A Simpler, More Physical Kind of Empathy

Lorna Sage

  • South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel
    Harvill, 187 pp, £9.99, July 1999, ISBN 1 86046 594 3
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin
    Harvill, 609 pp, £12.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 18 604647 2

Talking to Jay McInerney in 1992, the year South of the Border, West of the Sun was published in Japanese, Haruki Murakami said that he wasn’t so much an international writer, as a non-national writer: ‘You might call it the Japanese nature that remains only after you have thrown out, one after another, all those parts that are altogether too “Japanese”. That is what I really want to express.’ His pleasure in jettisoning the picturesque and traditional signs of ‘roots’ is of a piece with the fact that he was a fan of the work of Raymond Carver, and became his Japanese translator. South of the Border is a minimalist’s novel. A 1984 interview with Carver is commemorated in a Carver poem:

We sipped tea, politely musing
on possible reasons for the success
of my books in your country. Slipped
into talk of pain and humiliation
you find occurring and reoccurring
in my stories. And that element
of sheer chance. How all this translates
in terms of sales.

Murakami would have appreciated the last gesture that switches from chance as a fictional device to the cultural lottery of late capitalism – it’s a connection his own authorial avatars often make. They are determinedly not traditionalists: on the other hand, they are witnesses to the defeat of the radical movements of the Sixties and Seventies, and live in the real world of paradoxically empty freedom, mobility and disaffection. ‘It’s the way of the world,’ says the cool narrator of Dance Dance Dance, ‘philosophy starting to look more and more like business administration ... things were a lot simpler in 1969. All you had to do was throw rocks at the police. But with today’s sophistication, who’s in a position to throw rocks? ... You throw a rock and it’ll come right back at you.’ Murakami said to McInerney that he was now ‘after something Japanese’:

I would like to write about Japanese society from the outside. I think that is what will increasingly define my identity as writer. By the way, do you know there is no equivalent in Japanese for the word ‘identity’. That’s why when we want to talk about identity, we have to use the English word.

However, as the Carver poem suggests, pain and humiliation are eminently translatable into Japanese, and vice versa, and they occur and reoccur in Murakami’s fiction, too.

Western readers wouldn’t necessarily have known this until the last couple of years, however, because his own identity was a pretty slippery one, and the first of his novels to be translated were parodic and playful, and crammed with distracting trophies of his love-affair with American popular culture: A Wild Sheep Chase (1982, translated 1989), Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985, translated 1991). These books, together with Dance Dance Dance (1988, translated 1994), formed a loose trilogy of mixed-genre, jokey metafictions, texts that read very much as he said he wrote them, making it all up as he went along, saluting American detective fiction, science fiction and demotic fantasy (Vonnegut, Brautigan), as well as pop music and jazz and movies, and using brand names and other cultural imports as ‘props’ (in the theatrical sense: he did his degree in drama). In between, in 1987, he’d published Norwegian Wood, which sold two million copies in Japan. These books were obviously fun, and eerily recognisable (someone wittily rechristened the first ‘The Big Sheep’). For the young Murakami, who used to like to tell people that his vocation as a novelist came to him out of the blue while he was watching a baseball game, the United States had been what Roland Barthes called Japan, back in 1970, an ‘empire of signs’, a place where signifiers floated loose from their signifieds. He says that his America was a virtual reality, he pieced it together in his head in Kobe, where the secondhand bookshops were full of American fiction traded in by the US Navy. His parents were teachers of Japanese literature, and he was an only child, both things that inspired him to levitate in his head into this alternative, charmingly fairy-tale place.

By the time he was having his conversation with McInerney, however, he was living in the States. He left Japan in 1986, when he was 37, for almost ten years, living first in Greece and Italy, then in Princeton and Boston. In 1996 he dryly summed up the round trip: ‘In Japan I wanted personal independence. I wanted to be free. In America, I felt free. But Americans take individual independence for granted.’ He could not, and the novel of his imaginative return, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-95, translated 1997), which he researched in the library at Princeton, puts Japanese history – the history of the Sino-Japanese war, and of the Manchurian front in World War Two – back into the picture in inset stories. Violence, he told the New Yorker, which printed some peculiarly nasty episodes from the book, is ‘the key to Japan’: ‘The most important thing is to face our history.’ So these last two translated books belong, the one in minimalist style, the other in the style of what Patricia Waugh calls ‘historiographic metafiction’ (an appropriately baggy label for a sprawling sub-genre), to the literature of ‘pain and humiliation’.

The first-person narrator of South of the Border, West of the Sun is in the middle of a good life: a happy marriage, with two small daughters he loves, and lots of ‘props’. ‘And here I was ... savouring Schubert’s Winterreise as I lounged in my BMW, waiting for the lights to change at a crossroads in ritzy Aoyama. I was living someone else’s life, not my own.’ He’s the typical Murakami protagonist, a man who’s too typical, almost abnormally ordinary, with just the odd quirk in his fate (being an only child in a generation where that isn’t yet usual) that helps tip his lack of conviction over into existential crisis. Hajime (his name means ‘Beginning’: he was born in the first week of the first month of the first year of the second half of the 20th century, 4 January 1951) manages a bar, as his author did between 1974 and 1982, before his first literary successes turned him into a full-time writer. But this is not – or not directly – a portrait of the artist. Hajime has invested his imagination and his leftover idealism in his personal life, and now his sense of creeping unreality focuses on loves he lost in childhood and adolescence, before he turned into this plausible adult. Watching his own children grow, he feels his apartness – the only child – turning into mere mulch in a family line, ‘as if a tree were growing inside my body, laying down roots, spreading its branches, pushing down on my organs’. And it’s at this moment of crisis that Shimamoto, his lost best friend from childhood, walks into his fashionable bar, and reawakens a passionate conviction of affinity he has never quite recaptured since, not even with Yukiko, the wife who rescued him from pointless drifting, and whom he loves.

Shimamoto, too, was an only child, and walked with a limp back when they were 12, a precocious but infinitely receptive companion who mirrored and shared his loneliness. ‘She gazed at me gently as I talked ... It was as if ... she were gently peeling back, one after another, the layers that covered a person’s heart, a very sensual feeling. Her lips moved ever so slightly with each change in her expression.’ Murakami lends his character Hajime a hesitant, lyrical eloquence that translates emotions into body-language, and makes this exchange as erotic as the later description of the long-delayed consummation of their desire for each other. In a sense that’s the point, that there was a completeness about this childhood intimacy which was better than anything that came after. But as a result Shimamoto is for him a fatal woman, a kind of Lamia even, when she reappears – an emissary from the land of unlived lives, paths not taken. For here there’s no middle way, it’s total possession or nothing, ‘her eyes told me she was already given up to death’; re-meeting and re-losing her, Hajime painfully lays bare to himself his own heartless character.

It’s a plot about spooky empathy v. human sympathy. And it’s Hajime’s offence against the latter that Shimamoto in a sense avenges, though she knew nothing about it – his unfaithfulness to his second love, Izumi, his high-school girlfriend: ‘Izumi could never understand my dream. She had her own dreams, a vision of a far different place, a world unlike my own.’ He discovered himself as a person who could do evil in the damage he did to her in pursuit of his personal castle in the air, and is doing now to his wife. From one angle – the angle of ‘one’, in fact – the book is a tale of romantic agony; from another, it’s about renouncing the charm of the eternal return, rediscovering the reality of the order that says there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. ‘No one will weave dreams for me – it is my turn to weave dreams for others ... If my own life is to have any meaning at all, that is what I have to do.’ And here there is a hint of aesthetic life-writing, an apologia for the artist. The parting image (‘Rain softly falling on a vast sea, with no one there to see it’) has more in common with Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ than with Carver’s deliberate, prosaic poverty of spirit, even though in theory it’s exorcising the specialness of ‘I’, making our hero just another character.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle a sinister, minor Mephistopheles with a walk-on part, a cabaret performer, wakes up his inattentive audience with a didactic set-piece on the paradoxes of empathy:

He set his guitar on the floor and, from the guitar case, took a single candle ... ‘As you are well aware,’ the man continued, his voice soft but penetrating, ‘in the course of life we experience many kinds of pain. Pains of the body and pains of the heart ... People say that only they themselves can understand the pain they are feeling. But is this true? If, before our own eyes, we see someone who is truly suffering, we do sometimes feel his suffering as our own. This is the power of empathy ... The reason people sing songs for other people is because they want to have the power to arouse empathy ... tonight, as a kind of experiment I want you to experience a simpler, more physical kind of empathy ...’ He held his hand over the lighted candle ... Someone in the audience made a sound like a sigh or a moan. You could see the tip of the flame burning the man’s palm. You could almost hear the sizzle of the flesh ... Everyone ... watched in frozen horror.

And then he clasps his hands together, produces a thin red scarf from between them, and reveals the whole thing as an illusion. Rapturous applause, he’s a marvellous conjuror, he ought to be on TV, they say, but while they’re savouring their relief he has disappeared. The novel itself, all six hundred-odd pages of it, pulls this kind of trick again and again, in revisiting horrors and atrocities from the last war – most memorably and terribly in the inset stories told by Lieutenant Mamiya, who describes watching a Japanese agent being flayed alive on the orders of a Russian, and the experiences, told by his daughter, of a vet who saw zoo animals being shot to bits by Japanese soldiers, and recaptured Chinese prisoners being bayoneted, and brained with a baseball bat.

These narratives are juxtaposed with the present-day quest of Toru Okada, another ‘ordinary’ Murakami narrator with a midlife crisis, for his wife Kumiko, who has been having an affair with another man, has now left him for what turn out to be much more mysterious and deep-rooted reasons. Okada, coming unstuck in his own life, at a loose end, becomes the audience for other people’s stories. He can’t do empathy, it turns out – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Instead, he searches his own psyche, and his personal experience, for traces and echoes of the kind of violence that came out of the closet in the war. Talking to Ian Buruma in the New Yorker, Murakami said that when he was a boy he heard his father (whom he doesn’t get on with) reveal something terrible about his experience as a soldier in China, but he couldn’t remember later what it was: ‘I don’t want to know the facts. I’m only interested in the effect my blocked memory has on my imagination.’ The novel shows what he seems to have meant: Okada does his researches by exploring the alley to nowhere at the back of his house, and climbing down into the implausibly deep dry well in the back garden of an empty house where a retired general who committed suicide once lived. Alongside the sensation of empathy suggested by realistic, illusionist writing, Murakami sets a kind of translation or internal re-creation of the violence and pain of the past. It must be ‘there’ somewhere in one’s character, his character Toru Okada reasons, as he turns into a psychic warrior, and learns to walk through walls. Vertigo and disorientation overtake him, ‘a throbbing deep in my head ... a lump of string in the pit of my stomach’, and intensify to the point where they start to resemble skinnings and stabbings of the self. Like Marguerite Duras in La Douleur, which she claimed was a wartime journal she found in a drawer, but had no memory of writing, Murakami lays claim to a share in others’ crimes against humanity. His character Okada becomes a kind of clairvoyant conscript, not only suffering the shame of rejection and powerlessness, but wielding a fatal virtual baseball bat against his enemies.

Chief among these is his brother-in-law Noboru Wataya, a Post-Modern economics guru turned politician, who is described with real dislike – ‘Consistency and an established worldview were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media’s tiny time-segments.’ The novel may be sceptical about the good faith of realist writing, but it’s also nauseated by Wataya’s kind, cultural vampires, the new undead. Maintaining this balancing act doesn’t subdue its exuberance: it has the usual metafictional company – the truanting teenage sidekick, the prostitute of the mind, the sweating, chainsmoking gangster go-between, the missing cat, even the sheep. The teenager, May, provides a handy description of the formal rules of this writing: ‘So then one disconnected thing led to another disconnected thing, and that’s how all kinds of stuff happened.’ There’s even some nice ‘hardboiled’ pastiche for old time’s sake: ‘She dropped the cigarette on the ground as if testing gravity conditions for the day.’

So what does Murakami’s return to a Japanese ‘identity’, and facing up to history amount to? It’s edged around with irony, certainly, and scrupulously disconnected and rootless in its structure. At the same time, Okada is much closer to being a hero than earlier protagonists. May, whose disaffection and youth give her a special authority in this upside-down world, says to him: ‘I can’t help feeling that you are fighting for me ... that, in a way, you are probably fighting for a lot of other people at the same time you’re fighting for Kumiko.’ But it’s perhaps too easy from the outside to seize on signs of representative Japaneseness, especially when they come in the form of ‘reverse anthropology’, returning from foreign parts to look at your own culture with an estranged eye, as so many Western writers have done since the war. How do Japanese readers react to his return home? Do they empathise, or do they see him as still the international writer? Is his history theirs? In South of the Border, West of the Sun Hajime wonders whether the real purpose of inventing alternative realities, fictions, castles in the air, afterlives in the underground (Murakami’s own jazz bar was in a cellar), is to sustain by contrast the reality of here and now. The danger is, he muses, that then you need a third reality to serve as grounding, and so on and on. Nonetheless, it’s only by maintaining that chain that we keep the uncertain world of memory and sensation in business. This has the air of an apologia pro vita sua as a Post-Modern success, but it saves the conjuring tricks, too. The story of Murakami’s oeuvre is itself fascinating, a great contemporary triumph of translation, in more senses than one.