Sunday, June 01, 2008


The proposer – appropriately framed by three pictures of dance and a leaning tower of Murakami paperbacks –explained that he had first encountered the work of the writer by picking up a book at the airport. He had then become addicted to his books, liking their dream-like qualities, and would purchase one of his books when faced with a long journey.

Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949, the son of two teachers of Japanese literature and the grandson of a Buddhist priest. Following the success of his early ventures into writing he had left Japan to become for some years a writing fellow in America. He had translated a number of American writers – including Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and Raymond Carver – into Japanese. He was also interested in the work of Kafka, which had made him popular in the Czech Republic. His work had acquired cult following in Japan, but was unusual for a Japanese writer and had attracted opprobrium from traditionalists because of its overt Western influence.

This book was published in 1988, and the proposer felt there was a watershed in Japan between the seventies and the eighties. The prim and proper Japanese he had met in the seventies had given way to people of a more casual and normal manner in the eighties. The book thus caught Japanese society in a process of transition. But it was still a divided society, which to this day faced major problems.

Murakami had set up a jazz club in Japan with his wife after leaving university, and his love of western music was very prominent in his work. There were many references to specific songs, even in his book titles (including this one – from the Steve Miller band).

This particular example of his work followed up a trilogy - its last work was “A Wild Sheep Chase” - thus making a “tetralogy”. A prominent character in the trilogy was a god-like figure called “the rat”. Murakami had been unhappy with the first two books and had resisted their translation.

There were several common elements to be found in the many Murakami novels he had read:

• dream-like
• weak males, who often took time off work, and who were good at cooking
• strong women (and he often focussed on their special characteristics, such as Kiki’s ears in this novel)
• loneliness
• a cat to be looked after
• satire on capitalism
• eroticism
• a quest
• strange stories, with discontinuities. This was the tightest, with a clear plot, and relatively polished. Other plots were looser, and had to be re-read to make sense

He had come across one critic who said the books dealt with “the spiritual emptiness of the generation”.

Reviewers in papers such as the Guardian and the Independent might maintain Murakami was a great novelist. But for the proposer – addicted as he might be – Murakami fell short of greatness. He was very readable and surprisingly addictive, but he was too one-track and lacked gravitas. There were too many common elements between the books, and too little development.

Momentarily silenced by the sweep of this comprehensive introduction (silence? now there’s a first!) the Group soon found its voice.

A jolly good read that kept going to the very end. It was reminiscent of “Morvern Callar” – the girl with the playlists of music in her head.

There was a pointed contrast between the controlled passion of the Japanese and the free and easy Western approach. The book tellingly revealed how controlling Japanese society was. The characters were very passive, contrasting sharply, for example, with the vibrancy and spontaneity of the London immigrants in “White Teeth”. But the characters were very well-drawn.

There were prominent elements of self-satire and self-deprecation – running down the quality of the hero’s writing, producing a writer with an obvious anagram of the author’s name, and endlessly repeating “what’s all this about?”

Another who loved it found it intoxicating and seductive. It was remarkable how it managed to blend seamlessly the disparate elements of a detective story, the telepathic, a critique of Japanese capitalism, some Japanese philosophising and even a supernatural figure in sheep’s clothing. The transitions were particularly smooth when the book was read in conjunction with a generous measure of tequila.

One reviewer had suggested that it was therefore perhaps not a good book to start with, because of its links with the previous trilogy. However, none of the Book Group members felt it was not sufficiently self-contained, including one who had read “A Wild Sheep Chase” and had indeed not noticed the links with this book. Other books the proposer recommended for those who wished to read more were “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “South of the Border, West of the Sun”.

So no problems? Well, not quite. One member had not liked it at all. He had met many Japanese people who sought to prove how sophisticated they were by endlessly name-dropping about Western products, which made them seem simply na├»ve. Murakami – or at least his hero – did this constantly. This member had hoped to read a Japanese novel about Japan – but in his eyes Japan was only notionally the setting of the novel. Others had also noted the peculiar harping on Western brand names – did it reflect what was considered fashionable in Japan of the eighties? – or was it an attempt to sell the book into Western markets? In any event, to bang on about how cool the hero was in visiting Dunkin Donuts did not seem cool in post-Iraq 2008, nor did it sit comfortably with a critique of Japanese capitalism.

But was it fair to criticize the book for being insufficiently Japanese? Would it be fine if it had been written by a Californian? Hmmm…lost in translation.

During the last month sundry Japanese residents in Edinburgh had found themselves approached by earnest MBG members to be asked what they thought of the great Murakami. A famous Japanese artist had given him the thumbs-down as pretentious. On the other hand some young Japanese females had tittered with amusement at the mention of his name –no doubt because of the erotic content of the books.

Part of the attraction found in the book for Japan in the 80s might be the portrait of a hero not locked into the conventional hard-working world of Japan. The richest and most successful character – Gotanda - was the unhappiest. Together with the emphasis on music, it gave the hero a hippy-type allure, and perhaps it was wrong to see him as a weak figure. However, it was easy for him to scorn the working world when he kept on being given large cheques for looking after Yuki.

What about Yumiyoshi, his current love interest? Was she unhappy? No – she seemed fulfilled in her hotel job. She again was a well-drawn character, even if there was a large element of male wish-fulfilment in the seduction of a strait-laced hotel receptionist. (Perhaps, suggested one member, it was the seamed stockings that did it, but I fear I may have promised not to record this observation).

So what did we make of the relationship between the hero and the 13 years old Yuki? Some thought it innocent; others detected a sexual undertone. And had there not recently been a fuss about Japanese comics – Manga – depicting relationships between adults and children?

And what of Murakami’s philosophising, Japanese or otherwise? According to the sheepman:

“Yougottadance. Don’t even thinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop…Yougottadance”.

Perhaps an alternative hippy version of Wittgenstein’s “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the question”? It was striking that the anonymous hero really lost his temper –for the first time - when the young girl Yuki only showed some appreciation of Dick when he was dead and it was too late. Again, the emphasis was on living life in the present. And was that sense of the skull beneath the skin – as in the gothic vision of the skeletons – not characteristically Japanese?

Another sheepman theme that seemed central to the book was that of “connection”:

‘“Weconnectthings. That’swhatwedo. Likeaswitchboard, weconnectthings. Youlostyourway. Yourconnectionscomeundone….”

‘I broke off… “But the other thing, the person I hear crying in my dreams, is there a connection here? I think I can feel it…”’

But is connection that important? After all, he draws a diagram of the links between the characters at one point and says he can’t solve it, but it might make a good Agatha Christie - this is typical of his playful, self-satirising approach. And even at the finish not every loose end is tied up – for example who is the last skeleton in his vision of the future?

Well, yes, he’s not trying to write an Agatha Christie-type novel in which everything is made crystal clear in the last chapter, but connection is central to the book. He creates a series of shadowy and suggestive links between the characters, mysterious links between past, present and future in the Dolphin hotel and in the room with the skeletons, and a sense of the sinister intrigue beneath the glossy surface of the Japanese capitalist world in Tokyo. It is more like the world of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles than Christie’s rural England.

As noted two months ago: “The essence of a Chandler novel was that sense of Byzantine mystery and human venality that lurked beneath the surface of American society. His method of cannibalising two or three separate short stories to produce a novel helped create this haunting sense of mystery – if not a very coherent plot”. And that was the role of several urban novelists, from Dickens to Murakami: to bring imagination and feeling to bear in interpreting a dehumanised environment, to make connections between anonymous urban dwellers.

This led on to a discussion of Murakami’s debt to Chandler, whom he acknowledges as a source. Surprisingly, there was a sharp split between those who saw clear signs of debt to Chandler and those who saw none. Those who did see influence saw it not just in the sense of mystery and complex plotting as above, but in the hero as the man of integrity standing outside a corrupt society, in some of the imagery, in his pair of policemen and in the beach house setting. And the novelists shared a pervasive sense of melancholy and loss. But this hero did not suffer from Marlowe’s prudishness.

It was impossible to tell through the lens of translation how similar the original style of language might be, and we expressed some surprise that Murakami had not tried to translate the book himself.

But what about the loose ends, the shifts into the surreal and the world of dream? Was it a reasonable hypothesis that each of us had a different threshold, a different level of tolerance for illogicality? So some would be comfortable with a book like this and others would find it quite unacceptable? Well maybe, but the one member who felt this book had too many loose ends was nevertheless a fan of “Ulysses”, a book which very few ever finish. And didn’t dream have a logic of its own? Arguably dream was another symbolic form like art, language and myth…

Hmmm…. too difficult, at least for your amanuensis, who could sense the discussion straining towards the stratosphere… and sure enough off we soared. Did “Dance, Dance, Dance” contain surrealism, or magic realism, or at least some sort of “ism”? (or maybe just an old-fashioned ghost story?) …and why was Murakami so obsessed with Kiki’s earlobes? And the nape of the neck? ...errr… obsessive/compulsive disorder… or wasn’t the earlobe an erogenous zone? … Well, of course, where have you been!... Which reminds me of a joke…..

Which shall remain unrecorded, for I had spotted the proposer reaching for a fine bottle of Japanese Sake on the mantlepiece (“THE REFINED AWAMURI SHIMAUTA KURO 30%” - to be precise) and proferring a cup to one and all. What a handsome gesture! Let us hope other proposers will follow suit.

Although no doubt Murakami would have preferred J and B. Which reminds me of a joke…..

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