“The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Old Dreams

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 Murakami translation once a week from now until the announcement. You can see the other entries in this series here: 1, 2.

It’s hard to pick the other passages to share – the story is long, and there are a number of parts that differ from Hard-boiled Wonderland. I think getting to the end is important, though, so I’ll fast forward through the central part of the tale, which unfolds mostly as it does in the novel – boku maps out the Wall a little, explores the dreams at the Library, starts a relationship with kimi (very different from the novel), meets up with his shadow which has begun to weaken, and realizes that he must help his shadow escape from the Town.

Before he does, he takes kimi into the archives of the Library and illuminates all the dreams. In the novel, this was to unravel the Librarian’s mind from all of the dreams. In “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall,” there’s a markedly different result:

All of the old dreams are awake.

“There’s no way, how can this…” you say in a daze. Yes, exactly. The old dreams have had all of their existence torn away from them. Words torn from their voices, light torn from their eyes, and dreams torn from their sleep.

“There’s no way.”

Or maybe we’re both seeing the same illusion in the deep darkness of the archives. But even if this is an illusion, it’s an illusion that the old dreams in the room have mustered their last bit of strength to unfurl for us.

I go with them down into a deep, hole that’s been dug in the ground. It’s a place where everything is ruined and everything is lost. The river has dried up, the hill has crumbled, and the light has stopped. The road I follow is surrounded on both sides by steep cliffs filled at the bottom with heavy water that gives off a rotten smell. There are no stars nor moon, and only a slight amount of dust-like light spills out from within the earth, causing the outlines of the surrounding scenery to just barely float up.

The thousands of old dreams stand in front of me and guide me through the surroundings. I walk slowly so as not to miss a step on the sheer road. I can see endless rows of troops marching in the opposite direction as me on a road on the opposite shore of a lake. They have no heads on their shoulders. They occasionally expel white breath from a gaping, black hole in the middle of their shoulders like they are breathing.

The old dreams continue on the straight road. As they proceed, the seasons change, years pass. Only the darkness remains the same. Several of the soldiers call out to me. They call out with gurgling sounds from the holes in their bodies.

I am all alone. I’ve lost sight of you. I yell out your name as I walk, but there is no reply. The only response is the mocking gurgling sound from the soldiers. The old dreams continue.

“Wait for me,” I yell. “I have to wait for her.”

The old dreams don’t answer and just continue their endless flashing. I can’t stop either. This is not my place. This is their country. My feet, heedless of my will, continue after the old dreams. All sorts of rubbish lines the side of the road. I recognize all of it. Several dozen dead cats with their fur all rigid staring into the void. Broken, faded toys buried in dried mud with their arms pointing up into the air. Old sports shirts that have had cigarette marks burned into them hanging from the branches of trees.

Time passes as I continue on the road. My eyes hollow, my hair falls out, and my teeth rot. Deep wrinkles appear all over my skin, and I have to convulse my entire body to take even one breath.

“Stop,” I yell. “Please, enough. Stop!”

But the old dreams still continue. Suddenly the road ends. When I realize it, I am standing on a deserted rocky scrag. No longer is there any water or soldiers in the area around me. It’s almost like I’m standing at the bottom of a deep well. The ceiling is infinitely high, and far above in that darkness overhead is a small white hole the size of a pinprick. It is the light of the sun.

Nothing in the world is as amazing as the light from the sun. Don’t you think?

Indeed, colonel. Indeed.

Tears spill from my eyes. The tears turn to salt crystals and fall to the ground, collecting on the scrag. At that point the old dreams lose their light one after another like they’ve burnt up. When they lose their light, they fall to the ground quietly like a feather. And when the last bit of light is sucked away into the air, the area is covered by a pitch black darkness. The white light in the ceiling is already gone. And everything ends.

I’m not exactly sure what this momentary transportation means. Perhaps that dreams, and the mind, continue on heedless of the casualties it leaves behind, even oneself. Murakami cut the passage for the novel. No need to worry – in next week’s installment, both boku and kimi survive the illusion and retreat to the banks of the river to talk.

“The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – The Library

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 Murakami translation once a week from now until the announcement. You can see the other entries in this series here: 1.

The boku narrator finishes reminiscing about his summer day spent with kimi’s shadow and invites the reader to go back to the Town (街に戻ろう) and experience it along with him. I translated these sections in present tense, partially as a nod to Alfred Birnbaum. Once you read it that way, it almost feels wrong to try and render it in past tense. Also, it does neatly solve the narrative problem – the story’s framing devices are translated in past tense (other than the invitation above), as they clearly look back on boku’s time spent in the Town, but the point of narration for the meat of the story (the parts in the Town) is much closer to the action, and it’s fun to feel the Town so immediately surrounding you as you read.

As with Hard-boiled Wonderland, the first thing described upon arrival are the beasts and their daily ritual as they walk through the Town and out of the Gate. After a few days boku finally visits the Library:

On the third day after my arrival in the Town, I push open the door of the Library. The door opens with a creak, and a hallway runs far into the depths within. The air is stale and dusty, and a few yellow light bulbs hang from the high ceiling. It smells like dried sweat. The light barely illuminates the hallway and is so dim that even my body is fuzzy, as though it will be sucked into some other place. Worn down cedar floorboards, plaster walls that seemed to have discolored to match the light of the light bulbs; the hallway continues forever, turning several times as it goes. The building must be deeper than it is wide. I feel like I’m descending into the earth.

I continue walking, and just when I start to feel like I won’t ever get anywhere but can’t go back, an entrance suddenly appears. A delicate door inlaid with polished glass. I turn the aged brass knob and open the door. Inside is a perfectly square room about five meters on all sides. There are no windows and no decorations. There is a modest wooden bench, and a rusted heater is set in the middle of the room with a kettle on top giving off white steam. Straight ahead is a circulation counter, and beyond that there is a door that appears to lead to the archives. Which means this must be the Library. I sit on the wooden bench and warm my hands while I wait for someone to come.


You come through the door in the back thirty minutes later.

“I’m sorry,” you say. “I didn’t know that anyone was going to be coming.”

I smile but don’t know exactly why.

“As I’m sure you know, hardly anyone comes here ever since all the books went away.”

The kettle gives a rattle and purrs like a cat.

“Now, what were you here for?” you ask.

I’m looking for old dreams.

“Old dreams.” You look at me with an anxious smile on your face. Of course you don’t remember me. Because the things that connect us are nothing more than a few uncertain events that happened long, long ago in a shadow country.

“Yes, old dreams” is all I reply.

“I’m terribly sorry,” you say still smiling that smile. “But only the Prophet is allowed to touch the old dreams.”

Silently I remove my black glasses and show you my eyes. They are unmistakably the weak eyes of the Prophet. I was given them when I entered the Town.

“I see,” you say and glance downward. “Where shall we begin?”

“For now, I’d like to see a few.”

Nothing makes a sound in the circulation room, and the dust-like air has settled over the room. While you prepare the old dreams, I sit on the bench and casually watch you as I drink the kettle’s hot coffee from an enamel cup. You haven’t changed at all. You are just as you were that summer evening.

“Haven’t I met you somewhere?” I ask, trying to insinuate an answer.

You lift your head from an old notebook on the counter, stare at my face for a moment, and then shake your head.

“No, unfortunately not.” Your smile refuses to disappear. “But I’ve lived in the Town forever, so maybe we have met somewhere. It’s a very small Town after all.”

“But I just came to the Town three days ago.”

“Three days?” You shake your head in disbelief. “Well, you must be mistaken then. Because I’ve been in the Town since I was born.”

“My apologies,” I say, backing down. “Do you have a younger sister or a cousin that looks a lot like you?”

“No, I don’t,” you say blushing slightly and giving a shake of your head.

I drink my coffee silently.

The Library’s ceiling is high. And quiet as the bottom of the sea.

Parts of the description of the Library are similar, but much of it has been reworked. The biggest difference, of course, is that the reader knows who the Librarian is. Part of the greatness of Hard-boiled Wonderland is slowly getting to know the Librarian and realizing her connection with the other half of the novel. Here we know there is a connection between boku and kimi, but we’re still unsure of how it will play out in the Town.

“The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and Weirs

Year number three of Murakami Nobel Prize Watch on How to Japonese begins…now.

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 Murakami translation once a week from now until the announcement.

The past two years I’ve posted a smorgasbord of Murakami translation from across his catalog. (See Year One [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] and Year Two [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].) This year, I’d like to focus and spread out a longer piece over the entire month. Thus, I’ll be clipping out some of my favorite scenes from a story titled “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall.”

As I’ve written previously, “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” was the rough draft of sorts for Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. It was published as a novella in the September, 1980 edition of Bungakukai. In commentary included with his Complete Works, Murakami calls it a failed story, but there are actually a lot of very nice scenes, and it was the story where he invented the Town and its herds of golden-fleeced unicorns, so how terrible can it be, right?

I’ve already written a little about the beginning of the story as well as the end. This week’s scene comes from the beginning before the boku narrator gets to the Town but after he’s damned his own ability to relate words effectively to another person:

You told me about the Town.

At dusk one summer night when we were eighteen, we walked toward the upper reaches of the river, smelling the sweet smell of grass as we went. Not that we had a particular destination in mind – we were just walking upstream. We climbed countless weirs on the rapids and watched the fish in clear pools. We must’ve been on our way back from the swimming pool because we were both barefoot. The clear, cold water washed our ankles, and the fine sand at the bottom of the river brushed softly against our feet like new cotton.

You had your yellow heeled sandals in a veneer shoulder bag and walked several steps ahead of me from sandbar to sandbar. Small seeds of grass stuck to your wet legs like pellets of light, and the last rays of afternoon sunlight made shadows shake on the surface of the river.

When you got tired of walking, you sat down in the summer grass and looked up at the sky. In the silence, the dim darkness began to enclose our bodies.

It felt strange. Almost as though your body and my mind were linked by thousands and thousands of invisible threads. Every blink of your eye, every faint movement of your lips was enough to make my mind tremble.

We didn’t have names. We were only thoughts above the grass by the riverside in the summer when we were eighteen. Neither you, nor I had names. The river, too, had no name. That was the rule. Above us, stars began to twinkle. The stars also had no names. We lay down on the grass in a world without names.

“The Town is surrounded by a tall wall,” you said. “It’s not a very big town, but it’s not small enough to suffocate you.”

And this is how the Town came to have a wall.

As you continued to tell the story, the Town came to have a river and three bridges, a bell tower and a Library, and then an abandoned foundry and a set of run-down apartment buildings.

In the faint light of the summer evening, we sat still and looked down at the Town. Our shoulders rested against each other.

The the real me lives in the Town surrounded by a wall, you said. But it took me eighteen years to find the Town. And to find the real me…

“What is the real you doing in the Town?”

“Working in the Library,” you said proudly. “Work there is from six in the evening to eleven.”

“Would I be able to meet the real you if I went there?”

“Yes, of course. As long as you can find the Town. And then…”

That was when you clammed up and blushed. But I could feel the words that you hadn’t put into words.

And then, you’d have to really want me. Those were your words. I held you. But what I held on that summer evening was no more than your shadow.

The tone in the Japanese is sad and slow and fantastic. It feels almost like reality, but not quite; like a boku in objective reality is walking along a real river with a real girl and the interaction with her is so intense that it becomes abstracted into this metaphor of a Town that he must enter in order to discover the real kimi. The woman in the story is referred to consistently in second person except for a few instances where the narrator lapses into kanojo, which I think was probably accidental.

The hardest word to translate in this passage was 流砂止めの滝 (りゅうさどめのたき), which seems to literally translation as “landslide prevention waterfalls.” Googling the phrase really only turn up the story, so it’s hard to know exactly what Murakami was referring to, but a friend helped me find the English word “weir,” which I think is what he’s talking about. A Google Images search of “weir” turns up photos of small waterfall-like dams (weirs) that you often see in Japan. (The long, wide rivers in Kyoto come to mind.)

Cool Word – キャッシュオン

I have an article online today over at CNNGo Tokyo. I give a brief introduction to 和製英語 (わせいえいご) and list a few of my favorites. One of these is キャッシュオン, which is a shortened form of キャッシュオンデリバリー. I learned the phrase at Dry Dock, but Ushitora also has キャッシュオン events. I love the way the word sounds, and it’s a lot of fun to overpronounce it. Although, whenever I say it now, I say it with a Cajun accent, a la Cajun Man.

While I’m here, I should go ahead and do a mini-rinkage post.

Big (only) in Japan? Oshibori

I’ve had a bit of reverse culture shock since I’ve been home. The most notable shock has been shoes in the house. Hate it. After that, I guess it’s a toss up between cash-less shopping, the frigid temperatures people in New Orleans keep their ACs set at, and eating food with hands. For the first few weeks I felt a weird sensation of never having enough money on me. In Japan, not having enough cash can have serious consequences – like having to walk home a really long ways or go hungry/thirsty for longer than is pleasant. I’ve gotten over it thanks to my debit card, which can be used just about everywhere in the U.S. I’ve also realized why people bring sweaters to the library – the library is super cold! Come on, people, 68F is not a normal inside temperature. The other weird sensation I have is that my hands are constantly dirty. Part of this is due to the lack of chopsticks, part of this is do to the prevalence of hand feedin’, and part of it is due to the lack of oshibori. I seriously miss oshibori.

Cool Kanji – 末

Hooray for the weekend! This semester I don’t have any class or work on Friday, so I automatically get 三連休, and this particular weekend expands to 四 thanks to Labor Day. (HOLY SHIT IT’S GOOD TO BE A STUDENT!)

The Japanese for weekend is 週末 (しゅうまつ). The kanji 末 is a handy one to recognize. It often gets used as a suffix to mean the end of something. For example, 年末, 期末, 月末, and 世紀末 among others. Once you recognize it, you’ll be able to parse it as a suffix in unknown vocab much more easily.

(Note: Never confuse 期末 [きまつ, end of school term] with 末期 [まつご, end of life, terminal]. Damn you, Japonese and your flipable compounds.)

It also gets pronounced すえ and used in the construction “X〜た末、Y.” It still means an “end” of sorts in this case, just an end of the verb that comes before it, implying the English tone of “after much ~ing, Y occurred/I managed to Y/I did Y.”


いろいろ考えた末、日本で留学することにした。 After thinking about it quite a bit/After much consideration, I decided to study abroad in Japan.

長い間がんばった末、やっと翻訳の仕事を見つけた。 After a lot of hard work, I finally found a translation job. (Weird translation – ignore it, remember the Japonese, please.)

号外 – Oyster Day Shirts!

Happy Oyster Day!

This is the third year I’ve celebrated Oyster Day, and the first year I’ve made T-shirts for the event (thanks to a suggestion from a gung-ho bivalvaholic in the area). You can see year one posts here and here, and last year I began my series of Murakami translation posts on Oyster Day. This year I need the long Labor Day weekend for some final touches on what should be an exciting month of Murakami Madness, so もう少々お待ちください.