Sheeped

Julian Loose

  • The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum
    Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 241 13144 8

Entering a Japanese department store one December, an American was startled to see, among the festive tinsel and fairy lights, an unusual seasonal decoration – a row of Father Christmases, crucified. Apocryphal, perhaps, but the endless production of blithe parodies of Western icons has surely struck more than one visiting gaijin. Japan is both closer and further than we think: it returns our language and traditions oddly transformed, yet to us many of its own categories are mysterious, if not invisible. This blend of the familiar and strange may explain our tendency to seize upon Japan as the very image of the contemporary. Having apparently jumped straight from pre-modernism to postomodanizumu, its culture seems both bewilderingly fluid and monumentally static. Even Baudrillard, it has been said, would find the Japanese passion for simulacra a little unnerving; Derrida would be at a loss, for nothing remains to deconstruct.

Certainly the fiction of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most popular novelist by far, is awash with offbeat whimsy and state-of-the-art pastiche. A Wild Sheep Chase (published here in 1990) borrows the form of a Chandleresque detective story for the tale of a hunt for a mutant Manchurian sheep with the ability to inhabit people’s minds. Having possessed (or ‘sheeped’) a soldier in the Imperial Army in the Thirties, it has turned him into an underworld Boss whose extensive outreach includes most of the public relations industry and a faction in the Conservative Party. But now the Boss is in a coma, and the malevolent ovine mastermind has gone missing. A copywriter, whose interests run to Sixties pop, Ideologie Germanica and Sherlock Holmes, is made an offer he can’t refuse. Helped by a girl with supernatural ears and a deranged deserter from the last war disguised in a sheep suit (drawing included), he eventually tracks down the ghost of his old friend, the Rat, who has sacrificed himself to eliminate the sheep. Murakami’s hunch-playing detective wears the mantle of Philip Marlowe a little self-consciously. He’s memorised the murderer’s name in every Ellery Queen mystery, advises people to ‘tell it to me straight, because that’s my favourite angle,’ and specialises in the sardonic wisecrack (a mother and child ‘look like a couple whose marriage was on the rocks’). Throughout he maintains an understandable scepticism: ‘this has all got to be, patently, the most unbelievable, the most ridiculous story I have ever heard.’

If Sheep demonstrated Murakami’s characteristically daft but deft mixture of inconsequence and genre-play, The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is as exuberantly unlikely as its title. Set in Tokyo just five minutes into the future, this double-decker narrative divides into the distinct genres of Science Fiction and fantasy. In one, a bemused security agent, hired by a mad old scientist and his beautiful granddaughter, is caught up in a high-tech information-war; while in the other, a newcomer to the city at the end of the world finds himself living among unicorns and separated from his protesting shadow.

The parallel stories are narrated in alternate chapters, the first by a Calcutec, a switchblade-carrying agent whose job is to ‘launder’ or mnemonically encrypt sensitive data. He shuffles figures from one side of his brain to another by way of a mysterious interior world planted deep in his unconscious, a fiendish update of Matteo Ricci’s celebrated 16th-century memory palaces. Such precautions are necessary, for Calcutecs are engaged in a perpetual struggle with the Semiotecs, a data mafia who swoop on opponents in fake taxis, trimming off their crania with the buzz of a power saw. Our hero begins his Alice-like plunge into wonderland through an ordinary-seeming closet in a downtown skyscraper, which opens to reveal a waterfall and the laboratory of the world’s greatest neurophysiologist, the Professor. Laundering the Professor’s secret research data initiates a disastrous series of events. Fortunately the Calcutec, a fan of Humphrey Bogart, can meet every bizarre twist with the appropriate degree of hard-boiled cool:

The hulk glanced at the wasted door as casually as he might a popped wine cork, then turned his attentions toward me. No complex feelings here. He looked at me like I was another fixture. Would that I were.

Bruce Sterling has recently celebrated Murakami’s ‘bold willingness to go straight over-the-top’, but Wonderland’s brand of Science Fiction owes more to the winning cartoonism of Kurt Vonnegut (touched perhaps by Raymond Roussel’s delight in deliriously over-elaborate explanations) than to the dirty cyberpunk realism of Sterling and William Gibson. Similarly, Murakami’s fantasy narrative is more reminiscent of the elegant allegories of Ursula le Guin than the sword and sorcery adventures of, say, Anne McCaffrey.

In the parallel story, the city’s burly Gatekeeper tells the newcomer that his allotted task is to ‘read’ dreams: to trace with his fingertips the delicate seams of light that issue from the many unicorn skulls stored in the town library. The Dreamreader, when not so occupied, notices that something is very wrong: despite the contentment of the city-dwellers, there is something zombie-like about them; and his own shadow, steadily wasting away outside the city, urges him to find a way for them both to escape. But flight seems impossible, for this narrative, we realise as echoes accumulate, is taking place, not at the end of the world, but somewhere inside the Calcutec’s head: this is his implanted inner-drama.

Back in the ‘real world’, a little the worse for the attention of the Semiotecs (‘another boxcar of pain rolled in. I shut my mouth and waited at the crossing’), the exhausted Calcutec is pursued by the opposition, suspected by his own side, and plagued by phantom memories. When he finally catches up with the missing Professor, it is deep in the caverns below Tokyo, in the lair of the INKlings – not a genteel Oxford literary group, but disgusting subterranean creatures who feed on subway workmen and have tunnelled out a base directly beneath the Imperial Palace. In this gloomy netherworld, the Calcutec learns that he is the victim of an experiment gone terribly wrong: after much long-winded talk of ‘encephalo-digital conversions’, the Professor admits that he’s rewired the circuitry of the Calcutec’s brain, and that the recent bout of laundering will have precipitated his conscious mind into that normally inaccessible inner-world – irreversibly.

Left with just 24 hours to live, Murakami’s hero is not, in the traditional Japanese manner, suffused with an exquisite sense of mono no aware, of the pitiable transience of things. Indeed, he can’t quite decide if he’s all that bothered (‘What was this about unicorns and a high wall? The Wizard of Oz had to be more plausible’) – a refusal of sentimentality which makes his fate unexpectedly poignant. Whistling the opening riff to Peter and Gordon’s ‘I go to pieces’, he spends his remaining hours arguing with a subway ticket inspector, in the launderette, and – a favourite pastime of Murakami’s characters – watching the clock, wondering if there isn’t really something he should be doing. He finally begins his one-way trip to innerspace sitting in a hired Carina 1800 GT Twin-Cam Turbo sportscar, Bob Dylan’s ‘A hard rain’s a-gonna fall’ playing on the tape deck.

Fresh, witty and above all eclectic, Haruki Murakami’s stories feature prominently in all the popular Japanese magazines and his novels sell in unimaginable millions. In addition to six novels and six volumes of collected short stories, he is an industrious translator of the likes of John Irving, Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien and Scott Fitzgerald. Once the owner of a jazz bar who only had time to write in the small hours, he is now such a cult figure that there are even translations of his novels, complete with Japanese notes, aimed specifically at Murakami fans who happen to be English-language students.

But Murakami isn’t only a commercial success. Widely seen as the first writer to break with ‘the old school’, he has galvanised the world of Japanese fiction with his distinctive mix of slangy vocabulary, naive introspection, and lightly-worn but constantly paraded references to all things Western. Wonderland’s narrator, for instance, alludes to Star Trek and Somerset Maugham, the films of John Ford and Jean-Luc Godard, expresses a preference for Turgenev over Dostoevsky and argues the rival merits of Pinnock and Richter’s recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos. And as can be seen in Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices, two excellent and overlapping anthologies of current fiction both of which include contributions from Murakami, many other Japanese writers have followed his lead.[*] Colloquial and humorous, appropriating popular genres like Science Fiction, fantasy and horror, their work plunders the toyshop of international culture. The tension between Japanese and Western literature may have been one of the main themes of Japanese fiction for over a century, but by now that tension has truly snapped.

Japanese writers and critics always exaggerate the gulf that separates the literary generations, and doubt has even been raised over whether Murakami and his fellows should be considered Japanese writers at all. The older novelist Kenzaburo Oe has voiced the suspicion that Japanese literature is ‘decaying’. In an essay entitled ‘Japan’s Dual Identity’, he singled out Murakami as emblematic of the decline in junbungaku, or serious writing, arguing that ‘there is nothing that directly links Murakami with post-war literature of the 1946-1970 period.’ For his part, Murakami has encouraged this notion of a fundamental break. In an article for one of the brochures that accompanied the UK’s ‘Japan Festival’, he noted that ‘Japanese fiction is already changing drastically. Writers of a new generation ... have grown up at a time in which it has been possible to put a new perspective on Japanese identity.’ In various interviews he has elaborated on this bold departure:

Japanese literature was called serious literature. We are not serious any more. Of course, we are serious, we are very serious, we are just not so formal. We are more colloquial and more pop. We are seeking a new value ... [The tradition of the Japanese novel] was so strong it was like a magic, a power, a kind of cage. I had to establish my own style. There was no text, no teacher, no mentor ... I wanted to destroy the traditional style of Japanese literature and I succeeded. That’s why they hate me.

Murakami’s self-imposed exile (after several years in Europe, he now holds a visiting fellowship at Princeton) tends to support the image of a popular iconoclast. But these proclamations and the two novels so far published in the West give a slightly misleading impression. Despite all the playful inventiveness and Western allusion, Murakami doesn’t forsake Japan or its literary traditions for some spurious cosmopolitanism. Even when going back to the future, his work essentially adapts and extends the distinct Japanese genre of autobiographical fiction. And while his novels may constantly turn away from a contemporary Japan ‘all but destroyed by wealth’, they do so to dwell on the Tokyo of the late Sixties and early Seventies, a time when, according to Sheep, ‘the air was alive, even as everything seemed poised on the verge of collapse, waiting for a push.’

Murakami arrived in Tokyo in the fateful year of 1968, as a theatre student at the élite Waseda University. Serious unrest was increasing dramatically in the build-up to the renewal of the Security Treaty with the US due in 1970. Students, wearing brightly coloured workers’ helmets, wielding stakes and lobbing Molotov cocktails, clashed with the Kidotai, a special 29,000-strong police force. The barricades went up at the besieged Tokyo University, closing it down for a year; at the peak of the protest over seventy campuses were engaged in disputes, Waseda among them. As Murakami remembers, ‘Japan didn’t join the war in Vietnam but we did think we had to end it. This was our idealism for a peaceful new world, a Utopia.’ But instead of the longed-for departure of the Liberal Democratic Party and an end to ultra-conservative policies at home and abroad, the treaty with the US was renewed, Vietnam faded from consciousness and, as protestors turned on one another, the counterculture lost its way. To quote Murakami again, ‘it was a total disappointment. We were crushed.’ All his novels meditate upon that defeat, and its ambiguous aftermath.

Murakami’s first work, Hear the wind sing (1979), is ‘a young man, things-are-changing kind of novel’: set in August 1970, it introduces Murakami’s prototypically-alienated narrator; J, a benign Chinese bartender; and the Rat, a depressive rich kid and would-be novelist who has dropped-out and now can’t quite get it together. A kind of Japanese Grafitti but singularly without incident, the book is less a narrative than a series of more or less comic interludes at the end of a boring hometown summer, punctuated by the on-air prattle of an FM disc-jockey: the opening warns that this is ‘not a novel, not literature ... Mere humans who root through their refrigerators at three o’clock in the morning are incapable of such writing.’ Despite this disclaimer, it won the New Writer’s Award, and Murakami was launched. Pinball, 1973 (1980) follows the same trio of characters into the Seventies: an increasingly maudlin Rat still haunts J’s bar; while the narrator has set up a translating service in Tokyo, lives with a pair of identical twins and is engaged in an obsessive quest for a magical pinball machine. Disaffection at the political situation and scattered references to untimely death give only an occasional pointedness to these nowhere-heading novels, which Murakami has judged too immature to be published outside Japan.

A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) has markedly more narrative drive. Murakami’s talent for small and large-scale musings – on the importance of choosing a decent sofa, or the circuitous nature of fate – is at its most effective when rubbing up against a thriller’s no-nonsense insistence on cause and effect. Here he again deploys the characters of J, the Rat and the narrator, but in a distinctly allegorical vein. The sheep, which has annexed almost every aspect of Japanese society, including the worlds of ‘politics, finance, mass communications, the bureaucracy, culture’, attempts to co-opt the Rat, a surviving representative of the individualistic Sixties generation. The Rat takes the honourable course by killing himself along with his possessor, but as his ghost points out, it was ‘moral weakness’ which made him vulnerable to the Mephistophelean sheep’s offer of power and influence.

Also casting a critical light on the Sixties generation is the phenomenally best-selling Norwegian Wood (1987), which relates a doomed love story hinted at in earlier novels. The setting is once more the years of student unrest, but this narrator is retrospectively cynical about youthful idealism, particularly about those leaders of revolt who in their senior year ‘cut their hair short and get jobs with Mitsubishi or TBS or IBM’. The lonely narrator learns of his lover’s suicide while sitting contemplating a cherry tree: invoking but reversing a major literary trope, he sees the tree’s brief flowering as a symbol of nothing more than disgusting decay (‘the cherry blossoms looked like sores bursting through the skin of the spring evening’). In Murakami’s stories, death is ever-present and always without meaning, a product of arbitrary violence, brain experiments or sudden suicide: he refuses the consolations of any tradition, East or West. Yet despite disasters both personal and political, Norwegian Wood – described by Murakami as a ‘fairy-tale’ – is characterised by a winning lightness of tone. Like Murakami, the student determines ‘that getting serious is not necessarily synonymous with getting to the truth.’

Wonderland (1985), for all its futuristic gloss, is also shot through with the Calcutec narrator’s sense of post-Sixties disillusionment:

I thought I could be someone else ... I’d tune in on a better life, something more suited to my true self. Toward that end, I had to undergo training. I read The Greening of America, and I saw Easy Rider three times. But like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.

The Calcutec does find his ‘true self’, not in dreams of hippy America, but at the End of the World. With its haunting squares and towers, this Utopia is clearly not a Japanese town, and could not be more unlike the image of a high-tech Tokyo riven by warring corporations. Yet the fact that it sustains itself ‘in perpetual peace and security’ at the cost of all individuality identifies this, too, as a figure of Japan. As the two narratives converge, so the Dream-reader starts to recall traces from his prior existence, a development which suggests that the city is not after all condemned to perpetual isolation and stasis. The same might be said of what Murakami has termed the ‘small society of Japanese writers and critics’: the success of his ambition to ‘change Japanese literature from inside’ is by now generally apparent. Although it will, surely, be some time before anyone quite matches Murakami’s singular amalgam of original pastiche and traditional innovation.

[*] Monkey Brain Sushi: New Tastes in Japanese Fiction, edited by Alfred Birnbaum, Kodansha International, £13.95, 1991, 4 7700 1543 7. New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction from Japan, edited by Helen Mitsios, introduction by Jay McInerney, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991, $18.95, 0 87113 426 8.