Writing is Hard

The last week of Murakami Fest 2020! We get five weeks this year. Hooray!

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, Character Studies and Murakami’s Financial Situation, Mental Retreat

On New Year’s Eve 1986, the Murakamis heads from Mykonos to Athens and then to Rome where he spends New Year’s. People are eating lentils and drinking champagne to celebrate. After celebrating, they head to Sicily for a month, which left a definite impression on Murakami — he notes that if they hadn’t already paid the rent and didn’t have a work commitment (an essay for an in-flight magazine), they would have left early. The city is dirty and run down, violent with crime, and noisy.

Not a great writing atmosphere: He goes as far as calling it Hell (地獄). Murakami manages to write, but the stress of Palermo gives him nightmares, which feels exceptional because he’s said he doesn’t dream very much.

The opera and food in town are the highlights for his time there — he sees three operas and eats heaping plates full of ikasumi linguine.

There’s a nice passage about writing at the beginning of the section, right after he describes how miserable Palermo is:

I lived in that city for a month. And the whole time I was writing Norwegian Wood. I wrote about a sixth of the way through that novel here. Unlike Mykonos, I wasn’t able to go out for walks even when the sun was out, which I guess was tough. If I suddenly wanted a quick change scenery, I couldn’t just take one. So we twice left Palermo to go on short trips. We went once to Taormina and once to Malta. Then we returned to Palermo where I confined myself to the room and worked.

It was hard to keep writing the novel every day. There were times it even felt like I was grinding down my bones or consuming my own flesh. (You might say that it isn’t that massive a novel. But to the writer, that was what it felt like.) However, it was more painful not to write. Writing is hard. But writing itself wants to be written. The most important thing when this happens is focus. The focus to throw yourself into that world. And the strength to sustain that focus for as long as possible. If you do this, you’ll find that at some point you conquer the pain. And you have to believe in yourself. Believe that you have the strength within yourself to complete it.

そんな街に一ヶ月住んだ。そしてそのあいだずっと『ノルウェイの森』を書いていた。その小説のだいたい六合めくらいまではここで書いた。ミコノスとは違って、日が暮れてもちょっと外に散歩に出るということができなくて、それが辛いといえば辛かった。さて気分転換をと思っても、それができない。そこで二回ばかりパレルモを離れて小旅行に出た。一度はタオルミナに、もう一度はマルタ島に行った。そしてパレルモに帰ってくると、また部屋にこもって仕事をした。

毎日小説を書き続けるのは辛かった。時々自分の骨を削り、筋肉を食いつぶしているような気さえした。(それほど大層な小説ではないじゃないかとおっしゃるかもしれない。でも書く方にしてみればそれが実感なのだ)。それでも書かないでいるのはもっと辛かった。文章を書くことは難しい。でも、文章の方は書かれることを求めているのだ。そういうときにいちばん大事なものは集中力である。その世界に自分を放り込むための集中力である。そしてその集中力をできるだけ長く持続させる力である。そうすれば、ある時点でその辛さはふっと克服できる。それから自分を信じること。自分にはこれをきちんと完成させる力があるんだと信じること。 (183)

This feels like good advice…to be taken with a grain of salt. Murakami’s writing advice often feels like it will result in “the scroll.” I think this is the recipe for a lot of bad first drafts, which are necessary to eventually produce good writing, but given what we know about Murakami’s later output, I’m not sure how much editing is being done. Murakami is a sixth done with his novel in January/February 1987, and it goes to press in September. Norwegian Wood itself was a revision project, working based on a short story, so maybe that’s why it works better than some of his other projects. He’s not just sitting down to knock out Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World Vol. 3.

That’s all for Murakami Fest this year! I’ll be back next year with more chapters. I’m curious to see what other bits about Norwegian Wood make it into these little memoirs.

Mental Retreat

Week four of 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, Character Studies and Murakami’s Financial Situation

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This chapter is titled “Retreat from Mykonos.” Murakami is leaving Mykonos, and during the day of departure his mind is preoccupied with Napoleon’s retreat from Russia.

The retreat seems tied in with the terrible weather (it’s rained almost the whole month, it’s raining again as he leaves) and some of the frustrations he’s faced during his time there: He’s working extremely hard on his writing, and he’s had some run-ins with an annoying foreigner living on Mykonos.

The retreat gets blended in with his own experience, a technique that he explores more in depth a few years later in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle through Cinnamon Akasaka, who has a divided self and writes out his grandfather’s vivid experiences in Manchuria. You could also argue that the technique dates back to one of his earliest short stories—“A Poor-Aunt Story.” Although the rain section below more closely mirrors that story. It’s a striking effect. Here’s how the chapter begins:

February 20, 1986. Sunday. Rain.

I’m leaving this island today.

I woke up at 6:30, sat at my desk and worked on the novel for an hour, and then put the bundle of papers into a large envelope when I made it to a temporary stopping place. Then I placed this securely at the bottom of my suitcase so it wouldn’t get folded. Today is also the end of my stay on Mykonos. However, now that I think about the month and a half I’ve lived here, the weather has been awful the entire time. Once or twice a week we’d get perfectly clear days. But other than that it was terrible. It rained, or it was windy, or it was rainy and windy. And most days the sky was gloomily overcast. We were surrounded by beautiful coastline, but I was only able to get in the water and go swimming once.

In the end, our final day here is rainy as well. A silent, misty rain. The wind is also blowing.

一九八六二月二十日。日曜日。雨。

僕は今日この島を出て行こうとしている。

六時半に起きて、机に向かって一時間ばかり小説の続きを書き、とりあえずのきりがついたところで、そのレターペーパーの束を大判の封筒に入れる。そしてしわにならないように、しっかりとしたスーツケースの一番底にしまいこむ。今日でミコノスの滞在も終わりである。しかし考えてみればここで暮らした一ヵ月半、まったくひどい天気ばかりだった。週に一日か二日、からりと晴れた美しい日がやってくる。でもあとはひどいものだ。雨が降るか、風が吹くか、あるいは雨が降って風が吹くかだ。そして空はたいていどんより暗く曇っている。こんなに美しい海岸に囲まれていながら、実際に海に入って泳ぐことができたのはたった一度だけだった。

結局最後の日も雨だ。細かい無音の雨。風も吹いている。

I’ll pause here and offer some commentary, the only commentary necessary: Can you imagine if he’d somehow lost his luggage or if the manuscript had been otherwise destroyed?! Obviously, writing by hand was the only option for Murakami at the time, but it feels so tenuous! I wonder whether he tried to make copies of his manuscripts or if he mailed it back to his editor in Japan. We do know that he when he submitted his first novella, the story that would become Hear the Wind Sing, he mailed his only copy to Gunzō. (I can’t seem to track down where Murakami has noted this. I thought for sure I’d blogged about it, but the best I can find in my archives is the fact that he’d completely forgotten that he’d submitted to the contest. UPDATE: Thank you to Mikhail in the comments who notes that Murakami makes this claim in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.) I’ll have to read more chapters and find out if he mentions what he did in Europe.

Murakami continues:

Just behind the house we rented is a modest sheep pasture (although it’s basically just a empty field), and usually there are 30 to 40 sheep grazing there. From time to time the shepherds, a mean couple (they look straight out of one of Dickens’ novels) come over and hit the sheep who don’t listen with a crook, unleashing a stream of foul curses at them as they do. I can look out over the whole pasture from the window in front of my desk. I kind of started looking forward to those pauses in my work when I happened to lift my eyes and see a mother sheep with her lambs from the window, but winter has deepened and the grass grown more scarce, and ten days ago every last one of the sheep were transferred to a different pasture. Now there is only a barren, brown expanse of ground beneath the window. Gone are the lambs clinging desperately to their mother’s legs, and gone are their monotonous, sing-song bleats that seemed to be underlined with a ruler. When I look at the empty pasture, it’s clear that the season has wrenched away its fair share.

Beyond the pasture is a road that runs up to the mountains, and an old truck filled with what looks like construction materials lurches its way up. The misty morning rain chills and dampens everything on the ground. As I glance outside, I think about the chapter I just finished writing. When I write on a rainy morning, somehow it ends up being writing that feels like a rainy morning. No matter how much work I put into it later on, I can never get the scent of that morning rain out of it. The scent of the rain falling silently on the lonely pasture, from which each and every sheep has disappeared. The scent of the rain that covered that old truck crossing the mountains. My writing is redolent with that morning rain. Partly out of fate.

我々の借りた家のすぐ裏手に、ささやかな羊の放牧地(というよりはただの原っぱみたいなものだけれど)があって、そこにはだいたい三十頭から四十頭の羊たちが放し飼いにされていた。ときどき意地の悪そうな羊飼いの夫婦がやってきて(ディケンズの小説に出てきそうな風貌のカップルである)、杖で言うことをきかない羊たちを口ぎたなくののしりながらひっぱたいた。机の前の窓から、その放牧地を見渡すことができた。僕は仕事のあいまにふと目を上げて、窓から羊の母子の姿を眺めるのをささやかな楽しみにしていたのだが、冬が深まるにつれて草はどんどん乏しくなり、羊たちは十日ばかり前に一頭残らずどこかべつの放牧地に移送されてしまった。今では貧相な茶色の地面が窓の下にがらんと広がっているだけだ。母羊の脚に必死にしがみつく子羊たちの姿ももう見られないし、あの定規で引いたように抑揚のない一本調子の鳴き声ももう聞こえない。からっぽの放牧地を見ていると、季節がその取りぶんをしっかりともぎとって行ってしまったことがよくわかる。

放牧地の向こうには山に向かう坂道があり、古いトラックが建材のようなものを積んで、よたよたと山を登っていく。朝の細かい雨が地表のありとあらゆるものを冷たく濡らしている。僕はぼんやりと外を眺め、さっき書き終えたばかりの章のことを考える。雨の朝に文章を書くと、どういうわけかそれは雨の朝のような文章になってしまう。あとでどれだけ手を入れてみても、その文章から朝の雨の匂いを取り去ることはできない。羊たちが一頭残らず失われてしまった寂しい放牧地に、音もなく降る雨の匂い。山を越えていく古びたトラックを濡らす雨の匂い。僕の文章はそんな雨の朝の匂いに包まれている。半分運命的に。

This is the section that strikes me as most like “A Poor-Aunt Story.” I love the idea that something from the writer’s current situation and self are imprinted on the work. If you think about it, there are parts of Norwegian Wood that do have the kind of gray, melancholic frustration that Murakami is describing here.

Murakami continues with breakfast after his writing:

I go downstairs and heat up some water and grill pancakes. Today is our last day, so I have to find a clever way to use up each and every item that’s left in the refrigerator. We have a little pancake mix, milk, and eggs left in the fridge. So anyone would come to the conclusion we’re having pancakes for breakfast.The balance between the mix, eggs, and milk is slightly off, but I guess there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s part of taking care of leftovers. Left over—as I cut the pancakes into small pieces and bring them to my mouth, I find myself thinking of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. The most difficult retreat with the least to gain. Cossack troops dominate fields covered in snow. Blizzards. The sound of cannons.

My wife asks, Want some tomato?

We have a lot of tomato left over. I’ll have some, I say. I cut the tomato, add some salt and lemon juice, and sprinkle on some herbs I cut up. Coffee, pancakes, and tomato salad, soldiers cross frozen rivers, and destroy bridges with their hands growing numb. They are so far from home.

僕は階下に下りてキッチンで湯を温めてパンケーキを焼く。今日が最後の日なので、冷蔵庫の中にのこっているものをひとつひとつ手際よく片付けていかなくてはならないのだ。冷蔵庫の中にはパンケーキの粉が少しとミルクと卵が残っている。だからこれは誰がどう考えても朝御飯はパンケーキということになる。粉と卵と牛乳のバランスがいささか悪いが、これはまあ仕方ないだろう。残りものを片づけるというのはそういうことなのだから。残りもの---僕はそんなパンケーキを小さく切って口に運びながら、ふとナポレオンの軍隊がロシアから撤退した時のことを思い出す。いちばん難しく、いちばん得るところの少ない撤退戦。雪原を跳梁するコサック兵。雪嵐。砲声。

トマト食べる?と女房が尋ねる。

トマトがいっぱい余っているよ。食べる、と僕は言う。トマトを切って塩とレモン汁をかけ、香草を刻んでふりかける。コーヒーとパンケーキとトマトのサラダ、兵士たちは凍てつく河を渡り、かじかむ手で橋を焼き落とす。彼らはあまりにも遠く故郷を離れたのだ。(162-164)

This is really just the start of this technique, but you can already see how he weaves his mental experience in with the physical environment. His wife’s interruption is on its own line, bringing us back to reality before Murakami deals with the tomatoes and then gradually sinks back into his thought process.

As a literary work, this might be the most interesting chapters so far.

The other interesting connection with Norwegian Wood/Murakami’s oeuvre is Murakami’s generational angst. Murakami has been pretty critical of people who protested in the late-60s only to sell out and join the Bubble era. We see this implicitly in Norwegian Wood: the narrator is a writer, still suffering from psychological wounds from the past, while his classmate Nagasawa goes on to serve as a MOFA officer after having treated his girlfriend Hatsumi so poorly. Hatsumi gets married and seems to go on to a happy life but ends up committing suicide. In one of the rare glimpses of the narrator’s present, there’s a scene when he’s on a job in Santa Fe with the sun setting beautifully, which reminds him of Hatsumi’s tragedy.

We also see this outlook in short stories like “Poolside” from Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round and in “A Folklore of My Generation: A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism.”

But in this chapter Murakami ends us seeming like the cynical one. Later on in the chapter he has an encounter with “Belgian John,” a foreigner who comes by to collect the electric bill. He’s ended up on Mykonos after becoming disillusioned with mass publication and abandoning his dreams of working as an editor in publishing. John seems like a condescending jerk, and Murakami is pretty critical of his “turn on, tune in, drop out” attitude. He dismisses him as a Baby Boomer, a relic of the 60s.

I think ultimately the criticism seems to be leveled at a lack of effort. Belgian John isn’t even trying to stay connected. It’s an interesting section. I won’t excerpt any of it here, but it’s worth a read if you’re looking at Murakami from this perspective or just want to see his writing style.

***

I mentioned this two weeks ago, but it’s worth posting the link again: Murakami revisits Mykonos 24 years later in 2010 and writes about the experience in an essay that was part of the collection 『ラオスにいったい何があるというんですか?』(What Exactly Do They Say is in Laos?). I wrote about it four years ago. Murakami revisits the apartment where they stayed but seems to have forgotten that the winter drove off the sheep when he lived there the first time.

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.

Kiss

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

Nonfiction gives Murakami the opportunity to flex his writing muscles in really interesting ways, one of which is character work. He’s experiencing life in Europe with his wife, and he spends a lot of time with his thoughts (as I think you’ve seen with the first two posts), but once he gets on the road, he actively includes the people he encounters, the first of which is a woman named Valentina who is the realtor or property manager who introduces them to the house where they stay on the island of Spetses. This is their first destination immediately after Spetses.

Murakami does a great job of capturing Valentina and her tendency to draw out the vooooowels of words. She says she’s a writer, too, who writes poems but needs another job to live, and she seems disappointed with Murakami. She expected more, which doesn’t seem to surprise Murakami:

Sometimes I get to thinking that I lack what might best be termed an “aura” as a writer (or an artist). Even in Japan, I often get mistaken for a bakery deliveryman or a supermarket worker. I’ll be shopping and a stranger will ask, “Hey, where’s the red pepper?” (And of course I go ahead and tell them where it is.) But this isn’t entirely because of what I wear. Occasionally I’ll be dressed up nice in a dark suit with a tie on, standing in a hotel lobby, and some old man will say, “Hey you, where’s the Tsuru-no-ma room?” So I couldn’t really fault Valentina. Auras—not that I know what purpose they serve, realistically—are something that’s clearly defined when you have them and totally absent when you don’t. Just like onsen and oil fields.

ときどき僕は思うのだけれど、どうも僕には作家としての(あるいは芸術家としての)オーラとでも称するべきものがいささか不足しているようである。日本にいてもよくパン屋の配達人とか、スーパーの店員に間違われたりする。買い物をしていると、知らない人に「ねえ、唐辛子どこにあるの?」ときかれたりする(そてまた、しっかり教えてあげちゃったりもする)。でもそれは服装のせいとばかりは言えないようである。たまにきちんとネクタイをしめて、ダークスーツを着てホテルのロビーに立っていても、どこかのおじさんに「おい君、鶴の間はどこかね?」と尋ねられたりもする。だから僕にはとてもヴァレンティナのことを責めたりはできない。オーラというものは―それが現実的にいったいどういう役に立つのか僕にはよくわからないけれど―あるところにはちゃんとあるし、ないところには全然ないのだ。温泉とか油田とかいったものと同じように。(44-45)

Murakami does go on to ridicule Valentina a little. She draws a very simple map of the island and marks the port and house. Murakami later learns that she’s drawn it upside down (basically) rather than aligned with the cardinal directions. And in a troublesome paragraph, he suggests that Valentina and all women in general value what they can see and experience over the overall impression of a map.

So not a great outing, but he does capture much of the impression that Valentina leaves, sometimes very literally:

When she finished drawing the map and marked the location of the house with a final flourish, she nodded with a very satisfied look on her face. She yelled, “I looooooooove this island!” and pressed her lips firmly against the map. Then she handed me the piece of paper. She had left the distinct mark of her thick lipstick on the map.

Like this:

The island, thus transformed by her distorted view and lack of understanding, was beautifully sealed by her lipstick.

At the time I didn’t know what kind of reaction she expected from such a passionate kiss (and I still don’t), so I just said, “Thank you” as I took the note, glanced at it, folded it in half, and put it in my pocket. Then I tried not to think about the map again.

彼女は地図を書き終え、そこに画竜点睛という風情で家の位置を書き入れると、いかにも満足したという表情を顔に浮かべて頷く。そして「私、この島だあああああああ好き(大好き)」と叫んで、その地図の上にぎゅっと唇を押しつける。そしてその紙を僕に手渡してくれる。地図の上には彼女の濃いルージュのあとがくっきりと残っている。

こんな具合に。

そのように偏見と無理解によってデフォルメされた島は、口紅によって見事に封印されたのであった。

その熱情的なくちづけに対してどのような反応を期待されているのか、僕にはその時まったくわからなかったので(今だってわからないけれど)、まあとにかく「どうも、ありがとう」と言って地図を受け取り、ちらっと見てから二つに折ってポケットにしまった。そしてそれ以上地図については考えいないようにした。 (51-52)

This feels like Murakami just getting started before he really gets into gear in some of the more rural places he visits. A lot to look forward to.

Distant Drums

It’s September: Murakami Fest is upon us! Year 12 of the fest, to be precise.

Here are 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

This year I’m looking at bits and pieces of 遠い太鼓 (Tōi taiko, Distant Drums), Murakami’s memoir of traveling in Europe.

(Brief aside: For years I thought the title was inspired by Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, but apparently it is not.)

The book is excellent, some of Murakami’s strongest writing, and I wonder why more of it hasn’t been translated. If he was motivated by money, I’m sure Murakami would publish it, and American publishers would encourage him to publish it, because he’s reached the point where anything with his name on it will sell. So my only guess is that he’s not confident with the writing, much like he was with his first couple novels for a long time.

I’ve looked at small sections in previous years, but I think I may use the next few years of the Fest as an annual motivation to get me through the book. I started reading it back when I was on the JET Program, but something threw me off pace. So I’m starting it up again, and taking more notes this time.

The first section of the book is an introduction written after the trip is complete, looking back at both the trip and the writing process. Murakami was in Europe from ages 37-40. He calls 40 a 節目 (fushime, turning point), noting that a 精神的な組み替え (seishinteki na kumikae, emotional recombination) occurs, after which you can’t go back — you have to go forward.

It feels like Murakami’s midlife crisis of sorts. If he goes past a certain point without having completed some unstated goal, that it would be a waste to him. So he leaves Japan. Spoiler alert: He writes Norwegian Wood while he’s on this trip, the book that launched him into the mainstream. Oh, he also translates a bunch of stuff, writes a ton of short stories and nonfiction for magazines, and lives an amazing life in the Mediterranean. It’s easy to call Murakami privileged, but you can’t ever accuse him of not putting the words on the damn page. He’s a workhorse.

The introduction is compelling because it gives Murakami the opportunity to write to his strengths: the passage of time, the elusiveness of memory, the challenge of pinpointing an objective reality—really the core of the human experience.

Here’s the section that generates the title of the book:

Of course, people go on getting older no matter where they are. Whether they’re in Japan or in Europe, it’s the same thing. That’s what getting older is all about. To put it another way, we maintain some semblance of sanity precisely because we’re able to absorb ourselves in the everyday and go on getting older. At this point—having turned 40—that’s something I believe. But at the time, I thought differently.

It feels very strange to be back in Japan now, sitting here at my desk thinking about those three years. When I look back, I get a mysterious sense of absence. The feel of empty space. A sense of floating, or being within a flow. My recollection of those three years drifts around in the gap produced by levitation and gravity. Those years are lost, in a certain sense. But in another sense, they have a tight grip on the reality within me. I feel the distinct clip of the memories somewhere on my body. The long arm of the memories has reached out from somewhere amongst the darkness of unreality and grabbed the real me. I want to express to someone what that feeling means. But I don’t have the corresponding words to do so. Perhaps like some feelings it can only be expressed as a metaphorical whole.

*

I was turning 40. That was one thing that compelled me to go on a long trip. But it wasn’t just that. There were a number of other reasons I wanted to get away from Japan. That included several positive reasons and several negative reasons. Practical reasons and metaphorical reasons. But I don’t want to get into them now. Because at this point, I honestly don’t care about them at all. They are neither here nor there to me, and likely neither here nor there to the reader as well. No matter what kind of realistic reasons compelled me to travel, the long trip washed away the original reason that generated it. At least in effect.

That is, one day, suddenly, I had to go on a long trip.

To me, that feels like the ideal reason to go on a trip. It’s simple and persuasive. And it doesn’t overgeneralize anything.

One day I woke up, and when I listened carefully, I could hear the sound of drums somewhere far in the distance. The sound of the drums came to me from somewhere far away, from some time long ago. Ever so faintly. And as I listened to them, I felt I had to go on a long trip.

That should be enough, no? I heard distant drums. At this point, that feels like the only honest reason that compelled me to travel. (15-16)

もちろん、どこにいようと、人はだらだらと歳を取ってしまうものだ。日本にいようが、ヨーロッパにいようが、どこでも同じだ。歳を取るというのはそういうことだからだ。そして逆の言い方をすれば、日常にかまけてだらだらと歳を取ることができるからこそ、人はまだなんとか正気を保っていられるのだ。僕も今では—四十になった今では—そう思う。でもその時には、それとは別な考え方をしていた。

今こうして日本に帰ってきて、机の前に座ってその三年間のことを考えていると、とても不思議な気分になる。ふりかえってみると、そこには奇妙な欠落感がある。質感のある空白。ある種の浮遊感、あるいは流動感。その三年間の記憶は、浮遊力と重力の作り出す狭間を流されるように彷徨っている。その年月はある意味では失われている。でもある意味では、それは僕の中の現実にしっかりとしがみついている。僕はその記憶のクリップをはっきりと体のどこかに感じ続けている。記憶の長い手が、非現実の暗闇のどこかから伸びて、現実の僕を摑んでいるのだ。僕はその質感の意味を誰かに伝えたいと思う。でも僕はそれに相当する言葉を持たない。それはある種のこころ持ちがそうであるように、おそらく比喩的な総体としてしか示せないものなのだ。

*

四十になろうとしていたこと。それは僕を長い旅に駆り立てたもののひとつである。でもそれだけではない。日本を離れようと思ったのには、その他にもいくつかの理由があった。そこにはいくつかのポジティヴな理由があり、いくつかのネガティヴな理由があった。いくつかのプラクティカルな理由があり、いくつかのメタフォリカルな理由があった。でも今はもうそれについては触れたくない。今となっては、それは本当にどうでもいいことになってしまっているからだ。僕にとってもどうでもいいことだし、おそらく読者にとってもどうでもいいことだろうと思う。たとえどのような現実的な理由が僕を旅行に駆り立てたにせよ、その長い旅はそれを発生せしめたそもそもの理由なんかどこかに押し流してしまったのだ。結果的に言えば。

そう、ある日突然、僕はどうしても長い旅に出たくなったのだ。

それは旅に出る理由としては理想的であるように僕には思える。シンプルで、説得力を持っている。そして何事をもジェネラライズしてはいない。

ある朝目が覚めて、ふと耳を澄ませると、何処か遠くから太鼓の音が聞こえてきたのだ。ずっと遠くの場所から、ずっと遠くの時間から、その太鼓の音は響いてきた。とても微かに。そしてその音を聞いているうちに、僕はどうしても長い旅に出たくなったのだ。

それでいいではないか。遠い太鼓が聞こえたのだ。今となっては、それが僕を旅行に駆り立てた唯一のまっとうな理由であるように思える。 (15-16)

“Throwing Out a Cat” – Haruki Murakami’s new nonfiction work in 文藝春秋

I love browsing Japanese bookstores. I come from a family of consumer addicts, so part of the reason is the thrill of being in the position to potentially make a purchase. The other part of it, which I miss a lot these days, is gradually getting to know more about the Japanese literary world.

I took the basic literature classes in college and have been trying to get to know writers better through my Japanese reading group, but you don’t get a sense of the living, breathing 文壇 (bundan, literary world) in the classroom. You have to get out there and see what’s on the shelves and, in particular, in the magazines.

Japan has a pretty decent selection of literary magazines that are all relatively available, especially when compared to the United States. I’m currently in Chicago, the third-largest city in the country, and I have no idea where I would go to get a literary journal. I’m sure I could find out pretty easily, but I’m also certain it would involve an hour’s worth of round-trip travel to and from the bookstore, and that there are probably only a small handful of bookstores where I could find them. Obviously the New Yorker is everywhere, and The Atlantic is also readily accessible, but anything beyond that is going to be a tough find, even something like Harpers.

In Japan, on the other hand, I lived within a 10-minute walk of two bookstores that had just about any magazine available, and I didn’t live near a major train station. There are dozens of bookstores where you could find Monkey Business, and even more where you can get some of the mid-tier publications like 小説すばる (Shōsetu subaru) and other magazines.

I learned about the writers by trial and error, really. You do some 立ち読み (tachiyomi, stand and read) to find something that looks good, make a purchase, and then look for that writer’s name elsewhere if you enjoy it. Recommendations from bookstores and libraries and friends helped, but so did browsing the fold-out 目次 (mokuji, index) at the front of magazines.

There’s something special about that 目次. Generally the cover of a magazine will include some of the big names in the issue, but I found it a fun challenge to try and spot other writers here and there on the folded out index. I was always excited to see 綿矢りさ (Wataya Risa) or 金原ひとみ (Kanehara Hitomi), authors of the first two novels I read in Japanese, or 三崎亜記 (Misaki Aki), who was a personal favorite.

After having been back in the U.S. for nine years now, I was pleasantly surprised to see none other than 村上春樹 (Murakami Haruki) in the June 2019 issue of 文藝春秋 (Bungei shunju) when I was in Japan on business earlier this month.

文藝春秋 is one of the big dog magazines that selects the Akutagawa Prize twice a year. It’s fairly conservative, and Murakami was never selected for the Akutagawa Prize when he was younger (and not as well accepted by the literary establishment). Murakami published stories in 文学界 (Bungakukai), also published by the 文藝春秋 company, pretty quickly (including the very early novella 街と、その不確かな壁), but his first fiction in 文藝春秋 itself didn’t come until the 1990 story “Tony Takitani.” (He did have interviews, essays, and critical writing published there…including a piece about translating Paul Theroux and an interview about the success of Norwegian Wood.)

(As always, Yoshio Osakabe’s now defunct Geocities website is a great place to track down obscure Murakami articles and interviews from the 80s. You can access the cache through Archive.org. See this link.)

Murakami has a nonfiction piece titled 猫を捨てる−父親について語るときに僕の語ること (Throwing out a Cat – What I talk about when I talk about my father), and it’s the best thing I’ve read by him in a long, long time. It’s 25 pages, so pretty long, but not long enough for the magazine to advertise the 枚数 (maisū, page count) from the manuscript on the cover, which I believe is usually given in terms of 原稿用紙 (genkō yōshi, “official” manuscript paper).

The story starts and ends with stories about cats and Murakami’s father. I won’t spoil them because they are worth seeking out (although you can surmise the content of one from the title), but they create the very typically Murakami sense of mystery within reality.

Murakami’s father was the second of six sons to the priest of Anyōji Temple in Kyoto. When Murakami’s grandfather was hit and killed by a tram, there was a discussion amongst the family about who would take over the temple. It had to be one of the four sons remaining with the family (two had been sent off as adopted children to other temples and had changed their names).

The 長男 (chōnan, oldest son) ends up taking on that responsibility, but nearly all of the six sons had received education as priests, and Murakami’s father had even been sent away to a temple to be adopted until he got sick from the cold in Nara and was sent back home. Murakami nicely weaves this story of his father being “thrown out” in with the cat and the sense of generational trauma that he imagines his father must have later experienced during the war.

His father didn’t talk about the war very much, and Murakami admits that he didn’t resolve to look into the details until five years after his father’s death and that for a long time he didn’t want to because he was under the impression that his father’s division had participated in the Nanjing Massacre.

It turns out, Murakami’s father’s timing was extremely fortunate. He was conscripted three times into the 16th Division and released all three times after a term of service. He joined after the division participated in the Nanjing Massacre and was discharged twice, once in August 1939 and then again in November 1941 after only two months. Murakami wonders whether his father would have been discharged that second time—allegedly by a friendly officer who thought he would serve the country better as a student—after Pearl Harbor, just a month later. The division was quickly sent to the Philippines and ended up being almost completely decimated there.

Murakami includes haiku his father wrote and sent from the battlefield. I won’t try and translate or interpret them, but this one is interesting and draws in his religious background:

兵にして僧なり月に合掌す

Despite his father’s lucky timing, he still encountered the realities of the brutal war. Murakami recalls the only conversation they had about it in which his father described how Chinese prisoners were executed by decapitation.

He then transitions to life after the war. His father gave up studies and became a teacher after Murakami’s mother became pregnant. He wasn’t happy with his life, he drank and was difficult, but Murakami never directly experienced any harm from this. They did have a falling out, which Murakami describes in more depth than I can remember seeing in the past. Yet he still seems to hold back—the specific disagreement is never described:

そのような父と子の葛藤の具体的な側面については、僕としてはあまり多くを語りたくないので、ここではごく簡単に触れるだけにする。細かく話しだすとかなり長い、そして生々しい話になってしまうから。でも結論だけを言うなら、僕が若いうちに結婚して仕事を始めるようになってからは、父との関係はすっかり疎遠になってしまった。とくに僕が職業作家になってからは、いろいろとややこしいことが持ち上がり、関係はより屈折したものになり、最後には絶縁に近い状態となった。二十年以上まったく顔を合わせなかったし、よほどの用件がなければほとんど口もきかない、連絡もとらないという状態が続いた。

I personally don’t want to get into the details of the dispute between a father and child, so I’ll just touch upon it briefly here. If I were to go into the details, it would end up being a long and raw story. But to sum it up, I married young and once I started working, I was almost completely estranged from my father. In particular, once I became a working writer, a lot of complicated issues came up, which twisted our relationship even further, and in the end we had nearly broken off relations. We didn’t see each other for 20 years, and unless there was a significant issue, we continued not talking or communicating.

Murakami writes nicely about this generational divide:

おそらく僕らはみんな、それぞれの世代の空気を吸い込み、その固有の重力を背負って生きていくしかないのだろう。そしてその枠組みの傾向の中で成長していくしかないだろう。良い悪いではなく、それが自然の成りたちなのだ。ちょうど今の若い世代の人々が、親たちの世代の神経をこまめに苛立たせ続けているのと同じように。

Perhaps all of us breathe in the air of our own generation and are forced to live with the burden of its inherent gravity. And we are forced to grow within the trends of that framework. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the natural way things come about. Just as the younger generation today continue to earnestly fray the nerves of their parents’ generation.

One other thing of note is that Murakami admits to dreaming! He says his father’s dissatisfaction with his grades growing up has left him with stress dreams:

今でもときどき学校でテストを受けている夢を見る。そこに出されている問題を僕はただの一問も解くことができない。

Even now I occasionally have dreams in which I’m taking a test. I’m unable to solve even a single problem of the questions being given.

Murakami has famously claimed that he doesn’t dream (in a New York Times interview amongst other spots). But he’s also claimed that he’s never been hungover, which seems like a stretch.

At any rate, this is a good piece and worth reading. It’s certainly better than Killing Commendatore, which also happens to address the Nanjing Massacre. Perhaps that’s what drew it to Murakami’s attention, although from his telling, he has been looking into his father’s war history since 2013, well before KC was published.

And if you’re not reading Murakami, you should get out there and scan some 目次 for things you are interested in reading. Do enough repetitions and you’ll start to find the names more familiar and likely some pretty interesting literature.

Masquerade Release and Translation Process

It’s official! “Masquerade and the Nameless Women” is out in the wild as of January 29:

The release coincided with a bout of polar vortex here in Chicago, but a group of five friends came out to Half Acre Brewing with me to celebrate. As I was walking to the bar, I kept hoping Half Acre would have a Mild on tap, and they delivered with a 2.6% Mild called White Noise. It felt a little like divine intervention of some kind.

At the coldest point of the vortex, I ventured out to my neighborhood’s Little Free Library to donate a copy to the neighborhood:

I checked on Thursday and it was kind of stuffed with a bunch of random books (I think some people use it to get rid of things they don’t want anymore rather than as a contribution to the community), but I dug around and didn’t see it, so someone out there may be reading it.

Since the translation and editing process is something I look at closely here, I thought I’d do the same for my own work. I marked a few passages as I was putting together the final draft last August and going over the final edits in October. I don’t think these will spoiler too much.

One thing I noticed while making the edits for submission was that sometimes in the translation process, I made an initial effort that needed to be refined. Having the eye/ear to be able to refine it sometimes takes skill and sometimes just time.

Here’s an example:

Japanese original:

そもそもの疑問ですが、古いアパートに住んでまで自分に資産があることを隠していた上に、運転免許を持たない彼女が、どうして高級車を所持していたのか、ここから考えてみます。

Rough draft:

We return to the original question: let’s think about why Reina, who went as far as living in a ramshackle wooden apartment to conceal the fact that she had money, didn’t have a driver’s license yet had a luxury car.

Final draft:

We return to the original question: let’s think about why Reina, who went so far as to live in a ramshackle wooden apartment to conceal the fact that she had money, didn’t have a driver’s license yet had a luxury car.

The only change here is “went as far as” to “went so far as.” The former is fine, maybe would have been more natural as “went as far as to live” rather than “living,” but the phrase only has 7.59 million Google hits whereas “went so far as” has 7.7 million.

Add in “to” and, interestingly, “went as far as to” has 2.73 million while “went so far as to” has 7.35 million.

Not that Google is the ultimate decider here, but the phrase felt more natural to me.

Here’s another example:

Japanese original:

見た目を近づけるために、顔面整形や肉体改造もしたでしょう。

Rough draft:

They probably had cosmetic surgery and body reconstruction so people wouldn’t recognize them at close distances.

Final draft:

They probably had cosmetic surgery and body reconstruction so people wouldn’t recognize them in close proximity.

I think this is a stronger example – “at close distances” just feels generic and unpolished/unnatural. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking when I was editing, but I do feel like I was using my reading brain more than my writing brain, which is perhaps why I caught it.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to my editor Angela. I noticed a lot of subtle improvements when I was going over the final changes.

Here’s one example:

Japanese original:

「そうか?だがよ、俺の車からここ一年、キャンディーがなくなったことはないぜ?」

言い放って、山路さんはロリポップキャンディーを銜える。

「で、なぜキャンディーがなくならないのか、その秘密に興味はあるか?」

Final submitted draft:

“I’ll have you know my squad car has been fully stocked with candy for the past year.” He then put another lollipop in his mouth with a grin. “You must be at least a little interested in the secret why I never run out of candy.”

Published version:

“I’ll have you know my squad car has been fully stocked with candy for the past year.” He then put another lollipop in his mouth with a grin. “You must be at least a little interested as to why I never run out.”

This is a minor change, but I think it makes a huge difference. It physically pains me to see all those excess words in my draft. Being able to hit that natural phrasing in the first place is what translation is all about, but writing is a collaborative art, and I’m thankful for everyone who helped make the translation happen.

Glad to answer any questions about the translation or translation in general.

Translation Pre-order – Masquerade and the Nameless Women

It’s official—the translation I did for Vertical this summer is available for pre-order. It’s been up for a little while, but I wanted to wait until the cover was on Amazon to let everyone know. Take a look. They put your boy on the cover:

The book is Eiji Mikage’s 殺人鬼探偵の捏造美学 (Satsujinki tantei no netsuzō bigaku), which works out to something like “The Serial Killer Detective’s Fabricated Aesthetic.” Here’s the Japanese cover:

There are lots of fun variations on this. Detective Serial Killer’s Invented Aesthetic. The Invented Aesthetic of the Serial Killer Detective. The Japanese cover also has the suggested translation “Masquerade’s Fabricated Aesthetic.” Of these variations I think “Masquerade’s Invented Aesthetic” might be closest to what Mikage was going for.

Clearly we went in a different direction with the English title. I’m really happy that Vertical took one of my suggestions. The title is drawn from the text and I think creates forward momentum for the reader. I had a few other options, but I think I’ll wait to share them when the book is published.

This reminds me that I recently learned the Spanish translation for Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is Tokio Blues. I was having a conversation with a Venezuelan and briefly thought there was some Murakami book I wasn’t familiar with until she described the opening: a Japanese man lands in Germany and “Norwegian Wood” is playing over the airplane speakers as the passengers disembark.

I think this title translation borders on criminal. “Norwegian Wood” is so effective as a title because (assuming the reader is familiar with the Beatles, which isn’t a huge assumption to be making) the song title itself is incredibly potent and generative. You have the sound of the song, of course, but also whatever memories and experiences you have wrapped up with the song, which is exactly how the novel begins—Toru’s near physical pain at everything he associates with the song.

The translation demolishes that and replaces it with an incredibly simple summary of the book…although I will admit that it does summarize the book somewhat effectively, lol. Are the Beatles just not as popular in Spanish-speaking countries? I find that difficult to imagine. I’d chalk this up to an overeager translator/publisher.

A quick Wikipedia perusal shows that most translations leave the song title, but French and German also commit crimes.

The French title is La Ballade de l’impossible (The Ballad of the Impossible), which is garbage, and the German is Naokos Lächeln (Naoko’s Smile), which is better—likely drawn from the text, kind of hints at how the narrator is feeling—but still #NotGreatBob.

I hope that my title translation hasn’t done this much damage. Obviously it’s done some, at least when it comes to authorial intentions. But I do think the English will benefit from this new title. We’ll see.

So go get a pre-order at your favorite bookseller! I should note the trigger warnings: gore, suggested statutory rape, suggested incest (・・;)