August 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
Finished: South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami.
Reading now: Shriek: An Afterword, by Jeff VanderMeer.
One of Murakami’s recurring themes is the strangeness ever present near the surface of “normal” everyday life. This is one of the motifs that has made his work so successful globally: while his blend of the domestic and the bizarre is quintessentially Japanese, it translates beautifully to a range of cultures, and his (for all I can tell) simple, unadorned style also lends itself to translation.
I’ve been thinking about this theme ever since the beginning of South of the Border, which, in typical Murakami fashion, efficiently sets up a perfectly normal environment and immediately shows how the narrator perceives himself as abnormal: he has a “100 percent average birth” and “grew up in… your typical middle-class suburbia.” But Hajime, our narrator, is an only child in a town of families with 2 or more kids, and feels himself isolated and “different” because of this.
The oddness within such a normal-seeming life — of any life on earth, from within the unique mind of the person experiencing it — is encoded even in the title. Hajime and his only friend, the fellow only child Shimamoto, listen to Shimamoto’s father’s records over and over. One of their favorites is “South of the Border.”
Off in the distance, Nat King Cole was singing “South of the Border.” The song was about Mexico, but at the time I had no idea. The words “south of the border” had a strangely appealing ring to them. I was convinced something utterly wonderful lay south of the border.
In Japan as in the US or hundreds of other countries, this is a banal scene of domestic suburban childhood or adolescence from the 1950s to 1970s: going to a friend’s house, listening to pop standards on his/her parents’ hi-fi, experiencing the first sexual longings of your life. And the choice of “South of the Border,” a hoary old pop song if there ever was one, by Nat King Cole, a wildly popular, very talented, but incredibly safe singer from the perspective of mainstream society just about anywhere, deepens this banality. It’s Murakami’s gift to makes this unusual, to reveal mystery inherent within even such banality, such domesticity.
Of course, the lyrics they are listening to are in English, and as such present something of a mystery to any listener for whom English is a second language. The words themselves, “south of the border,” are appealing and mysterious to young Hajime: he doesn’t know what border it is, or what might be south of it. He doesn’t know yet what Mexico is, or where, or what it signifies. The border could be the border between life and death, between human life and the realm of spirits and mythological creatures, between childhood and adulthood. As it turns out, this utterly normal, banal song carries the story of the strangest happenings that will occur to Hajime in his life, the story of his relationship with Shimamoto.
Beyond that, there is another mystery: Nat King Cole did not sing “South of the Border.” I’ve gone through the discographies online without uncovering any version of the song having been recorded by Cole (though, of course, it’s always possible that a Japanese pressing has escaped my notice). Even a fan video for the book uses the Sinatra version — probably the closest corollary for the kind of bland smoothness we hear in our heads when Hajime mentions a Cole version of the song):
This is kind of fascinating. You could speculate that Murakami just gets this wrong, and I suppose it’s possible. But it’s highly unlikely of an author who embeds specific musical cues in all of his works, and especially in a book about a character that becomes the owner of popular jazz clubs. I think this is intentional, and could be read in a number of ways:
- The recording only exists between Shimamoto and Hajime. Later in the book, Shimamoto gives Hajime a gift of the copy of the Nat King Cole record they’d listened to as children. They listen to it again, together. When Shimamoto disappears, so does the record. There are a number of ways to interpret this, most of them hinging on a reading of Shimamoto as a supernatural being: she creates the record as something special for Hajime. Or it simply becomes, willed into being by the magic between them.
- Hajime misremembers, or misidentifies. This is perhaps the most prosaic reading, but also quite momentous for a reading of the entire work. In this reading, he forgets details of even this most important song, from these most important memory. Again, this seems highly unlikely since music is Hajime’s business, but is just plausible: in his first memory of the song, Hajime had just mentioned how an old record by Nat King Cole is among the few records in Shimamoto’s father’s collection, so the memory of that record may have transferred to the memory of listening to “South of the Border.” The incident could be emblematic of the mystery we all present to ourselves. Our memories are friable, fragile things; Hajime’s emptiness, his existential struggle, comes from within. One could even speculate that Shimamoto, as a magical, mythological trickster figure, plants such a false memory as part of her promise to “take all of him,” including his memories. Such a reading reminds me of the explorations of consciousness that structure Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
- In the world of this novel, Nat King Cole did sing “South of the Border.” Murakami inserts supernatural or surreal elements into many of his works, but such elements are either ambiguous or nonexistent (depending on your reading) in this book. The intrusion of the magical or romantic that Shimamoto represents to Hajime may be mirrored in the early placement of a nonexistent song into the “real world” of the novel, making a very familiar standard bizarre.
- This is an issue of cultural translation which I’m not reading correctly. Perhaps Nat King Cole signifies something to Japanese readers that he does not signify for American readers: an element of exoticism or popularity among a particular social strata that the extant singers of the song would not provide. Since Murakami wanted to use the song’s lyrics as a motif, he gave it to Cole.
The ambiguity in this motif, which seems at first glance like nothing but a signifier of normal suburban life, is quintessential Murakami. It’s why even his lesser works (and I consider this one of his lesser works) are well worth reading.
October 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
“This is a major step toward reconstructing internal imagery,” said [Jack] Gallant. “We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.”
“[N]o previous study has produced reconstructions of dynamic natural movies,” Gallant’s team pointed out on their website. “This is a critical step toward obtaining reconstructions of internal states such as imagery, dreams and so on.”
-“Scientists Glimpse Images In Your Mind,” Carl Franzen, 9/23/11, idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com
18. Contemporary intellectual follies, part two: neuroscience. Or rather, the glib wholesale transferral of the logic of neuroscience to the realm of culture. Another trump card in a narrative of progress that presents itself as absolute, “objective”: the belief that art and literature can be “explained” by a discourse that has no bearing on them whatsoever. As though the endless complexity of thought and interpretation demanded by Hamlet could be substituted by the act of taking a biopsy of Shakespeare’s brain, or the interminable challenges and provocations posed by Inland Empire neutralized by placing electrodes among Lynch’s strangely coiffured hair. Meaning takes place in the symbolic, is constantly negotiated through language (be this spoken or visual), through the dynamism of metaphor, structured by desire, power, gender, and the rest. This process is open, ongoing, and — most important — contestable. That’s why we have art in the first place.
“Right. I wanted you to tell me something. That’s why I called,” Sumire said. She lightly cleared her throat. “What I want to know is, what’s the difference between a sign and a symbol?”
I felt a weird sensation, like something was silently parading through my head. “Could you repeat the question?”…
I sat up in bed, switched the receiver from my left hand to my right. “Let me get this straight — you’re calling me because you want to find out the difference between a sign and a symbol. On Sunday morning, just before dawn. Um…”
–Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami
She’s at the top of a tall tower. So high it makes her dizzy to look down. Lots of tiny objects, like airplanes, are buzzing around the sky. Simple little planes anybody could make, constructed of bamboo and light pieces of lumber. In the rear of each plane there’s a tiny fist-sized engine and propeller. Sumire yells out to one of the passing pilots to come rescue her. But none of the pilots pays any attention.
-“Sumire’s Dream,” Sputnik Sweetheart
Miu’s mind went blank. I’m right here, looking at my room through binoculars. And in that room is me….
I’ve felt this way for the longest time — that in a Ferris wheel in a small Swiss town, for a reason I can’t explain, I was split in two forever.
-“The Tale of Miu and the Ferris Wheel,” Sputnik Sweetheart
The answer is dreams. Dreaming on and on. Entering the world of dreams, and never coming out. Living in dreams for the rest of time.
-“Document 1,” Sputnik Sweetheart
Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings.
-“Document 1,” Sputnik Sweetheart
October 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
Finished: Satires, by Juvenal (trans. Niall Rudd); Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel).
Still reading: Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Reading next: The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, by John Polidori et al.
I’ve been reading a lot of translated literature lately, so my recurring interest in the complexities and quandaries of translation has resurfaced. As luck would have it, these have been 20th-century translations of works spanning two millennia: from the 2nd-century imperial Rome of Juvenal to the 16th-century France (and countless imaginary islands) of Rabelais to the late-20th-century Japan of Murakami. Further, these have been three very different kinds of books, in genre, market, and physical format. Juvenal I read in an inexpensive Oxford World’s Classics paperback perfect for autodidacts and students of Latin lit in translation. Rabelais is a 1942 Heritage Press production with illustrations by Lynd Ward; Heritage was the mass-market version of the expensive Limited Editions Club editions. Finally, the Murakami is a Knopf first American edition, with the standard Knopf gestures at and allusions to quality bookmaking (glued-on endbands, faux deckle edges, colophon) without much of the actual craftsmanship of same.
All of which is prefatory to my impression that the format and intended public for each of these works are the key factors in how the translation is made, and what I am and am not suggested to learn from and experience in them. Every work of literature is mediated by these factors to some degree, but (to travesty Orwell) some are more mediated than others, and translations are the most mediated of all — even putting matters of different languages aside.
As with most any ancient author, reading Juvenal is, for the lay reader, an act of suspended disbelief. In many ways, ancient authors are more like mysterious bronze statues in town squares (to borrow a Hellenic image from Sputnik Sweetheart) than actual, knowable people: their features are recognizable, but they have accumulated centuries of ambergris (copying errors), bird poop (intentional removals or additions thanks to changing morals or understandings), vandalism (forgery), conservation and repair (glosses and marginalia). It’s even more complicated than usual, with Juvenal, who fell out of fashion quickly after his death.
You can argue that Juvenal is as much a medieval author as an ancient one, given the amount of ambiguity there seems to be about what he actually wrote, and what has just been attributed to him. (For a late but beautiful example of a medieval manuscript copy of Juvenal’s Satires, and how complicated these could be in their presentation, check this out, from Harvard’s Houghton Library.) Niall Rudd explains in his fascinating, useful, and almost-certain-to-be-skipped “Translator’s Preface” to the edition I read that he expects most of his readers to be “students… [in] an academic course,” and that he has striven to balance a desire to make Juvenal “accessible” with a need to let his audience “know what is, and what is not, in the original text, even if that involves keeping their thumb in the notes.”
But of course there is no “original text” of Juvenal extant: there are many different copies of varying reliability and quality. And yet the Platonic ideal of Juvenal (as of Shakespeare, or Rabelais, or even Murakami) remains the goal of translation, and the specter that every translator and reader chases, even though such a perfect snapshot of the author’s intention is forever impossible in translation. So lines that have been deemed spurious, or interpolated commentary on the poetry taken for lines by Juvenal, have been removed from the main text to the notes, and surely there are many more that have not been included at all. We are given yet another “new and improved” text to take its place beside those many others of the past.
I greatly enjoyed Rudd’s Juvenal; there’s so much fascinating insight into ancient Rome and human nature, from greed and lust and gluttony and contempt to reminders that we’ve apparently always thought that things were about to go or had just gone to hell in a handbasket to incredible details such as those in Satire 14, presented here with the title “The Influence of Vicious Parents,” which includes mention of shipwrecked sailors begging with painted images of the shipwreck they survived, gripes about real estate in the suburbs of Rome, and the astonishing fact that parricides were punished by being tied up in a sack with an ape, dog, snake, and rooster and thrown into a lake. But I wonder about the medieval “Juvenal,” too, and think about Satire 6, by far the longest of the sixteen, with its rampant misogyny, and wonder if it’s so long because so much was added to it by later enthusiasts.
While I have my quibbles with this edition of Juvenal, overall I found it a great value, with informative and extensive notes and thoughtful presentation. This makes an interesting contrast with the Rabelais, which is so very different a kind of book as to be an almost completely different reading experience. The emphasis here is on enjoyment of the work, with an introduction (by the translator, Jacques LeClercq) that devotes all of four brief paragraphs to the problems of translation and is chiefly concerned with explaining Rabelais’ life and times. LeClercq seeks “interest and readability.” Astonishingly, he has done so by inserting material that would be presented as footnotes in most editions directly into the text — so that, for instance, explanations of complicated idioms and phrases in languages other than French in the original are put into the mouths of the narrator and other characters.
In this way, LeClercq harkens back to the medieval tradition of the gloss or commentary: as Juvenal’s commentators would write their “helpful” comments between (and thereby into) the lines of the text or around the margins of the work, so the LEC/Heritage edition rewrites Rabelais. (A comparison with a more recent translation by M.A. Screech reveals a massive amount of variation between the texts.) The publication history of the parts of Rabelais’s work is fully as complicated as the transmission of Juvenal’s text, and in fact the fifth book is quite possibly not by Rabelais at all (not that you’d know that from the Heritage edition). The desire to present for ownership “The” five books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and to make them palatable as non-scholarly works of enjoyable literature replete with illustrations by a popular artist of the time, leads to an utterly misleading text. (Which is not to say I’m not having fun with it. I enjoy Lynd Ward’s work, and the crazy lists and names and anti-clerical ranting and wild scatology of Rabelaisian Renaissance lit. It’s just that I’ve felt the need, because I am a certain type of obsessive reader, to check the Screech edition frequently against the LeClercq text.)
Finally, there’s Murakami. And here’s a question: why don’t publishers let (or, hell, make) translators include footnotes in their works? Is it really that scary to an American reading public for translated belles lettres that I dare guess is fairly small and well educated? Or is it actually more expensive, for some reason, to include footnotes? Or do translators actually not want to do this? I end up with questions about specifics of translation and cultural allusion — questions that I suspect would be easily answered by the translator, who’s doing the work of parsing these problems anyway — with just about every contemporary work I read. For just one example: when Gabriel translates “bang!” on page 8, what’s he translating? A similar Japanese onomatopoeia? A sound effect seen in Japanese manga? Or is that exact word, the use of which is, granted, not that big of a deal, but is somewhat emblematic of Murakami’s loose, pop-cultural, conversational style, at least to this reader in English — is that exact word in the original, which would be an interesting Americanism? (Incidentally, I suspect that Gabriel also indulges in some in-text footnoting, as when the name Sumire is identified as meaning “Violet” in Japanese. Maybe most translators do this.)
Maybe e-books will be an answer here: they would seem to have the capacity for pop-up footnotes that could be less scary to readers (or, in reality, to publishers) and could actually add value to a printed text. Will translated literature will be the first format to take a real step forward in the e-book format?
September 17, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.
Hard to believe: it’s been ten years since I read this. It’s a trite but true thing about a masterpiece: you’re not really ready for it the first time you read it (you haven’t read enough, lived enough, thought enough), but somehow you get enough out of it to love it anyway, and in fact have a visceral reaction to it that you’ll never have again, exactly, but which brings you back to read it again, when you’re older, and it’ll feel brand-new again, and you’ll think to yourself, why haven’t I read this again, again?
I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready for this book any more than King Lear or Basho or Tolstoy or Joyce. But I feel more ready, now, anyway. I remember reading the first section, of Hal in the university office, took me like three days of rereading, and I was feeling kind of simultaneously baffled and dazzled. It’s a little easier going, now. Quite a bit more enjoyable, as much as anything seems enjoyable in this terrible week. (Seriously, when’s this going to start feeling better?)
Anyway, I noticed this time through that of course there’s the Hal-as-Hamlet allusion going on here, but there’s something else, too, I think: there’s a bit of the Elephant Man. “‘I am not what you see and hear,'” says Hal. He is not an animal. He is a human being. And I love this description of what they hear, from the mouth of one of the Deans (I think, maybe Admissions?): “‘Like a stick of butter being hit with a mallet.'” What a perfectly horrifying sentence!
Also, I’ve never walked into an old-fashioned men’s room without thinking of this section.
A couple other notes: “I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist.” Dennis Gabor is, apparently, best known for inventing holography, and this may refer to that invention. The earlier mention of Hal’s paper on “The Implications of Post-Fourier Transformations for a Holographically Mimetic Cinema” could possibly back that up, since a lot of Gabor’s work apparently dealt with the Fourier analysis in mathematics. What I think all of this might mean: I suspect calling Gabor the Antichrist is Hal’s high-level way of suggesting that simulacra have overtaken our world, that we are busy virtualizing and recreating and dicing experience in so many ways that we’ve lost track of the gestalt, the whole, and the real. And this might perhaps also be a clue to what’s wrong with Hal: could it be that his brain is experiencing a world of frames and granules while everyone else is experiencing a flow?
Anyway, the Erdedy chapter after this is one of my favorites. Erdedy, waiting in agony for a woman to deliver him a giant load of weed, watches an insect crawling around his shelves. Then we get this doozy:
Once the woman who said she’d come had come, he would shut the whole system down. It occurred to him that he would disappear into a hole in a girder inside him that supported something else inside him. He was unsure what the thing inside him was and was unprepared to commit himself to the course of action that would be required to explore the question.
I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like an awfully brave passage. It risks symbol, for one thing, which is tricky in an experimental fiction written in 1996. But it’s such a touching passage, such an awful moment of sick clarity in a person who’s not ready not to be an addict. It also reminds me very much of Murakami, only the exact opposite: his recurring wells and caves and isolated quiet places are like holes in the self, but they’re holes that people crawl into to find or recover something — they’re holes in the shelf, I guess, not the girder. What’s horrible about the hole in the girder is that Erdedy knows he keeps doing this for some reason he doesn’t understand, knows that the hole isn’t in the right place for him to actually learn anything, but can’t imagine giving up this routine he’s locked into. So, yeah, he’s an addict, if a high-functioning one, more or less.