adventures crossing the disputed Mongolian-Manchurian border in the middle of the desert (another place without people) during the war, and the atrocities that he witnessed there. Eventually this memory of war is too strong to be communally repressed and the young man must seek out an old veteran, on the pretext of one of Murakami's endless maguffins.

But my favorite part of W-UBC is definitely the well. Around the side of one of these close-to-deserted suburban houses is an old dry well, basically a very deep hole under a cover. May shows him the well, and the rope that is used to lower oneself in. It's not just the evocation of withdrawing and containing in order to escape. The subtler experience of the dreamy child, around the back of the garage, staring at that one little space where nobody ever goes, that sense that time stands still so long as we can linger in this microcosm, that is the moment when the quotidian meets the surreal, and Murakami works with the atmospherics of that moment of consciousness. The sense is of a unique effect achieved by art. Such a still surface to be roiled by memories of conquest, torture and war.

Alright, this week I've finished my third Murakami, After Dark (2004). It's the least of the three that I've read, but still worth reading. It does not go in for some of the campy, "postmodern" high-jinks of the earlier Murakami, but it is not without surreal elements. Mari is the smart young woman sitting in a Denny's (a 7-Eleven store is also a setting, and the Alphaville "love hotel"), who sets off on an adventure with a passing acquaintance, Takahashi. Takahashi knows Mari's older sister Eri. Eri is the "pretty one," Mari is the "smart one." But Eri has decided to sleep. She's not in a coma or anything, she seems to have simply made a decision to stay asleep (I thought of Oskar in The Tin Drum). Meanwhile a small number of characters wind in and out of each others' lives during the course of a night. I wrote that the book is slight (191 pages), but it is ultimately a meditation on the repression of young women and I don't think that I've seen the bottom of it. Murakami has a way of evoking a difficult truth under the surface; the use of vagueness is one of his most interesting techniques.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Savage Detectives and the Untamed Writer

I've just finished reading one of the best novels I've seen this year, easily one of the best five novels out of the past fifty or so that I've read. A few months ago when I read By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano I was enormously impressed by the literacy, the political engagement, the psychological insight and significantly by the attention to the pleasure of the reader. Talented and generous writers are rare. So I Amazoned up a copy of The Savage Detectives, the 648-page novel that established his international reputation virtually overnight when it was published in Spanish in 1998.

I read the 2007 English translation by Natasha Wimmer. I do speak and read Spanish fairly well, but ambitious novels with their slang, wordplay and dense vocabulary - lots of lampposts, boat keels, dustballs, grackles, rolling pins and so forth - are the last frontier for the non-native reader. Having said that, the Wimmer translation is delightful and obviously excellent, a serious literary novel in its own right, funny when it should be, disturbing when it should be.

Like the man says in Baby Snakes, what can I say about this marvelous elixer? Let me start with the heart of the matter: this is a novel about poets and about the practice of poetry. It's not about poetry. There are occasional snippets of poems, cited and invented, but these verses are presented without any pretention that they are necessarily good. Some of the most prominent "poems" are actually punning little line drawings of no great originality. There is much (endless) discussion of whether this or that character is a good or a bad poet, this or that poem a good or a bad poem. There are lists (at one point going on for pages) of poets, mostly actual poets. But it is poets, the practice of poetry and the cultural role of poetry that is the subject.
It is a long love prose poem to Spanish-language poetry, the product of an intense love-hate relationship with poetry and literature. A great joke is that poets are memorialized by having abuse heaped upon them (one minor character has a system by which he divides all Mexican poets into two categories: the "queers" and the "fags"). Poetry for these characters is something for which one gives up one's life, something more important than life itself, and the reader plumbs the text in increasing amazed realization that the author has, must have (Bolano died in 2003 at the age of fifty) thrown himself into this passion to bring this crazy testament back to us.

But that makes it all sound so serious. It's a bawdy picaresque about bohemian students, drifters and drunks, oversexed pot-peddling bums and mentally unstable minor literati at the very margins of the publishing industry, people who live in the bottommost depths of obscurity. They hang around cafes in Mexico City (this is a fantastic novel about Mexico City), wander around Europe working as dishwashers and night watchmen, float around South America, move to California with their mothers. They drink a lot, they smoke a lot, they have lots of sex. Years go by. It's really fun to read about. As I said, this is a remarkably generous writer. He's giving us everything he's got.

It's a novel about the written word, the word is more real than reality. Place names, for example, are handled with a lexicographic meticulousness: obviously the name of a place is one of the most important things about it. Oddly enough this cultish devotion to the Logos, self-consciously echoing Cervantes (or more accurately Don Quixote himself) is tied to the theme of authenticity (the defining obsession of the modern poet). Odd, also brilliant: the fictional Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima as latter-day Quixotes reveal a gnostic, subversive Cervantes, the Quixotic champion of mythic culture vs. modern reality presented as a visionary rather than a fool. Public acknowledgement is corruption, the true artist (and the true philosopher) must defend their obscurity or lose their voice. And modernity, urbanity, secularism are the ultimate enemies of poetry: the heroic poet is Don Quixote, and that's not a windmill at which he is tilting, it's a dragon.

Speaking of bad attitudes, I've thought so far of two people who I feel I need to contact personally. One was Phil Lumsden who went to New College in Sarasota with me in the late 70s. Out of about 300 students we had a pretty good-sized contingent of poets, under the guruship of A. McA. "Mac" Miller, who only brought enough beer for himself to class in his six-pack-sized carrying case (we had to bring our own), an ex-military man with a complicated home life and a taste for Hughesian poetic violence. There were Southern boys who struck manly, racist poses, Bay Area-style hippies whose apartments would be condemned by the health authorities, do-it-yourself punkers who dutifully broke all of their empty beer bottles on the wall, the Russian literature professor was an incomprehensibe fanatic for structuralist theory, one of the English lit professors was on his second student wife and apologized to me for hitting on my girlfriend (he hadn't known she was, he explained to me), the other once had a conversation with me in the dark with his head face-down on his desk (I suspect strong drink), road trips to Tallahassee or Jacksonville to see Kesey, say, or Ferlinghetti (no, Ferlinghetti was a road trip to Buffalo when I was in high school), one night in a bar in Fruitville a drunken man started to recite The Wasteland much to our amazement as we were working through reading the allusions and Pound's editing with Mac - the man said he'd memorized it while he was in the state prison. Later I had to persuade him to get out of the car (of course we had invited him along) when he started to get violent and threaten the girls, I remember seeing him chasing the car in the rearview mirror.

The friendly neighborhood Marxist generally finds the local poets to be dilettantes, decadently apolitical, even frankly antisocial, lost in their cups, penniless moochers. All true. But there is something inevitably subversive about the poetic act, at least there has been since, say, the Industrial Revolution. Bolano recognized that poets in the developed world in the 20th century are crazy, useless, wretched: sacred.