THE JAPANESE NOVELIST, HARUKI MURAKAMI (1949 -) IS A LITERARY PHENOMENON. His novel, Norwegian Wood, a moving love story, sold four million copies in Japan. Both the Japanese original and English translation of his latest work, 1Q84 (a multi-lingual pun on Orwell), had queues snaking around bookshops in London and New York at midnight, drawing parallels with the Harry Potter phenomenon.
A bar and jazz-club owner before bursting onto the literary scene, Murakami weaves a kaleidoscope of literary and cultural references in all his books. He alludes to scientific theories of a multiverse or series of interlocking alternative universes, which makes one question ‘What is reality?’
Kafka on the Shore (published in 2002) tells the story of two main protagonists, in alternating chapters. The first protagonist is the eponymous hero, the fifteen-year old Kafka Tamura, as he styles himself. His father, a wealthy Tokyo sculptor, prophesises that Kafka is destined to murder him and sleep with his mother and sister. The added poignancy is that Kafka has been abandoned by his mother and sister at the age of three. The father destroys all photographs in the house and Kafka has no idea what they look like, if they are alive or where they live. Kafka has an emanation or shadow, ‘the boy called crow’ (‘Kafka’ means ‘crow’ in Czech), who urges Kafka for much of the book to be ‘the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world’.
The other, parallel hero is an old man, Nakata. As a boy evacuee during World War II, from Tokyo to the province of Shikoku, Nakata is brain damaged during a mushroom picking school trip in a nearby forest. The children and teacher see a mysterious flash of light in the sky and lose consciousness. The other children recover but Nakata remains in a coma and is sent back to Tokyo. On regaining consciousness Nakata says he became ‘a shadow’. This is a significant parallel with Kafka’s ‘the boy called crow’. Nakata loses his ability to read and write but finds he can communicate with cats. This leads to a job with the municipality as catcher of stray cats. There are delightful passages of Nakata’s conversations with his neighbourhood cats, which carry echoes of Soseki’s talkative cat protagonist, in I Am a Cat. Nakata befriends a Siamese called Mimi who has a proclivity for quoting Puccini operas.
The centre of the book, in so far as one can locate an epicentre at all, is a macabre and hallucinatory killing by – or perhaps not by – Nakata of ‘Johnnie Walker’, who may or may not be the whisky label and may or may not be Kafka’s father, to prevent a cat-killing orgy by ‘Johnnie Walker’, who has a penchant for tearing out the still pulsing hearts of the cats and using their souls to make flutes. Nakata goes on the run and is picked up by a long-distance lorry driver, Hoshino. Nakata reminds Hoshino of his own grandfather. The two travel to the provincial city of Takamatsu in Shikoku.
Meanwhile, to escape the Oedipal curse of his father, Kafka too embarks on a kind of pilgrimage – echoes of the haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s journey to the North – of his own. He travels from Tokyo, his home town to Takamatsu, Shikoku. Here, Kafka is welcomed in a private library by the librarian, Oshima, a transgender gay figure, and Miss Saeki, the manager, who may or may not be Kafka’s mother with whom Kafka eventually has a sexual relationship. The motif of the shadow is once again played out in the characters of Miss Saeki, who is a nebulous presence, and Oshima, who transcends gender classification. Oshima is Kafka’s intellectual and emotional mentor and it is in the forest where Oshima has a cottage that Kafka has an epiphanic reckoning.
Throughout the book there are numerous references to music. The interweaving of plots, encounters and people resembles a Bach fugue where ambiguities are frequently unresolved and thereby haunting. Kafka and Nakata never meet but their destines are inexplicably intertwined. We never find out if Miss Saeki is Kafka’s mother, whether Nakata or Kafka himself killed his father, what Osima’s true sex is, whether there really was a Johnnie Walker cat-killer.
What particularly appealed to me is that Komura Memorial Library, where Kafka works and lives briefly, is described as being dedicated to the works of tanka and haiku writers, immediately evoking literary allusions to Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki. There are some tantalising passages about the library being used by haiku poets.
Another unforgettable aspect of this novel is a parallel alternative reality in the forest where a colony of beings live in detachment from the world – a kind of zombie-Avalon. Kafka wanders into this hinter world and faces the prospect of being swallowed into its shadowy existence. He returns, determined to face the aftermath of his father’s murder.
There are no neat resolutions to the parallel strands of Kafka and Nakata’s stories. What one is left with is a mesmerising sense of atmosphere, as both plot and characters dissolve, a haunting sense of claustrophobia and limitless possibility and unresolved contradictions. Murakami is sympathetic to his characters: even quite wicked ones like Johnnie Walker have a kind of insane pathos about them.
– Golden Langur
DEAN CODY CASSADY OFFERS AN EXCERPT FROM A TRIP TO THE EAST COAST OF THE STATES.
I finally made it to the USA, after years of sucking up the place through childhood TV. Outside Boston, MA., in an old timber frame house, it’s like stepping into that TV screen! Lightblue and white, cream and brown, pastelgreen detached houses, all with verandas. Walking down Newtonville at night, it struck me about the space: no house is built up against any other when it doesn’t need to be; just how big must this whole country be?
It’s strange, this place we think we know so well but which is Aliensville, MA. I mean, we know its streets, the cars, the way the lights hang over the traffic, swaying in the tumblebreeze, the Stars and Stripes hanging like redblue flowers from posts, yet we haven’t ever seen it: it’s like we’ve slightly shifted into an alternate universe.
Strange that the locals in a Boston bar can’t understand my accent. I slow down, speak clearer, stop my slur into London English, as I tend to do when lazy; yet, I understand Ian from Georgia perfectly (and vice versa), even with his slow Southern twang: ‘Hey, what’s up, y’all?’ I thought I’d assimilated after all these years. Obviously not yet.
We rumble past the Red Sox stadium on the top deck of the double-decker train into Boston, jumping off at Back Bay, literally: waiting for the footbar to swing up, like we’d seen it do from outside, but it doesn’t. Four or five feet down onto the platform. A fat, angry female guard behind us shouts: ‘Don’t you ever do that again, you hear?’ We hit the exit steps, running.
A favourite phrase right now is ‘What’s going on here?’: no pubs in Boston, except down Union and Marshall; bar glasses three quarters of a full English pint; on every intersection there’s a four square pattern of pedestrian rights-of-way (‘Hey,’ shouted one Bostonian at a taxi, ‘don’t y’know pe-destrians have right of way, you idiot?’) The double-decker train. We sit up on the top deck: it begs us to. The guard doesn’t understand my accent: ‘Newtonville to Back Bay,’ I say, but I pronounce it English new (n’you), rather than American noo. We learn quick, from the ticket he’s punched, that if we want to go there and back, it’s a roundtrip rather than a return. We pay him $2 each, preparing to pay again from Back Bay because he hasn’t registered what we want.
We find a bar in the old town, just off the Italian quarter. Kind of like an English pub, it’s on the tourist route. Why do we tourists do this? We come three and a half thousand miles and find a place that serves English beer: so we order it, stick to it. It takes a few days to readjust. I hope, by the time we get to New York, we’ll have Americanised our former selves: we’ll be able to order some sandwich on rye with whatever filling, hold the mustard, double Columbian latte to go. Or something similar. I somehow doubt it though. It’s our Englishness, you understand.
Americanisation. I find myself trying to adjust my accent and vocabulary, just to fit in. Why? Am I that unsure of myself? We Englishmen talk to each other about restrooms not toilets; bucks not dollars; intersections not junctions or crossroads; bars not pubs. We’re in a kind of limbo here.
You see Americans in England waxing lyrical about the history of the place, but I’m in reverse here. Boston: birthplace of the Revolution. It’s difficult to see that history though. The American Grid street system has taken over; I can’t see history in the grid: the ‘Cheers’ bar, the Expressways to NY, the BigDig out near the airport.
Way back at architecture school there was a lecturer who’d absorbed America already by the time he’d got to us. He was passionate about the wide open space, painting it from every angle: huge empty skies above long wide streets; passive cars between isolated gas stations, bright-red Coca-Cola signs; thin telegraph poles, wires strung across roads; trafficlight blocks hung over them, insinuations of hot soft wind easing through the place, stuffing itself into the wide open space, ruffling the tattered-edged Stars and Stripes hung from posts in the middle of the road. The paleblue sky, the dusty-red Coca-Cola signs, the pastel yellowgreen landscape: like the whole painting had been washed in water specially stored in a jar since the Sixties.
Well, we walked into one of those paintings out in Newtonville, MA. Although not exactly a painting in itself, the intersection of Walnut and Washington, over the railroad bridge, made me flash-back; I could see how and why he’d absorbed it. God is in the details, we were taught (the wisdom of architect, Mies van der Rohe). Although this is only an intersection, a dull little everyday sight with no exceptional qualities to the everyday American, it’s an exceptional sight when not taken for granted.
This wide four-way intersection over the railroad bridge; four lanes of occasional passive cars; thin poles up between the blocks; the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes, limp but proud, tattered like a wartorn memory, hung from the post in the middle of the road. Under the widescreen panoramic sky, the painted scene soaked in ordinariness and branded at the subtle edges with dusty pale-red Coca-Cola signs, Mies van der Rohe’s God is in the details.
– Dean Cody Cassady
DAVID A. TROMAN REVIEWS A SCIENTIFIC ESSAY.
The universe and all therein, from one singularity to another singularity, and the impossibility of infinity. What is God?
It would be tempting to think that a scientific essay written – with the intention of its place in the literary canon being that of a prose poem – in 1848 as having little reference to the modern world. Think again. This book is very relevant to our modern world.
It is not, by any means, an easy read. The language is that of the time in which it was written, and the sentence construction/grammar is consequently somewhat alien to modern readers, but its content is so intriguing that it would be a pity to be put off by such considerations.
Within the slightly over 100 pages of this book you will find theories of the formation of the universe, black holes (non-luminous suns) and some ideas that may seem odd as well: for example, the discussion of seventeen planets comprising the solar system, at a time before Pluto had been discovered and then discounted as a planet; an explanation of the formation of the planets and their satellites, and even a theory of the existence and nature of God. All this from a man who was justifiably famous for his poetic and fictional writings may cause the reader to wonder how much of this was intended as fiction too. My answer would be, none of it. These are the thoughts of a very active and enquiring mind. Although Poe suffered much of his life with health and alcohol addiction problems, the arguments presented in this work are cogent and worthy of considered thought for both their content and their presentation.
One of the most interesting arguments put forward here is that infinity is an impossible concept because there always has to be an end to anything that exists: an intriguing point of view. Poe also makes reference to the works of many other scientists in this essay and shows a wide-ranging knowledge, and deep understanding, of the works of Kepler, Newton and many more. His arguments for the necessary existence of a repulsive force to counteract the attractive force of gravity are compelling, even now that this is a known fact.
As Sir Patrick Moore says in his foreword to this edition, ‘Read this essay carefully. There is much more to it than meets the eye.’
This is a book that rewards many fold the time and thought invested in reading it and, as with so many things in life, the greater the investment, the greater the rewards.
– David A. Troman
EZRA POUND (1885 – 1972), THE AMERICAN POET AND CRITIC MAKES THIS OBSERVATION about the language used by fellow American poet, Walt Whitman:
You can learn more of nineteenth century America from Whitman than any other writers . . . The only way to enjoy Whitman thoroughly is to concentrate on his fundamental meaning. If you insist, however, on dissecting his language you will probably find that is wrong NOT because he broke all of what were considered in his day ‘the rules’ but because he is spasmodically conforming to this, that or the other; sporadically dragging in a bit of ‘regular’ metre, using a bit of literary language and putting his adjectives where, in the spoken tongue, they are not. His real writing occurs when he sets free of all this barbed wire.
Literature, both poetry and prose, says Pound, ‘is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’. He goes on to argue that since literature/writing ‘does not exist in a vacuum’ the main social function and ability of a writer should be to use language to convey meaning.
Then we have Joyce, for whom the word/language is the reality. Frank Budgen, Joyce’s biographer and admirer, likened Joyce’s works - like Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses – to locked doors for which keys had to be made to fit. Here’s an extract from Finnegan’s Wake:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs . . .
The opening line of this extract is linked to the end of the novel, which links the book to theories of the cyclical nature of the Universe and Time. This is suggested at in the word vicus, which is a pun on the name of Vico, the Neapolitan theorist of the cyclical nature of culture. The term commodius is a pun on the last Roman Emperor, Commodus.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s . . .
is, again, multi-layered in that it is the name of a Dublin pub as well as a pun on the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man.
Thus, Joyce created an inimitable use of language and married sound and meaning, which have been replicated by other Irish greats like Heaney, but Joyce’s unique mastery of language has never been equalled, let alone surpassed. The extract quoted here is a gripping example of his unique style and opens up the almost infinite possibilities of how language can be played around with and used beyond the literal meaning. He is the master of allusions, who turned the joke form of punning into a major literary tool.
Where in relation to Pound’s idea about meaning and language, and Joyce’s privileging of language over meaning, does your own use of language fit?
Do you agree with Pound’s critique that embellishment of language often obscures meaning?
Do you know or read any particular writer/poet whose use of language is inspirational for you?
How successful do you think your use of language is in getting across what you want to express?
– Golden Langur
GOLDEN LANGUR CONSIDERS WHAT THE TITLE OF A WRITTEN PIECE LENDS TO THE WHOLE.
A. L. Kennedy, the judge of 2011 Bridport Short Story and Flash Fiction Prize, commented:
A number of writers seemed to have real difficulty finding a title that would help them . . .
She went on to say that the successful entries were the ones that work from ‘title to final’ in establishing an ‘unquestionable voice’.
Her stance is quite representative of the advice that editors routinely give writers. The title of a story or book is the first contact that a potential reader and editor make with your work. It represents your work to the world. If the title does not make the intended impact, it is unlikely that the reader or the editor will continue to read.
Some simple dos:
A title must be instantly eye-catching
Easy to remember
Appropriate to the content of the book/story
A random selection of published works shows a wide variety of titles. These range from a single word or name:
Saturday – Ian McEwan
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
Shantaram – Gregory David Smith
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Ulysses – James Joyce
to the enigmatic, and sometimes with metaphysical allusions:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner – Alan Sillitoe
to the seemingly mundane:
The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
Surfacing – Margaret Atwood
Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry
to dramatic, eye-catching titles:
Sexing The Cherry – Jeanette Winterson
Talking To The Dead – Helen Dunmore
Catcher In The Rye – J. D. Salinger
Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
(taken from John Donne’s poem:
‘. . . Ask not for whom the bell tolls –
It tolls for thee’)
to the bizarre:
The Short History Of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycha
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – Roddy Doyle
The Windup Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami
to intriguing ones:
Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes
The Speckled People – Hugo Hamilton
An Equal Music – Vikram Seth
The Enigma Of Arrival – V. S. Naipaul
In the highly competitive world of writing and publishing, it is worthwhile giving due care and attention to picking titles that will imbue your work with an almost talismanic potency.
Does the title of a work affect your choice of reading?
How do you choose titles for your own work?
Do you know of any striking titles that you might like to share here?
– Golden Langur