Friday, 21 May 2010

Haruki Murakami or, a wild sheep chase

I've been meaning to write about Haruki Murakami for a while - and to include some quotes from him that haven't appeared before; in the spirit of the last few posts, which all seem to link, this seems as good a time as any. I first discovered the hugely popular Japanese author when Penguin published three of his books at the turn of the 1990s. As we've become used to his bigger, often slightly mystical, more recent work, it's easy to forget how funny the surrealistic noir of A Wild Sheep Chase, for instance, is.

I championed Murakami's work in Time Out after Harvill picked him up later that decade, beginning with what's probably still his best book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (a couple of quotes from my reviews adorn some of their covers). So when his publishers said the great man was coming to London following the appearance of short story collection after the quake, I was desperate for a chance to meet him.

He had agreed to speak to only a handful of major papers - the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, I seem to recall - but I was told that if I came along to a party that was being hosted for him at Daunt Books, in Marylebone, I may be granted an interview. The fateful event was held a day or two after he'd run in the Boston marathon; when we met he was almost monosyllabic and his English seemed beyond broken - decimated. I had a sinking feeling; not only had I reread all his books in preparation but we had kept a spread free in the magazine at the printers that called for a quick turnaround. Considering he was reputed to be hardly forthcoming with journalists at the best of times, I couldn't see how I was going to fill it.

As it turned out, he couldn't have been more charming. When we met in his Knightsbridge hotel the following afternoon, he seemed relaxed, perhaps because it was the last interview of his visit, and was immensely open. His English was perfect, leaving the translator who joined us redundant. He happily talked about his next book, Kafka on the Shore, his spartan work routine and what it means to him to be a writer (unfortunately, again, the couple of articles I eked out of our meeting aren't on the web).

Murakami's most recent book, of course, is the non-fiction What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. While German readers can expect a translation of his latest, 1Q84, this autumn, the English-speaking world will have to wait till September 2011 for his first fiction work since 2007's After Dark. 1Q84 is said to have sold something like 1.5 million copies since its publication in Japan last year.

His position as a Japanese author has been fraught ever since he first unveiled his pop writing style in a country with a conflicted view of American influences post World War II. Murakami widely cites the 1960s anti-war movement as having been vital to his own personal growth, but acknowledges the ambiguities inherent in that position, notably as the spectre of North Korea looms: 'If something goes wrong we have to rely on the United States and their military power,' he told me. 'It's a contradiction: we are anti-war but we don't know what's going to happen next.'

His view of the world and storytelling are intertwined: 'I like to see the world through the eyes of ordinary people. The world is full of extraordinary things and extraordinary characters - I love it and that's my story. I think story is adventure - you're a protagonist and you're going to experience unexpected, unpredictable things so when the adventure finishes you have changed. I think that is the most important part of the story: you are different.

'My basic concept of the presence of the human being is he or she is lonely, he or she is by himself or herself. It's a journey and you are going to meet some people on the way and you go with him or her for a while but there will be a separation and you will be by yourself again. I think that is life, that is my basic recognition of life: it's lonely sometimes. But at least you can get a memory. I think those kind of memories - possibly warm memories - are important to your life and a story can offer you that feeling.'

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Elephants on the page

The brightly painted elephants that can be found round central London at the moment are probably more reminiscent of circus animals than the organisers behind the lovely Elephant Parade might like to admit. The decorations invoke the big top, where Nellie packed her trunk, or perhaps the almost Klimt-like illustrations of Elmer. Nowadays, children may be more likely to think of Jim Carrey's colourful Horton than the noble Babar.

Other transfers from the page to the big screen include pompous Colonel Hathi and his family in The Jungle Book, while Disney, of course, also created Dumbo. Elephants' long memories are legendary, the mighty waddle made comic, the size of the ears continent specific and the trunks frankly unlikely. And then there's their sheer bulk, unfortunately not replicated by the current London line-up, though no one who saw it will forget the Sultan's magnificent pachyderm that sprayed spectators in town four years ago.

Elephants' weight and size are central to two short stories that form the title pieces to a couple of collections by two writers from different times and countries. Polish satirist Slawomir Mrozek's 1957 book, recently republished by Penguin (below), features a drunken swan, an anarchic ladybird and a 'tamed progressive' kept as a pet. At its centre is a rubber elephant, installed in a zoo to save money on the real thing; filled overnight with gas, it has a quite unintended effect on the schoolchildren who witness its escape.

Haruki Murakami's book The Elephant Vanishes (1993) also includes a veritable menagerie: the wind-up bird that made the Japanese author's name and some implausible kangaroos, as well as the beast that fascinates our narrator in the final tale. The shackled zoo elephant's absence is first noticed on the same date as this post, May 18, and the details are expounded in a newspaper piece; 'What gave the article its air of strangeness was the obvious confusion and bewilderment of the reporter. And this confusion and bewilderment clearly came from the absurdity of the situation itself… For example, the article used such expressions as "the elephant escaped," but if you looked at the entire piece it became obvious that the elephant had in no way "escaped." It had vanished into thin air.'

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Jackets required

I've just seen these eyecatching covers for Penguin's Central European Classics series, out now in paperback. I wonder if the inspiration behind gray318's slightly retro designs - or, at least, the idea for branding the 10 books in this manner - comes from Harper Perennial's Classic Stories books, which also come in a fun little format (Herman Melville's The Happy Failure, pictured in part, also includes Bartleby, the Scrivener, mentioned in the post below).

I've always pretty much judged whether to buy a book by its cover, otherwise they wouldn't have them (pity those countries that don't rate jacket design). The name of the publisher, plot synopsis and review quotes all help me make up my mind in a bookshop (this is discounting the little bookbuying I do on the internet, largely due to recommendations from friends). One sure sign, in the past, used to be if there was a positive mention from Time Out, but the London magazine's resources have been so depleted, I'll have to find some other indicator of a good buy.

Penguin regularly finds ways to repackage its backlist - Essential Penguins, Red Classics and lately Deluxe Classics. Though obviously a marketing exercise, the publisher manages to inject enough verve to make the reprints worth more than a cursory look. I've only read a couple of these Central European Classics but would very highly recommend Karel Capek's satire, War With the Newts, while The Cowards is one of Josef Skvorecky's more minor works but enjoyable nonetheless. Now, which of the rest should I start with?

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Office life brought to book

The titles of Alain de Botton's most recent books of philosophical inquiry do their author an injustice. I was a big fan of his early novels, and enjoyed his musings on The Art of Travel, but was hacked off with The Consolations of Philosophy and couldn't be bothered with Status Anxiety or The Architecture of Happiness. I was intrigued by The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which has just come out in paperback, and am glad I gave into the impulse.

I suspected it may feature coping strategies for the modern workplace: bullied by your boss? Try this philosopher. Instead, it's a sweet investigation of how most of us spend most of our days. The section on tuna fishing made me think about the precise pressures of a 24-hour global economy in a way I'd never done before - further brought home by the effect of the volcanic ash crisis on Kenyan farmers, for instance. And I enjoyed his theory that sexual harrassment protocols exist in the workplace to prevent us spending all our time thinking about - or having - sex with colleagues.

There are times when de Botton allows himself the slightly whimsical fantasising I first so admired about him, and I still wish he'd return to writing novels, but the office has been fairly well mined in literature. A couple of years ago, Joshua Ferris was feted for his debut novel set in a creative agency, Then We Came to the End. I'm undecided whether I don't like his book because it makes me feel the characters are my colleagues - in which case, why read it - or whether he succeeds precisely for that reason. There's a lurking suspicion that he chose ad-land not because he may have worked there, I don't know if he did, but because it may be more interesting than many other jobs out there, whether the day-to-day concerns are the same or not; Microserfs for the new millennium, perhaps, showing how little has changed, or how prescient Douglas Coupland was, in 1995, as he usually is.

Nicholson Baker and Michael Bracewell have placed the minutiae of the workplace under the microscope, in The Mezzanine and Perfect Tense, respectively (the latter being one of the most acute examinations of the modern office you could read). No better portrayal of the hell of work can be found than in Kafka, whose name has of course become a byword for bureaucracy gone mad thanks to such nightmarish visions as The Trial (about a bank clerk). In short story The Metamorphosis, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa fears the arrival of his chief clerk when Samsa famously wakes transformed into a cockroach and cannot go to work.

As much as it's true in life, a character's job may serve as a pigeonhole; more often, it's one of many problems from which to flee, as in Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar or John Lanchester's very funny Mr Phillips. BS Johnson's bookkeeper, at the centre of Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (yes, it does sound like a porn movie), keeps stock of his accounts before taking revenge. We might, however, follow the insouciant example of Herman Melville's Bartleby, who relies on one stolid response to every request made of him: 'I would prefer not to.'