Still No Nobel

A day has gone by, and Murakami still hasn’t won the Nobel Prize. I’ve got a small piece about Murakami and the Nobel over at Néojaponisme.

He really came out of no where in 2006 to contend, at least in the bookmakers, for the Nobel. There was a strong push for him that spring, although push might be too strong, as someone has to be pushing.  Supposedly the symposium I mention was to help increase his chances, but I think the other prizes he won were more important. That and the fact that he’s translated into a ridiculous number of languages.

I’m taking a Murakami vacation until his next book comes out. That vacation starts now.

Eels, Monkeys, and Doves

With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and mid-October tomorrow!, when the Nobel Prizes are is announced, I will post a small piece of unpublished Murakami translation once a week from now until the announcement. You can see the other entries in this series here: 1, 2, 3, 4. This is, of course, the final entry in this series. Hope you enjoyed it.

夜のくもざる (Yoru no kumozaru, Night of the Spider Monkey) is a collection of 36 超短編小説 – “super short stories.” Each story is only 2-3 pages each, so it’s a great collection when you are first starting to read Japanese prose and are unable to focus for a long time.

Murakami wrote the stories in two sets as a series of advertisements, the first for a line of clothing from 1985 to 1987 and the second for a fountain pen company from 1993 to 1995. Not that they have anything to do with those things, as Murakami himself readily admits in the afterword. One of his friends just asked him to write short pieces, literally on whatever he wanted to write about, and the stories were set next to the ads in several Japanese magazines. Yoru no kumozaru is a collection of all those stories. I’ve translated one story from each set.

The first story is titled “Eel.” It comes from the early set and features May Kasahara at least five years before she would appear as the infamous biker-blindfolder from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:


    May Kasahara called my house at three thirty in the morning, and naturally I was fast asleep. I was nestled in the thick, warm, velvety mud of sleep with some eel and a pair of long rubber boots, and although it was only temporary, I was devouring a somewhat effective fruit of happiness. And that’s when the phone rang.
    Ring, ring.
    First the fruit disappeared. Then the eel and the rubber boots. Finally the mud disappeared, leaving only me. Only me – thirty-seven years old, a drunk, and nobody likes me. Who has the right to steal eel and rubber boots from me?
    Ring, ring.
    “Hello?” said May Kasahara. “Hello?”
    “Yes, hello,” I answered.
    “Um, it’s me, May Kasahara. Sorry it’s late, but the ants are out again. They’re making a nest by the column in the kitchen. I chased the bastards out of the bath, but tonight they’ve moved their nest over here. The whole thing! They even brought all their tiny little white babies. I can’t stand it! So bring that spray over again. I’m sorry it’s so late, but I absolutely hate ants. Hey, you understand?”
    I shook my head violently in the darkness. Who the hell is May Kasahara? Who the fuck is this May Kasahara to come and steal eel out of my head?
    So I put that question to her.
    “Oops, I’m sorry. Looks like I made a mistake,” said May Kasahara sincerely. “The ants have me all confused. You see, the ants are moving their nest together. Sorry.”
    May Kasahara hung up the phone first, and I set the receiver down. Somewhere in the world, ants were moving their nest, and May Kasahara was looking for someone’s help.
    I sighed and pulled my futon covers over my head. I closed my eyes and looked for signs of those friendly eel in the mud of sleep again.

Murakami has often mentioned that he starts writing with one word or image in mind, using that as a generative source and following the path of whatever springs into his head from that point. The stories in 夜のくもざる illustrate this technique better than anything else he’s ever written.

The most awkward sentence there is “I was devouring a somewhat effective fruit of happiness.” In Japanese it is: それなりに有効な幸せの果物を貪って(むさぼって)いたのである。Clearly this is kind of an idiom, but you have to keep it somewhat literal because the fruit disappears shortly after. Murakami also uses the kanji for ant – 蟻. Strange considering it’s often written in katakana.

The next story comes from the later set. It is, as far as I know, the only story that Murakami has ever written in 関西弁, the Kansai-accent prevalent in Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. Murakami grew up speaking it but stopped using it when he moved to Tokyo. There are a million different ways to translate this story, as it could really be translated into any vernacular of any language. I went with the one I’m most familiar with, one that I would call “American preppy thug”:


A monkey, yo. You know, a monkey. And I’m not fuckin around here, there was a real live monkey up in a tree, yo. Surprised the hell out of me, too! Whoa, what the hell, a monkey, I was thinkin, and there it was. Dude’s a monkey, ya know. So then, I just watch the fucker for a while. Thinkin, holy shit, a monkey! So then the dude falls. Straight out of the tree. The fucker slips and falls straaaight out of the tree. And I was starin at it thinkin yo what the hell, what the hell. No lie, bro, a real live monkey fell out of a real live tree. Just straight down, and bam. And don’t they say that shit all the time? Even monkeys fall out of trees. Ya know? Just like the old saying. Couldn’t fuckin believe it. Those old dudes were smart motherfuckers. They said some wise shit. Even monkeys fall out of trees. You don’t come up with shit like that every day. What I’m tryin to say is that a monkey actually fell out of a tree, dude. That shit actually happens. Can’t just laugh at those old sayings. Old motherfuckers were wise, yo. Dudes knew shit, yo. So I was thinking. So that saying, “Even monkeys fall from trees,” ya know…so say a real live monkey falls out of a tree, and he falls out and bam, you couldn’t walk up to the fucker and say, “Yo, dude, you gotta watch out, there’s this old saying ‘Even monkeys fall from trees.’” Yeah, old sayings are supposed to be warnings, yo. But a real live monkey that fell out of a tree, think you could actually go up and say that to him? That’d be some cold shit to say to a monkey. Think you could do it? Know I couldn’t. But that reminded me that old sayings are some wise shit for real. Cuz monkeys do fall from trees, ya know. That’s some smart shit. Surprised the hell out of me. Yo, you ever seen a dove get shot by a bean shooter? I have, for reals. A while back I was watching this dove. I’m not fuckin around, yo. For reals. Wise shit, yo. Surprised the hell out of me. So it gets hit by the bean. And then…

The first ことわざ here translates into English pretty easily, but the second doesn’t. In Japanese it is 鳩(はと)が豆鉄砲(まめでっぽう)を食らったよう. Apparently it refers to the look of surprise on a dove’s face when it gets hit by a bean from a bean-shooter. That I learned from this 慣用句辞典, a most excellent resource. Highly recommended.

I also highly recommend 夜のくもざる. It’s a nice, light collection. All of the stories are strange and funny. I believe the hardback edition is out of print, but you can still find the paperback version new.

Here is one of Mizumaru Anzai’s monkey drawings from the collection:


How to サンマ焼き

サンマ are those tiny little fish you see in the supermarket. They look like this:

They’re pretty cheap and really small. The translation is “Pacific saury,” but I’m not even sure we eat them in the US. I saw my roommate cooking them one time, so I had him show me how to cook them. It’s actually pretty simple.

Step One – Bag it up!

Put it in a little plastic bag with tongs and take it to the checkout.

Step Two – Pour water in the fish drawer.

You can cook it in the little fish drawer that is attached to most Japanese stoves. Pouring some water in the bottom of the grill will make the cleaning process easier.

Step Three – Salt it!

Lightly sprinkle salt on both sides of the fish.

Step Four – Cook it!

Light up the fish drawer and throw the fish in head first. You can cook it on high heat, no problem.

Step Five – Flip it!

After about 10-15 minutes or so, flip it with chopsticks. The fish should be a little more burnt than in the above picture. Let it cook another 10 minutes until the other side is also nice and cooked. The skin will definitely burn a little, so don’t worry about that too much. With both sides it should take between 20-30 minutes.

Step Six – Eat it!

A lot of the oil drips out of the fish while it grills, so the meat itself doesn’t taste very fishy at all. It’s really tasty. You can garnish it with grated daikon + soy sauce and then sprinkle it with lemon/lime/sudachi or just eat it alone with rice and soup. Bonus points if you can handle the stinky beans. The one thing I can’t tell you how to do is eat it with chopsticks. That takes some serious practice.

サンマ is generally written in katakana, but it has cool kanji, too – 秋刀魚.


With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and mid-October, when the Nobel Prizes are announced, I will post a small piece of unpublished Murakami translation once a week from now until the announcement. You can see the other entries in this series here: 1, 2, 3.

A couple weeks ago I went to the first day of the three-day Oktoberfest celebration in Hibiya Park. They had a tent set up, a stage for the German band, and really long lines for beer (Super Dry, Lowenbrau).

It took a few minutes, but once the music got going, it was total madness. I saw a stout, sweaty mother wearing a utility belt imploring her embarrassed (and seated) high-school-aged son to dance; a group of Americans wasted trying to make a pyramid out of empty beer mugs; a group of company workers all dancing madly; and a whole tent full of people doing a samba line dance to polka music – it was an anthropological clusterfuck. Still, the whole thing was very Japanese: mildly participatory, highly intoxicating, and rigidly controlled.

*blatant transition start*
There were also lederhosen.

*blatant transition finish*

Murakami’s story “Lederhosen” has been published in English, but not in its complete form. It’s the first story in Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round (回転木馬のデッド・ヒート), my favorite of his collections of short stories. Murakami initially maintained that all the stories in the collection had actually happened and that he was just relaying them to the reader as they had been told to him by friends and acquaintances, but he later admitted that they were all fiction.

The English translation was included in The Elephant Vanishes, but Alfred Birnbaum had to adapt it slightly, as the first few paragraphs make no sense unless you’ve read Murakami’s introductory remarks to Dead Heat.

Here are those paragraphs:

    I decided to write the series of sketch-like stories contained in this book one summer a few years ago. Up until that point I hadn’t once wanted to write anything in this style, so if she hadn’t told me that story – and hadn’t then asked me whether or not this kind of story could form material for fiction – I might not have written this book. So that makes her the one who struck the match for me.
    But it took a fairly long time for the flame to reach me after she struck that match. Some of the fuses that lead to my body are incredibly long. Sometimes they are too long, even longer than my standard of conduct or the average lifespan of my emotions. When that happens, even when the flame finally makes it to me, sometimes I can’t find any meaning in it.  But in this case, I kind of ignited within that time limit and ended up writing these stories.
    The woman who told me that story was a junior high school classmate of my wife’s. She and my wife weren’t exactly all that close when they were in school, but they once ran into each other randomly after they were in their thirties, and thanks to that chance meeting, they’ve been hanging out quite often ever since. Sometimes I feel as though, to husbands, there is no one with as awkward an existence as a wife’s friend, but despite that, ever since the first time I met the woman, I’ve been able to have a sense of affection for her.

Sadly my prose reads nowhere near as smoothly as Birnbaum’s does. He is a master. I’m hesitant to post a link to pirated prose on this site, but it’s all for educational purposes, so what the hell: Yoshio Osakabe, the only bigger Murakami fanboy than myself, seems to have posted the story on his website.

Birnbaum pulled the first three sentences of his translation from deeper in the story to use as the introduction, and it works pretty well. Definitely more of a “hook” than Murakami’s slower introduction.

The only other major change (that I can be asked to find), is the very last line. In the English Birnbaum goes with, “A proxy pair of lederhosen, I’m thinking, that her father never even received.” The Japanese is just the simple 「僕もそう思う」と僕はいった。

Other than “Lederhosen,” “Hunting Knife” and “Nausea 1979” have been translated, both without any obfuscation. They are included in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, as is “Crabs,” which Murakami expanded from a small part of the story titled 野球場 (やきゅうじょう, Baseball Field).

No major Japanese lessons today. There was one sentence that gave me a ton of trouble. This is it: 「僕はときどき妻の友人くらい夫にとって奇妙な存在はないような気がするのだが、それでも彼女には最初に会ったときからある類の好感を抱くことができた。」There are plenty of variables when translating that sentence, the most frustrating being the whole plural-singular debate. Sigh. The other thing to remember, which my roommates reminded me of, is that くらい = ほど.

Here are some pictures of my first copy of Dead Heat.


I bought it kind of randomly in a used bookstore near Waseda University. When I started reading it, I realized what it was (the collection of “true” stories) and got more interested, so I decided to bring it along with me on a month-long trip to South East Asia as my only book. I figured I was in Japan to learn Japanese, and if I was going to take a trip to foreign countries with only English-speaking friends, I should be reading Japanese. So I guess it’s the first Japanese book I ever read…kind of. I can’t remember if I got all the way through, and I wasn’t really looking up words the whole way, so my first novel is still Risa Wataya’s 『蹴りたい背中』, which still hasn’t been translated into English.

Strangely enough, I was dealing with my own gastrointestinal issues (green poop) when I read “Nausea 1979” in Bangkok.