Haruki Murakami: After the Quake – Review

No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself. It’s like your shadow. It follows you everywhere.

Enjoyed this far more than I expected to. In fact I read the whole book in almost a single sitting. Although Murakami is still one of my favourite authors I’ve become slightly jaded by his writing. Anyone who’s a fan of his surely knows all the criticisms reviewers throw at him: recycling the same themes, similar characters in almost every book, and the feeling which initially strikes you as an intense dreamlike surrealism can (after 4 or 5 of his books) become dull and overly predictable.

The key I’ve found to enjoying Murakami when you’ve read so much of his work is to know the right state of mind in which to read him. You have to be willing to be swept away by his thoughts. Saying that, this usually requires long periods of delving into a particular story, and considering this was the first collection of his shorts that I’ve read I wasn’t expecting much other than a few entertaining, easy, stories to read in my breaks at work.

Instead I found a really fantastic and at times bizarre collection. And this is coming from a huge fan of Borges, Calvino and Kafka who are the absolute peak fantastical and surreal short fiction in my eyes.

The opener UFO in Kushiro was a very familiar Murakami tale that included all the classic Murakami tropes (distant women, strange hotel rooms, sensual flashbacks etc.) but it really hooked me. In fact it put me into that dreamlike state which in my opinion is necessary to get the most out of Murakami’s writing.

The other two stories that stand out were Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and Honey Pie. Honey Pie was the final story in the collection and it was actually a beautifully written modern love story. By the end of the book it really tugged on my heartstrings. I imagine it’s very similar in style and content to Norwegian Wood (which I have never got round to reading!)

But it was during Super Frog (absolutely the most bizarre thing I’ve read by Murakami since the famed Johnny Walker scene in Kafka on the Shore)that I really understood what Murakami was getting at with this collection:

“A very, very big earthquake. It is set to strike Tokyo at eight-thirty a.m. on February 18. Three days from now. […] Buildings will be transformed into piles of rubble, their inhabitants crushed to death. Fires everywhere, the road system in a state of collapse, ambulances and fire trucks useless, people just lying there, dying. A hundred and fifty thousand of them! Pure hell. People will be made to realize what a fragile condition the intensive collectivity known as ‘city’ really is.”

Japan, throughout the last hundred years, has been subject to events such as this numerous times, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Kobe and Fukushima. The aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake is a common theme throughout the book, hence the name, but what Murakami did excellently here was to show how an unplanned natural catastrophe can echo the fragility of an individual’s personal experience. This imagery reverberates in some way or another through every story here.

In a country whose values are so routed in tradition and stability, yet whose modernisation has come through such an unsettling time of accelerating development and unplanned disaster, the Japan that Murakami writes about is a country coming to terms with this struggle.

Similarly to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore, Murakami tries to reflect aspects of the Japanese psyche that have been affected by the turbulent times in it’s history. This is something that is arguably not talked about enough in regard to his writing. But all in depth analysis aside, I really enjoyed this. It made me remember why I love reading his books. No doubt Mr. Murakami still deserves his place on my top.5.

Borges and Murakami: Philosophy in Fiction

Borges and Murakami

Philosophy in fiction has had a long and storied history, from the mythology of Ancient Greece to existential fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries, but in more recent times there have been two authors that have stood out to me, not because they are philosophers writing a philosophical treatise in the form of fiction, like Sartre or Camus, but because they are authors who seamlessly weave philosophical problems into their stories. Their tales are fictional, of course, but the thoughts they leave you with reverberate around the inside of your skull in a way that some of the world’s greatest philosophers can only manage through dense academic prose. One of the these authors is Jorge Luis Borges, the other is Haruki Murakami.

Upon first inspection there seems to be very few similarities between these two: Murakami, a literary superstar who is a regular at top of the bestsellers lists, often writes lengthy books in startlingly simplistic prose. His longest being 2011s 1Q84, which is comprised of three parts totalling 1325 pages. Borges on the other hand is renowned for his conservative, minimalist style. He is possibly the only writer in history with the ability to encapsulate the idea of infinity in the space of a few lines. Take for example Borges’ beautifully short piece of prose poetry A Dreaman infinite paradox captured within the space of 7 lines of text. The longest Borges story I’m aware of is Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the tale of a world of pure idealism that reaches a whopping -wait for it- 20 pages!

Whereas a Borges story plunges you face first into the depths of the universe, Murakami writes pages upon pages of prose which unassumingly carry you away like a stream drifting into the deepest corners of the author’s mind. Despite their completely opposite literary styles the two of them take places 1 and 2 on my GoodReads top authors list. I’ve now read 7 of Borges’ works, and 5 of Murakami’s and their similarities and influences are becoming increasingly clear to me.

Dreams

Murakami’s works tend to engage in a form existential meditation, often incorporating elements of the surreal and fantastic. Yet where Murakami’s real strength as an author lies is in his exposition dreams and the unconscious mind, the ideas of Psychoanalysis, in particular Carl Jung, play a major role in Murakami’s work. The Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With Thousand Faces being the foundation of many of his books, each of which contain a series of reoccurring archetypal images: water, wells, shadows, cats, and libraries, for example. As he states in this interview with the Japan Times:

I think that perhaps, in a way, my novels run parallel to the phenomenon of “the diffusion of logic.” When I write a novel, I place more importance on the subconscious world than the conscious world. The conscious world is the world of logic. What I’m pursuing is the world beneath logic.

Borges, on the other hand, was often very critical of psychoanalytic methods of interpretation arguing that ‘the secret of the success of psychoanalysis resides in people’s vanity’, however he was nevertheless also interested in the work of Carl Jung. Much like Murakami, we see in Borges a repetition of a specific set of archetypal tropes that appear throughout his works: books, mirrors, labyrinths, libraries, and yet again, dreams, being just a few.

This fascination with dreams is undoubtedly one that both authors share; they both, in their own way, use dreams as a literary device through which they can attempt to express the inexpressible. For Murakami, dreams give us access to the conceptual realm separate from our day to day existence, a realm that exists inside every one of us. The line that divides waking and dreaming is being constantly rubbed out and redrawn to produce a world of subconscious imagery in which fiction and fact seem to merge effortlessly together.

Although this blending of dreams and reality is in itself extremely Borgesian, Borges tends to favour the metaphysical over the surreal, with many stories incorporating philosophical puzzles and paradoxes. Borges’ story The Circular Ruins depicts an infinite paradox of a man who, at the end of the tale, comes to the revelation that his whole life ‘was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.’

Philosophical Influences

Both Borges and Murakami’s influences are wide and impossibly varied. Borges was influenced by a great many literary writers throughout history including Cervantes, Shakespeare, Swedenborg and Stevenson, yet philosophically speaking he was probably most greatly indebted to Arthur Schopenhauer. Borges would often cite Schopenhauer’s proposition that life and dreams are pages of the same book, reading them in order is to live a waking life, picking pages as random is to dream. Dreams, for Borges are not an inferior dimension of reality, but the only place in which we can formulate accurately the enigmas of living. One of which is the essential multiplicity of our writing, reading and experiencing selves.

A typical Murakami book on the other hand might draw on influences ranging from Kafka to Hegel, Vonnegut to Bergson, or Franz Liszt to The Beatles. Murakami himself has mentioned that in one of his most famous books (and my personal favourite) Kafka on the Shore he incorporates elements of Hegelian dialectic into the story, a fact that is subtly hinted at towards the end of the book by a beautiful prostitute-come-philosopher:

“Hegel believed that a person is not merely conscious of self and object as separate entities, but through the projection of the self via the meditation of the object is volitionally able to gain a deeper understanding of the self. All of which constitutes self-consciousness”

Later in the same scene we’re treated to a short lesson on Bergson’s Matter and Memory:

“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.” Hoshino looked up, mouth half open, and gazed at her face. “What’s that?” “Henri Bergson,” she replied … “Mame Mo Mamelay. You ever read it?”

Murakami (perhaps knowingly, perhaps unknowingly) also draws parallels with some of the more contemporary theories of philosophy of mind. In chapter 25 of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World we are given an exposition of the mind which is strikingly similar to the functionalist models of the 20th century (i.e. the idea of mind as a product a functional algorithm produced by the brain) infused with elements of Freud:

‘The cognitive system arisin’ from the aggregate memories of that individual’s past experiences. The layman’s version for this is the mind.’ 

Murakami by no means presents a strict philosophical treatise but he selectively chooses to adorn his work with gems of brilliance in a way which will really get your brain cogs whirring.

Borges’ Influence

Whereas Murakami picks and chooses snippets of philosophy to bring out the underlying subconscious elements of his fiction, Borges, in his own right, was, unintentionally, a huge influence for many of the most important post-modern philosophers of the 20th century. Giants of philosophy such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze have both cited Borges as a reference in their works. Foucault famously tips his hat to Borges at the beginning of his book The Order of Things:

This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought … breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.

Furthermore, Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition, cites the Borges story in which Pierre Menard reproduces the exact text of Don Quixote as a quintessential repetition: the repetition of Cervantes in Menard takes on a magical quality by virtue of its translation into a different time and place. Art, to Deleuze, is often a source of repetition because no artistic use of an element is ever truly equivalent to other uses. Similarly Deleuze often likes to cite Borges’s famous story, The Garden of the Forking Paths, in which a ‘virtual world’ is described in the labyrinthine book of a Chinese philosopher named Ts’ui Pên:

In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives, he chooses one at the expense of others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pên, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them… In Ts’ui Pên’s work, all the possible solutions occur, each one being the point of departure for other bifurcations.

And finally Borges’ influence can be seen just as evidently in Murakami who claims Borges as one of his own literary heroes. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World many of the characters and settings seem to be drawn out with Borges pen: Libraries, dreams and mythical creatures all take center stage throughout the book. In fact there is a reference to Borges’ wonderful Book of Imaginary Beings in which the protagonist tries to understand the meaning of a unicorn skull through an analysis Borges’ classic bestiary.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

To conclude, I think nothing sums up the philosophical and literary connection between my two favourite authors better than The Carnegie Library’s statement that we should

Think of Borges as the “heads” to Murakami’s “tails” on the post-modern literary “coin”; or, preferably, don’t think of either as either.

Both writers are brilliant in their own way, and both writers are completely different in their own way, but they nonetheless share the same love for the importance of philosophical ideas and how they can be used to influence and shape the literary world.

Top 5 Spectacular Cloud Formations

“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky.”

―Haruki Murakami

Undulatus Asperatus

Polar Stratospheric Cloud

Altocumulus Lenticularis

Mammatus Clouds

Anvil Clouds

Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore – Review

Wow. What can I say about Kafka on the Shore? What can I say about Murakami?

It’s been a long while since I read a 500 page book in the space of a couple of days. Whether this is because of Murakami’s simplistic yet elegant prose or whether it’s the way he engulfs you in the prophetic tale of Kafka and Nakata I don’t know.

Murakami’s style starts off mundane. There are long descriptions of the clothes certain characters are wearing or the food they’re eating. Yet, before you know it you’ve been hypnotized into a dreamlike state where you’re trying to make sense of all the surreal events that are happening in this seemingly ‘normal’ world.

The book is split into two alternating, interweaving tales and it may be this that makes it extremely hard to put it down. Kafka’s story begins as a stereotypical ‘boy runs away from home’ adventure but turns into more of a Alice In Wonderland-like down the rabbit hole sort of fable. Nakata and Toshino’s relationship on the other hand is both gripping and heartwarming. I found myself constantly second guessing the meaning behind every situation they encounter, some of which are explained and some of which aren’t.

Anyway, I could blab on and write a full blown review about everything I liked about this book, but I wanted to write this not as a review but as sort of teaser to a book that I truly loved reading. This was my first venture into Murakami’s writing but one thing is for certain, it will definitely not be my last.