Character Studies and Murakami’s Financial Situation

Welcome back to Murakami Fest 2020!

Previous Murakami Fest Posts:

Year 1: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year 2: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year 3: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year 4: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year 5: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year 6: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year 7: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year 8: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year 9: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year 10: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year 11: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year 12: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo
Year 13: Murakami Preparedness, Pacing Norwegian Wood

The next chapter is titled “The Port and Vangelis” (港とヴァンゲリス), and it nicely summarizes the somewhat disorganized chapter that serves as a travel sketch and profile.

A big part of Murakami’s life on Mykonos revolves around the weather and availability of fish. They have to rush to the market in the morning to buy fish. There’s no fish store, just the market, and everything available sells out in a 30-minute window after the boats return from fishing in the morning. So when the weather is calm, they rush to the market and buy a few days’ worth of fish.

Greek food doesn’t sit well for them, and they end up needing to purge with simple meals after eating too much of the local food. Murakami goes on extensively about hanging out octopus to dry before cooking it, and there is even a photo included of an octopus strung out with Mykonos in the background included in the text. (Photo above is not from the book, but rather from Wikimedia Commons.)

This chapter is a good example of Murakami capturing characters on his trip. This section about the fish market leads naturally to their building manager Vangelis, who walks around the market talking with everyone. He manages a set of 20-30 two-floor buildings all surrounded by a wall. Each building has two maisonette style apartments. He’s turning 60 the following year and is relatively uneducated but has good intuition. He has a son and a daughter and two grandchildren. Family is important to him, and he seems disappointed Murakami doesn’t have kids. I’d say he could serve as inspiration for the Colonel in Hard-boiled Wonderland, but he’d already published that book by this point. It’s almost the reverse: one of his fictional characters come to life in the form of a middle-aged Greek man.

I enjoyed this part about Vangelis on Christmas Day:

Vangelis doesn’t drink while he works. But on Christmas Day, he put on his best suit and got quite drunk in his building manager’s office. Well, Christmas is basically like Japanese New Year’s. When Vangelis gets drunk, he turns bright red, is much more cheerful than usual, and talks loudly. He offered me some whiskey. He filled a glass to the brim. The whiskey was Johnny Walker Red Label. He was extremely proud to be drinking Johnny Walker. He must’ve been saving it specially for Christmas. He usually drinks cheap wine. He never drinks uzo. A long time ago he got drunk on uzo and something happened, so he seems to have sworn off it. No matter how much uzo I offered, Vangelis never took a sip of it. “Uzo is bad liquor,” he said with a dark look on his face. “Makes you an idiot. Haruki, you should be careful. Drink wine instead.”

ヴァンゲリスは仕事中は酒を飲まない。でもクリスマスの日には一張羅のスーツを着込んで、管理人室でかなり酔っぱらっていた。まあクリスマスといえば正月みたいなものである。ヴァンゲリスは酔っぱらうと真っ赤になって、いつもより陽気になり、声が大きくなる。そして僕にウィスキーを飲ませる。グラスになみなみと注いでくれる。ウィスキーはジョニー・ウォーカーの赤ラベルである。彼はジョニー・ウォーカーを飲んでいることがすごく得意そうだった。きっとクリスマス用に大事にとっておいたお酒なのだろう。いつもはだいたい安物のワインを飲んでいる。ウゾーは飲まない。昔ウゾーで酔っぱらって何かあって、それで懲りたのかもしれない。僕がどれだけウゾーを進めても、ヴァンゲリスは絶対に口をつけなかった。「ウゾー、悪い酒。頭バカになる。ハルキも気をつけたほうがいい。ワインにしなって」と言って暗い顔をした。 (156)

Vangelis takes a liking to the Murakamis and ends up serving as a social go-between for them. He takes them with him to Cafe Neon, a space for locals where foreign tourists aren’t usually welcomed. He pours them wine, points out items on the menu, and eventually the cafe warms up to the Murakamis.

The chapter ends with one additional character, whom Murakami calls T氏 (T-shi, Mr. T). This is interesting because so far Murakami has referred to everyone by name. I think this is likely because T is the property owner and the description of him isn’t flattering. He tries to sell one of the buildings to Murakami, who decides not to make a purchase. There is a cryptic mention of his finances in Tokyo:

But of course we didn’t buy one. They were nice vacation houses and pretty well built, the price was high but fair, and I liked the manager, Vangelis. But at that time, we didn’t have the leeway (we’d left Japan because financially we’d had a bit of instability), plus Greece is a little far from Japan. It’s not an easy place to access, where you might say, guess I’ll go to Guam for a bit, even if you had the time. If you had a vacation house in a place like Greece it would just end up being a lot of work.

でももちろん僕らは買わなかった。なかなかよくできた良いリゾート・ハウスだったし、値段も高いなりにまあ妥当な値段だったし、管理人ヴァンゲリスのことも気に入っていた。でもそのときは僕らにはそんな余裕はなかったし、(僕らは経済的にはそれなりの不安を抱えて日本を出てきたのだ)、それにギリシャは日本からいささか遠すぎる。暇ができても、じゃあちょっとグアムにでも行くかという風に簡単に行けるところではない。そんなところにリゾート・ハウスを持っても手間がかかるでけである。(158)

This is interesting, and perhaps refers to some of the “negative reasons” he ended up needing to take the European trip. But it does feel strange. He’d given up the jazz bar gig after completing Pinball, 1973, had had some serious success and written lots of stories and four novels, including the lengthy Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, plus we know he’s exhausted from all the writing and writing-adjacent work he’s been doing. But I guess cost of living in Japan might have been high for the salary he was able to turn around? Interesting little passage.

Pacing Norwegian Wood

Year 1: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year 2: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year 3: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year 4: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year 5: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year 6: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year 7: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year 8: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year 9: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year 10: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year 11: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year 12: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo
Year 13: Murakami Preparedness

After a cold, rainy fall on Spetses, the Murakamis decide to relocate to Mykonos, which he describes in a chapter simply titled “Mykonos.” Murakami is skeptical because he’s been before (twice apparently!) and it was more touristy than he was hoping for.

But that was during the season. The travel agent convinces him to take an off season spot on Mykonos, which ends up being perfect…and one of his only options. Murkami thought a lot of apartments would be available during the off season, but supply availability drops with demand, and a lot of landlords have already taken off for the year and are on vacation. It becomes difficult to even get in touch with them.

Mykonos in the off season is quiet and he ends up being relatively productive. After a big chunk complaining about the terrible, cold weather and why so many Japanese visit during that season (fall honeymoon season, New Year’s travels), he talks about what he worked on:

But as a result, despite this terrible weather, or perhaps precisely because of this terrible weather, Mykonos during the off season was actually the ideal environment for me to quietly get some work done. Here I completed the translation of C.D.B. Bryan’s novel The Great Dethriffe. It was pretty long, but the story was interesting, and I wanted to get through it quickly and start working on my own novel, so I steadily worked through the translation every day. I still wasn’t using a word processor at this point, so I crammed my writing into a college notebook with a fountain pen.

Once I made it to the end of The Great Dethriffe, I wrote several sketch-like pieces of writing about life on Spetses (the basis for the essays in this book) and then got started on the long-awaited novel. During that time my body had this incredible itch to write a novel. I was parched, thirsting for words. “Bringing” myself to that point was the most important thing. You can’t write a long novel without bringing yourself right up to a point like that. Just like running a marathon, if you fail to make the adjustments to get to that point, you won’t have the breath for the long haul.

That novel would later become Norwegian Wood, but I didn’t have a title at that point. I started writing casually and with the goal of making it a smooth 300-350 pages or so of 400-character manuscript paper, but when I’d written 600 pages I realized, “That’s not gonna work. There’s no way I’ll finish in 300-400 pages.” From that point until April of the following year (1987) I became completely absorbed in novel life as we moved between Sicily and Rome. In the end, the completed novel was 900 pages.

でも結果的に言って、このようなひどい天候にもかかわらず、いや、このようなひどい天候なればこそ、シーズン・オフのミコノスは僕が静かに仕事をするには実にもってこいの環境だった。僕はここでC・D・B・ブライアンの『グレート・デスリフ』という小説の翻訳を仕上げた。けっこう長い小説だったのだけれど、面白い話だったし、とにかくこれを早く仕上げて自分の小説にかかろうと思って、こつこつと毎日翻訳を進めていた。この頃はまだワードプロセッサーを使っていなかったから、大学ノートに万年筆でぎっしりと字を書いていた。

『グレート・デスリフ』を最後まで仕上げてから、スペッツェス島での生活についていくつかスケッチのような文章を書き(ここに収められたものの原形である)、それから待ち兼ねていたように小説にかかった。その頃にはその小説が書きたくて、僕のからだはどうしようもなくむずむずしていた。からだが言葉を求めてからからにに乾いていた。そこまで自分のからだを「持っていく」ことがいちばん大事なのだ。長い小説というのはそれくらいぎりぎりに持っていかないと書けない。マラソン・レースと同じで、ここに来るまでの調整に失敗すると長丁場で息がつづかなくなる。

この小説はのちに『ノルウェイの森』になるわけだが、このときにはまだタイトルもついていない。四百字詰めで三百枚か三百五十枚くらいのさらっとした小説にしようというくらいの軽い気持ちで書き始めたのだが、百枚くらい書いたところで「こりゃ駄目だ、とても三百、四百じゃ終わらない」とわかった。以来翌年(一九八七)の四月まで、シシリー、ローマと移動しながらの小説漬けの生活にのめり込んでいくことになる。結局出来上がった小説は九百枚だった。 (140-141)

This is a fascinating look at Murakami’s productivity and practices. As usual, he knocks out translations and nonfiction like they’re nothing. The Great Dethriffe is 252 pages, a substantial translation. He then writes the essays. And then apparently gets a draft of Norwegian Wood written in what must be about a six-month span. Absolutely crazy.

900 pages with 400 characters means 360,000 characters, and at about 2.2 English words per character that’s just over 160,000 words. Not a huge novel like the kind that Murakami writes now, and he was working from the short story “Firefly” (nice little ode to “Firefly” right here) but a remarkable feat nonetheless. All done on the road while putting up with storms and all sorts of other challenges (which we’ll see in later chapters)!

Murakami spends the rest of the chapter reminiscing about the different bars on Mykonos. After he writes every day (time his wife spends reading books, studying Italian, playing with cats, and not talking to him), they go to a bar and talk.

As usual Murakami does a good job of capturing the other people they run into. Bar owners, residents who have been to Japan before, the foreign community, and he ends the chapter with a sense that Mykonos is a place filled with people who are a little lost.

This is such a great book (rough at times, but full of energy), and it’s a shame it hasn’t been translated.

*

A brief aside about The Great Dethriffe. It’s a terrible book. The New York Times panned it when it was published. Japanese reviewers on Amazon have this to say about it:

グレート・ギャツビー(村上春樹訳)を読んで、数日後に読破。残念ながら、グレート・ギャツビーにかないいません。村上春樹さんの力の入れようも違うのかな。(I read The Great Gatsby [Haruki Murakami’s translation] and finished it in just a few days. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold a candle to The Great Gatsby. Maybe Murakami was wrong to put his energy into this.)

Even C.D.B. Bryan didn’t like it: One of his children has a blog with anecdotes from his letters, including this line: “So I went back to read Dethriffe yesterday and hated every minute of it. Why is it so difficult to reread something after it has been published.”

So I was extremely confused about how Murakami came to translate a book published in 1970 during the fall of 1986, why he chose to do so, and whether there might have been anything in the book that drew him to it or would speak to his own style.

To be an absolute completionist, I bought a copy on Amazon, read a few chapters, and then speed read the rest of the book. It’s not good. There are pages and pages of dialogue that should have been cut, a few bizarre racist and sexist passages (that might be jokes?), and not much going for it other than a prescient sense of how far the Gatsby revival would take F. Scott Fitzgerald stock. It reads almost like a pastiche of Gatsby had Gatsby actually married Daisy and then realized the wanting is better than the getting.

I think the Gatsby connection is the main reason Murakami translated this book. Maybe they thought they could cash in on the connection or something. There are some extended passages of people telling stories, a technique Murakami has used frequently, but he had already developed it at this point in his career. It wasn’t anything new. Bryan also makes the mistake of telling these stories completely within dialogue, never switching to third person, which is one of the pleasures of the technique.

*

Murakami returns to Mykonos 24 years later to make a pilgrimage to the spot where he wrote Norwegian Wood, and he’s actually able to take a peek into the place where he lived. I wrote about this essay back in 2016.

Murakami Preparedness

Welcome to Murakami Fest 2020! This year I’ll be looking at five chapters from 遠い太鼓 (Tōi taiko, Distant Drums), his travel memoir from Europe. It’s an interesting chunk of time—October 1986 through January 1987. This is when Murakami begins writing Norwegian Wood. This is notable because we know the book is published on September 4, 1987. He does have a head start with the short story “Firefly,” which forms part of the story, but he still finds a way to knock out this book in less than a year. Probably much less than that. Incredible.

This is Year 13. We’re a teenager. Here are the previous entries:

Year One: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year Two: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year Three: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year Four: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year Five: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year Six: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year Seven: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year Eight: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year Nine: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year Ten: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year Eleven: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year Twelve: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo

In the chapter I’m looking at today, titled “A Storm Arrives” (嵐来る), the Murakamis deal with an unexpected storm on Spetses that lasts from October 27 to October 30 with a brief pause in the middle. A few neighbors mention to him in passing that it’s going to rain, but they are surprised by the intensity of the storm, which begins to flood the house where they’re staying. They’re forced to mop up with rags and stuff newspapers in the doors to try and prevent water from getting in.

During an initial break after the first day, they go out for fast food and even catch a movie, but the storm starts for real the next day, and eventually everything in the apartment is cold and wet. They have a sparse cabinet: enough spaghetti for one serving, tomatoes, cucumbers, a little bacon, onion, canned mushrooms, and coffee.

So we get this nice little section:

“Think we’ll be ok? This is all the food we have,” my wife said in a worried tone.

“We’ll be fine,” I said. “No matter how strong a storm is, there’s always a moment in the middle when the rain cuts out. A little break. When that happens I’ll run over to Anargyros’ place and buy food. We’ll also get some info about the storm if I go to his place.”

“Will the rain really let up so perfectly?”

“It’ll let up. I grew up in Kansai, so I’m pretty familiar with how typhoons work.”

“Assuming Japanese typhoons and Greek storms work the same way,” she said with a look of doubt on her face. She has little faith in my abilities with anything in the worldly realm.

However, as I predicted, the rain suddenly stopped just before noon. The wind also stopped, and the clouds parted as well, as if the storm to this point had been a lie. Only occasional peals of thunder we could hear from the direction of the Peloponnesian peninsula remained. We were in the eye of the typhoon. I ran through the streets filled with puddles to Anargyros’ store. The usual shortcut had been turned into a river. At Anargyro’s store I bought two bags of crackers, cabbage, potatoes, two bottles of mineral water, and wine. Anargyros calculated the bill in his usual leisurely manner, writing numbers on a piece of paper with a look on his face like the storm had nothing to do with him.

“How about that storm?” I said.

“Yup. It rained a lot,” Anargyros said.

“Think it’ll rain tomorrow?” I tried asking.

“Yeah…might rain, might not…” Anargyros said with a grin.

Greeks have this way of occasionally making incredibly philosophical statements, and I always find myself fascinated by it.

「大丈夫かしら、食べるものがこれくらいしかなくて」と女房が心配そうに言う。

「大丈夫だよ」と僕は言う。「どんなに激しい嵐でも、途中でスッと雨の引く瞬間が必ずあるんだよ。中休みみたいに。そのときにひとっ走りアナルギロスのところに行って食料品を買ってくる。彼のところに行けば嵐の情報もわかるしね」

「本当にそんな風に雨がうまくあがるの?」

「ちゃんと上がるったら。僕は関西の育ちだから台風の構造には結構詳しいんだ」

「もし日本の台風とギリシャの嵐が同じような構造ならね」と彼女は疑わしそうな顔つきで言う。彼女は世俗的な領域における僕の能力をあまり信用していないのだ。

しかし僕の予言したとおり、昼前に突然すっと雨がやんだ。これまでの嵐が嘘のように、風も止み、雲も切れた。ペロポネソス半島の方から時折くぐもった雷鳴が聞こえるだけである。台風の目に入ったのだ。僕は水たまりだらけの道を走ってアナルギロスの店まで行った。いつもの近道は川と化していた。アナルギロスの店で僕はクラッカー二袋とキャベツとじゃが芋と、ミネラル・ウォーターを二本とワインを買った。アナルギロスは嵐も何も関係ないと言う顔で数字を紙に書いてあいかわらずのんびりと計算をした。

「嵐だね」と僕が言う。

「うん。雨たくさん降った」とアナルギロスは言う。

「明日も雨降るかな」と僕は訊いてみる。

「そうだね……降るかもしれないし、降らないかもしれないし……」とアナルギロスはにこにこして言う。

ギリシャ人というのはこのようにときどきものすごく哲学的な発言をするが、いちいち感心しているわけにはいかない。 (129-130)

This is a relatively unremarkable chapter but interesting in that we’d likely never be surprised by something like this these days, given how connected everyone is and how ubiquitous smartphones are.

Also, does Murakami buy enough food?! He adds crackers, potatoes, and cabbage—that’s it! Maybe it’s my pandemic prepping mindset or my experience stocking up for hurricanes, but you at least need to grab some milk and eggs before everyone else wipes out the shelves.