Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Haruki Murakami and 1Q84, part three - 'detective spelunking'

Haruki Murakami's new book features a character, Tengo, who wants to be a writer and reviewers have naturally picked up on this aspect of 1Q84. Some of the novel's thoughts on writing, editing and publishing replicate the author's views on translation, expressed in a piece by Murakami called 'To Translate and to be Translated' (2006) collected in a book to commemorate a symposium held by the Japan Foundation five years ago.

The three-part celebration - in Tokyo, Kobe and Hokkaido - was primarily aimed at international translators of Murakami's work and called A Wild Haruki Chase: How the World is Reading and Translating Murakami. Kobe, of course, is where the Japanese author grew up, while Hokkaido is one of the settings in the first of his books to appear in Britain, A Wild Sheep Chase (1990).

'If a translation can be read smoothly and effortlessly, and thus enjoyably,' Murakami writes, 'then it does its job as a translation perfectly well - that is my basic stance as the original author. For that is what the stories that I conjure and lay out are really about.'

Elsewhere, one of the leading lights behind the symposium, Professor Inuhiko Yomota, claims: 'The international "Haruki boom" gained momentum in the 1990s, around the same time as anime (Japanese animation) and Japanese-made computer games pushed into global markets. Unlike the works of his Japanese predecessors, such as Jun'ichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata, Murakami's works are not being translated and consumed overseas as those of an author who represents Japanese culture.'

Though Murakami may not represent Japanese culture I disagree with Yomota's idea that international readers do not think of the author and his work as Japanese. The chief protagonist of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru Okada, may cook spaghetti and listen to Rossini, for instance, but his outlook and experiences are distinctly 'other'. While readers' 'political disillusionment, romantic impulses, loneliness and emptiness' may be assuaged by Murakami's texts, as Yomota has it, it is the books' alien setting that allows many non-Japanese readers to accept their unusual goings-on. To contradict Yomota's thesis, we 'fully realise that the author was born in Japan and that the books are actually translations.'

More compelling is the writer Richard Powers on how Murakami's work anticipated developments in neuroscience in the 1990s, specifically Italian researcher Giacomo Rizzolatti's discovery of mirror neurons. Working with monkeys in the lab, his team unexpectedly found that a macaque signalled from a part of its prefrontal cortex not only when moving its own arm but in reaction to the experimenters' movements. 'Now, in the looping, shared circuitry of mirror neurons, science has hit upon an even richer description of our communal, subterranean truths,' says Powers, 'the truths that Murakami's mirrorscape of symbols brings into existence with him.'

Kafka on the Shore (2005) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991, pictured top) are just two examples of novels containing such parallel narrative worlds. According to Powers: 'Murakami's characters, set loose between these intersecting worlds, are forced to embark on detective spelunking. They venture downwards into walled enclaves, climb into deep wells, or drop below the surface of seismically shaken cities, searching for the rules that connect the banal and the fantastic, the material and the mental.'

The formula is repeated in 1Q84 where an unrequited couple - Tengo and old schoolmate Aomame - find themselves in a parallel 1984. Much of the narrative is naturalistic: perhaps back in 1984 the same two characters are moving between the same points in their lives (rewriting a book, hiding out in an apartment, visiting a dying parent) without being aware of the supernatural elements that link these events in the world of 1Q84, with its two moons. Politically disillusioned, lonely, romantic and empty we may be but somewhere, Murakami insists, something magical and mysterious is happening if only in our minds.

The book's 1984/1Q84 nonetheless feels close to our own time; despite lacking mobile phones and the internet, Murakami is not interested in piling on the period detail so loved by others. And what does his hero, Tengo, eat this time out? Grilled dried mackerel with daikon radish, a miso soup with littlenecks and green onions to have with tofu, cucumber slices and wakame seaweed doused with vinegar, plus rice and nappa pickles; elsewhere he makes stir-fried shrimp and vegetables with boiled edamame in a procedure Murakami itemises like a recipe - you could follow this and make it at home.

'Tengo chopped a lot of ginger to a fine consistency. Then he sliced some celery and mushrooms into nice-sized pieces. The Chinese parsley, too, he chopped up finely... Next he warmed a large frying pan and dribbled in some sesame oil... When the vegetables were just beginning to cook, he tossed the drained shrimp into the pan... After adding another dose of salt and pepper to the whole thing, he poured in a small glass of sake. Then a dash of soy sauce and finally a scattering of Chinese parsley.'

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