Murakami’s Abnormal Normalcy

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.

Enlightening Infotainment!

October 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

The cover of my Penguin Classics copy is this famous Goya etching:


“The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters,” the typical translation of the writing on the desk goes.  I’ve loved it ever since I first learned about it (and about Goya) researching a paper during my freshman year of college.

It’s a fine choice for the cover, since the tug between reason and faith, science and the supernatural, is a major part of Potocki’s book.  While the theme is perhaps standard for the Gothic genre, here it also acts like something of a brilliant thematic complement to the historical fiction, since the manuscript narrates events in 1739, in the thick of the Enlightenment.

Central to the theme is the core mystery of whether or not van Worden’s encounter at the Venta Quemada was supernatural, and how it could be explained otherwise.  This does all get resolved, if somewhat unsatisfyingly, by the end of the book.  But three subplots also directly address, and complicate, the reason vs. faith struggle: the computations of Velasquez the geometer, and the stories of Uzeda the cabbalist and his summoning of the Wandering Jew.

Velasquez is in the habit of turning any narrative into an equation, plotting its coordinates on a graph or applying his newfangled calculus to discover its underlying logic.  (Velasquez often seems more like a behavioral economist than a geometer.)  We are often given Velasquez’s process in solving these “problems” in full.  He is, essentially, the stereotypical absent-minded professor, wandering off to complete his equations whenever they occur to him.  But these sections are, essentially, word problems, and their place in the narrative seems to be to serve as — dare I say it again? — infotainment!  (I’m a big fan of the use of the exclamation point in The Informant! — best ever use of punctuation in a film title?)  There really seems to be no other reason for Potocki to give them to us in full, rather than summarizing them.

Which is not to say that they don’t serve a narrative function, as well; Uzeda’s daughter, whom we first know as Rebecca and then as Laura, serves at first as a sarcastic foil to Velasquez’s nerdy twisting of every life story into an equation, but gradually comes to respect his “system” and love him for his mind and his heart.  Velasquez delves into his system on the 37th to 39th days, and his thoughts on religion do seem formed by — and in reaction to — the Enlightenment.  It seems that these thoughts, reconciling reason and religion, shift Rebecca away from sarcastic dismissal of Velasquez’s over-rational approach to life and toward an appreciation of his finer qualities:

Thus, rather like the lines we call asymptotes, the opinions of philosophers and theologians can converge, without ever meeting, to within a distance which is smaller than any given distance….  Now does a difference which I cannot perceive give me the right to set my convictions up in opposition to my brothers and to my Church?  Does it give me the right to sow my doubts in the faith that they possess and which they have made the basis of their ethics?  Certainly not…. So I submit heart and soul.

The other most blatant example of infotainment in the book is the Wandering Jew’s story.  The Wandering Jew here functions as a kind of historical Forrest Gump: giving us a crash course in history as well as telling us about his brief encounters with historical figures (Cleopatra!  Herod!)  For much of the middle third of the book, Velasquez and the Wandering Jew monopolize great chunks of text with their edifying infotainment: Velasquez’s supreme reason and Ahasuerus’s implausible march through millennia taking turns educating us.

You can certainly argue that the book’s ending closes the argument decisively in favor of reason.  However, I believe that Potocki thinks there’s something to Velasquez’s apologia for religion; and while he may have exposed superstition, he has certainly been careful to leave the door open on faith.  More than that, a perfectly rational explanation for everything in the novel is, at some level, rather beside the point: the cabbalists, ghosts, demons, and underground kingdoms are the fuel that keeps the narrative moving, that keeps the reader interested, in ways that Velasquez’s equations never do.  The experience of the book is such that one does not know whether to believe or disbelieve and, like Velasquez, must “submit heart and soul” to find out how Potocki wraps it all up.  Suspension of disbelief is a much more spiritual undertaking than we typically acknowledge; and frankly, it’s a little disappointing when a writer tries to explain that while I thought I was taking a leap of faith, there was really a nice mattress waiting for me all along.

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