24 April 2008

Book Day

Yesterday was World Book Day, so (following Microsiervos) I was about to write about some of my favourite books, or books I've recently read, but something else interrupted me. So this is it now.

Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami (original image posted on Flickr by wakarimasita)
First, I need to tell you I've been reading a few books by Haruki Murakami, a modern Japanese author known for his "surrealist" themes and his modern, American-influenced style. What I read was two novels, Kafka on the Shore and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and his non-fiction journalistic work in Underground, a compilation of interviews he conducted on survivors of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. I read all of them in English translations who were supervised by Murakami (Spanish versions are unavailable and/or re-translated from the English, which must surely detract a lot from the original). I'm also excruciatingly reading Kafka on the Shore in the original Japanese, vocabulary and grammar not being an issue when the translation is beside me, but a real pain when (every two or three lines) I must pause to look up a character or two that I can't read.

Neither Kafka… nor Hard-Boiled… are easy to summarize or explain, but both have in common that they resort to parallel stories, one of them "realistic", if outlandish, the other more clearly fantastic or dream-like, which tend to converge but never quite join each other. In Kafka on the Shore, which starts as the story of a 15-year-old boy leaving his father's house, the realistic and fantastic elements are mixed from the start; Hard-Boiled… works by alternating chapters, one in the "real" world of near-future Tokyo with some strange developments, the other in the "fantasy" town at a metaphorical "end of the world", the meaning of which we discover rather late.

Both novels make abundant use of sexual themes, sometimes only as allusions to trigger loose subconscious associations, sometimes as explicit scenes that tend to be either dream-like in their intensity, or matter-of-factly outlined in a few conventional words. Reading them (especially in Kafka…) you know there's something at work, rather than a gratuitious instance of copulation for the reader's amusement. Murakami seems to appeal to things we can't rationally grasp and explain in concrete terms, and he reaches into the depths of our mind to push those buttons he needs to play his subtle tune.

Underground is a series of interviews conducted personally by Murakami on people who were on the Tokyo subway when selected members of Aum Shinrikyo, then a young religious sect not known for such violence, planted plastic bags of the nerve agent sarin on several subway cars on the morning of March 20, 1995. The sarin evaporated quickly; it killed 12 and injured more than a thousand. About two years later, Murakami did all the work of finding the survivors, or the families of the deceased, and interviewed those who agreed to meet him.

Murakami also interviewed a few past and current members of the cult, and wrote himself reflecting on what really prompted so many men and women, not only poor or ignorant folk but also a few members of the Japanese "super elite", to join this self-rejecting cult and eventually obey their leader when told to release a lethal chemical weapon on innocent bystanders. He (echoing many of the interviewees) criticized the media's handling of the event, their sensationalist and bidimensional portrayal of both the survivors and the perpetrators, and the terrifying realization that Japan was not only completely unprepared to deal with such a crisis, but continues in denial about its failure to contain the people who don't fit in the rigid frame of social convention. How can we be so sure Japan's the safest country in the world, Murakami asks, when among us such a rotten cult was allowed to spread unnoticed?

Well, I ended up talking about Murakami's books only... I'll tell you about my other books later.

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