Between absence and presence

A reading of Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Jean_Siméon_Chardin_-_Draughtsman_-_WGA04754

 

This is Mr Murakami’s latest work, published in Japan in 2017, and translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen (I guess: a tour de force). First of all, I must say that, in my view, this is Mr Murakami’s most accomplished work thus far, a fascinating, troubling and at time challenging novel. To be sure, long haul readers will find there a familiar atmosphere, but also the unknown. I will not spoil anything, but mention some ideas and metaphors.

There is a young artist, a portrait painter, and his beautiful, estranged wife. There is a, now dead, beloved little sister. There is  a lone timber house, high up in the mountains, which belongs to a famous old painter. There is an owl in the attic. Across the valley, there is a big, strange house, with a stranger owner.

The young artist teaches drawing at a local school. He lives on his own, in the timber house, with the owl in the attic, visits the attic, walks in the woods. Behind a little shrine he discovers a pit, the pit in the woods. There is the start of the quest, with a surprising painting, and a bell.

There is Vienna, at the time of the Anschluss, there is the war in China, but this is the past, with deep consequences for the present. The old painter is famous for his classical formal Japanese paintings, but this one painting…

The novel oscillates between dream and an even more unfathomable reality. There is a lovely, pubescent young girl, her beautiful aunt, and two portraits, or is it three?

Once started this, as with all of Mr Murakami’s work, the book becomes desperately addictive: one dreads the prospect of finishing the book.

Yet the quest has to be completed, through sacrifice and ordeal.

I must add a warning: if readers wish to cross the river, between absence and presence, they must pay the ferryman. So, have your penguin ready!

That’s about the size of it.

Image: der Zeichner (the young draughtsman) by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

Kafka #AtoZAprilChallenge

From my “K” entry in the 2013 AtoZ Challenge: 

In the world of this blogger there are two of them: a writer of genius, who died in 1924, wrote The Trial, The Castle, The Metamorphosis and a host of stories and plays, and Nakata “Kafka” Tamura, hero of “Kafka on the Shore”, the novel by Haruki Murakami.

Kafka statue in Prague Franz Kafka, the writer, inspired Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.  To the love of his life, the writer Milena Jesenská, he wrote passionate letters. Milená died in 1944, murdered with so many other women at Auschwitz.  He is the lead writer on the Absurd of the beginning of the 20th century depicting the insanity of the bureaucracies of his time.

The other Kafka is a growing young man, who discovers love in the person of the unattainable Miss Saeki.  When I go to Japan, I hope I will meet them both.

In a deep well, reflections on reading Haruki Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-up Bird ChronicleIt is a rare writer who can combine the spectra of recent history in its full horror, the dreams of love, and the mysteries of the soul. So is Monsieur Murakami.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was published in Japan in 1995, and once again, I regretted my inability to read the novel in the writer’s language. Yet Jay Rubin’s translation is a wonder on its own right. This was perhaps, for this reader, the most difficult Murakami’s novel so far, considerably harder reading than 1Q84 or, my all-time favourite, Kafka on the Shore. Kafka’s influence, among many others, is there, for the central character, Toru Okada, has to endure a metamorphosis of his own, once the house cat disappears, shortly followed by mysterious and fragile Kumiko, Toru’s wife.

However I won’t spoil this read for my followers, those who haven’t yet read this extraordinary work. The story is rooted in the memories of the atrocious war fought on the periphery of the Asian continent, in the country Imperial Japan named Manchukuo. There the Japanese army faced the might of the Soviet Union, from the late thirties, before the war extended to the whole of Asia and Europe.

Perhaps uniquely in its descriptions, the Wind-up Bird Chronicle is pitiless in plunging the reader in the depth of man’s inhumanity to man, and nature. Toru, surrounded by strange women who may not all be human, just about survives the metamorphosis imposed on him, through the grace of friendship, and the skills of his protector, unforgettable Nutmeg. The truth, factual or not, is to be found at the bottom of the well.

In the strange loops that link the characters, across time and spaces, humble objects such a red vinyl hat, or a baseball hat, there resides the mystery of the human soul. And a small cat’s tail…

 

#WritersWednesday: His Hero is Marcel

Time Line of the Universe

Time Line of the Universe Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team Source: Original version: File:CMB Timeline75.jpg

It goes for colours, type-faces, places, objects, smiles, books… The human spirit is attracted, inspired, by “things”, in a fashion that appears random to the observer (“tastes and colours…” goes the French saying). But it isn’t. There are reasons for everything, and randomness is often a metaphor for “we can’t explain this”.

Julian is attracted by – universes. Worlds, galaxies, star systems… Or should I write “multiverses”: the existence of multiple universes that rarely intersect, merely coexist, and, mostly, in ignorance of each other? He knows, has read about, that most physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, are generally skeptical about the concept. Generally, but sometimes not. And Julian is attracted by those writers who are less than skeptical, the party of the “cosmic inflation”, and its far away consequences. Julian believes in the Two Moons of Huraki Murakami: he too has seen them…

Sarah, who’s a far better mathematician than her husband, is willing to discuss strings theory and other quantum wonders, and let him indulge in his quest. He too is after the “Ultimate Nature of Reality” [*]. I do understand, and she does, that Julian seeks his inspiration from serious subjects: history, science, philosophy, the “thinking” authors of weird and wonderful stories.

So it goes for time: our Julian is obsessed by it. His hero is, of course, Marcel Proust, and he’s often written about Marcel, and written him into his stories, as himself or as his little prisoner. I am fascinated by this, as it links to his other obsessions, his writing style, and, finally, his love for both Sarah and Melissa, the two women in his life, the inspiration for his writing. There are reasons to believe that, for Julian, his friend Melissa is a reincarnation of the docile Prisoner, dear to Marcel, his Albertine…

But Sarah has another theory: Julian wishes to be Albertine, someone’s property, or, to be precise, his wife’s. So that Melissa maybe Julian, in the end, just in another “universe”. This intrigues me too, as often Melissa has told me she wished to be Julian, to live in his skin. Poor soul. What I keep to myself, for now, is that Melissa has also claimed to be Sarah, to “merge” with her.

Sarah, Albertine, Odette, Julian, Melissa, Swann? Julian is “à la recherche”, in this universe, or, as necessary, in another. Which writer is not?

[*] “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality”, by Max Tegmark, was reviewed by Brian Rotman in The Guardian of February 1, 2014.

#WritersBlog ~ Feeling guilty, me?

“Les tenants de l’apparence restent fidèles à l’imitation. Ceux qui recherchent une réalité cachée derrière l’apparence définissent une doctrine de l’invention, de la création.”

Jean-Yves Tadié, Marcel Proust, L’artiste selon Ruskin

(The advocates of appearance stay loyal to imitation. Those who look for some reality behind appearances define a doctrine of invention, of creation.)

Jeunes filles, Marie LaurencinI have heard some dreadful accusations lately, and I wish to affirm that some people, yes people, are rather cheeky. They say, us, narrators, are voyeurs, that we spy on, and even abuse the characters in a novel: how’s that for defamation? What have we done, and specifically, what I have done, to deserve such treatment?

I do not, ever, prey on those characters, however vulnerable, or emotionally unstable, or, as my friend Jo-Anne (herself a delicious narratrice) says, exotic. Rather I try to convey their tragedy, sometimes the ironic side of their lives, as a good narrator should. Sometimes, I admit to a degree of curiosity. Let us read again this observation of Jean-Yves Tadié, the biographer of Marcel Proust, à propos La Prisonnière, perhaps the most poignant chapter of La Recherche:

“Le narrateur prend enfin congé d’Odette: ‘J’aurais voulu la serrer dans mes bras: j’aurais voulu lui dire que je l’aimais… Les larmes m’étranglaient. Je parcourus ce long vestibule, ce jardin délicieux dont le gravier des allées ne devait, hélas! plus jamais grincer sous mes pas.’

Que signifient cette jeune fille à jamais punie par le destin, la maladie incurable, cette distance entre elle et le narrateur, ce sentiment du temps qui a presque tout détruit? Marcel projette-t-il un amour impossible?”

(The narrator finally says farewell to Odette: ‘I would have held her in my arms: I would have told her I loved her… Tears were choking me. I walked down the long corridor, through the delicious garden and paths whose pebbles I would never again tread on.’ What is the meaning of this young woman for ever punished by fate, of the incurable illness, of the distance between her and the narrator, of that feeling of time destroying almost everything? Does Marcel evoke an impossible love?)

Distance indeed. Monsieur Tadié reveals the true position of the narrator in La Recherche: he is Marcel, the young man whose love for Odette is impossible (for reasons I would not comment on in this post). And yet this narrator, a full participant in the story, keeps his distance. You may argue that they are reasons for Marcel, and hence, the narrateur, not to get closer to Odette.

So do I. I admit a feeble sentiment for Melissa (and indeed for Odette too): I think she’s sinned against more than a sinner, and possibly innocent, but I don’t say anything: this is not what her author intends – as far as I can tell… In one word I try and keep away from the plot, from the lives of the characters, I just… well… narrate.

The role of narrator is at time painful: think about it, events unravel, according to the author’s fancy, characters love, suffer, fall ill, maybe even die. And what are we to do? Unless the author decides to get one of his creatures – will they forgive me for saying “creatures”? I somehow doubt it – to tell the tale herself, we have to present the facts to the reader, in the most interesting and honest way. Yes, I know, the case of a narrator also participant, from Marcel to the creations of Monsieur Murakami, is even more complicated. So is life.

Image: courtesy Maries Laurencin at http://films7.com/art/arts/marie-laurencin-jeunes-filles-proust-beaute-desir

#WritersWednesday: the Secret Space, Near You

” But in the end we talked all night. Every story has a time to be told, I convinced her. Otherwise you’ll be forever a prisoner to the secret inside you.” ~ Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart 

Alone She longed to see him, to hold him as she used to. But he was no longer there, so she looked in other places. No-one can disappear forever, without trace… She tried to convince herself.

He must be somewhere, perhaps still looking after me, perhaps watching our place, smiling at me? Days after days she waited, searching, listening, expecting a sound, his footsteps, his voice. His voice: what would she have given to hear his voice?

One day she decided to go to the little town, the place of his childhood. It was a long journey. She had prepared herself, before entering the small cemetery. All soldiers there. Once they had visited, together, in the heart of an icy winter. She went to the grave.

Alone she stood. The grey stone held her gaze.

#FiveSentenceFiction: Moon

1Q84 Aomame lifted her sight to the skies above: the crescent Moon started appearing behind the clouds, a silver ghost emerging from another world.

Tengo thought his lover had turned into a hopeless romantic, but he also felt the pull.

Soon the second Moon would appear, to confirm they had crossed the frontier between reality and their dreams.

A surge of memories invaded their souls, and slowly the smaller Moon appeared, shrouded with silver mist.

“You see, my love,” said Aomame in a whisper, “Anytime we are about to die, she appears, she’s our destiny…”

Inspired by Haruki Murakami’s immortal novel: 1Q84.

#AtoZChallenge: April 19, 2013: Q = 九

1Q84 In the Japanese numerals system the number “9” is 九, and its name is kyū, or ku, or kokonotsu, identical to the letter “Q”, so that ichi-ku-hachi-yon, 1Q84, Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece, is also “1984”, a reference to George Orwell’s masterpiece.

There are three main alphabets in Japanese: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji, plus the phonetic version of the western alphabet: “romaji”.  Hiragana consists mainly of Chinese syllables, and until the 10th century AD was used solely by women.  Katakana is a subset of Kanji, originally developed by monks from the Chinese syllabic alphabet.  Kanji is the written alphabet of 5,000 to 10,000 symbols.

1984

Images: 1Q84 ~ © Julien Pacaud Art & Illustration, 1984 ~ © A-GC.com

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#AtoZChallenge: April 16, 2013 ~ Naoko

norwegian_wood_by_himekavya-d3hn542 “It takes time, though, for Naoko’s face to appear.  And as the years have passed, the time has grown longer.  The sad truth is that what I could recall  in 5 seconds all too soon needed ten, then 30, then a full minute – like shadows lengthening at dusk.  Someday, I suppose, the shadows will be swallowed up in darkness.”

So speaks Toru, the narrator of Norwegian Wood, Haruki’s Murakami’s immortal love story.  This harrowing tale of desire, impossible love and loss lingers forever in the reader’s memory: what could have been, the search for reasons, the desperate hope.  This is a romantic heroine, doomed, condemned to a personal hell: “Don’t you see? It’s just not possible for one person to watch over another person forever and ever.  I mean, suppose we got married. You’d have to work during the day.  Who’s going to watch over me while you’re away?”  As for him, Toru, there will be no peace, those fleeing memories do not reduce the pain, so there is only one choice:

“Once, long ago, when I was still young, when the memories were far more vivid than they are now, I often tried to write about her.  But I couldn’t produce a line… Now, though, I realize that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts.”

The thought of Naoko, for us who have met her only in the book, fills us also with an unbearable sorrow.  So is the power of great literature.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/06/winter-reads-norwegian-wood-haruki-murakami

#AtoZChallenge: April 12, 2013 ~ Kafka

In the world of this blogger there are two of them: a writer of genius, who died in 1924, wrote The Trial, The Castle, The Metamorphosis and a host of stories and plays, and Nakata “Kafka” Tamura, hero of “Kafka on the Shore”, the novel by Haruki Murakami.

Kafka statue in Prague Franz Kafka, the writer, inspired Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.  To the love of his life, the writer Milena Jesenská, he wrote passionate letters. Milená died in 1944, murdered with so many other women at Auschwitz.  He is the lead writer on the Absurd of the beginning of the 20th century depicting the insanity of the bureaucracies of his time.

The other Kafka is a growing young man, who discovers love in the person of the unattainable Miss Saeki.  When I go to Japan, I hope I will meet them both.