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.

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Jorge Luis Borges – A Dream

In a deserted place in Iran there is a not very tall stone tower that has neither door nor window. In the only room (with a dirt floor and shaped like a circle) there is a wooden table and a bench. In that circular cell, a man who looks like me is writing in letters I cannot understand a long poem about a man who in another circular cell is writing a poem about a man who in another circular cell . . . The process never ends and no one will be able to read what the prisoners write.

(Translated, from the Spanish, by Suzanne Jill Levine.)

David Mitchell: Ghostwritten – Review

‘The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting’

I’ve just finished Ghostwritten and I have to say, wow, that was quite a journey.

This isn’t really a novel, it’s more of a series of interconnected short stories. What David Mitchell has managed to do with Ghostwritten is explore the nature of chance and the role of meaning in each one of our lives. He’s managed to make us question the butterfly effect that influences every aspect of our day to day existence: how are we all connected to each other? What are the consequences of our actions? What is the fundamental nature of our humanity? Isolation or connection? As the blurb on the back cover on my edition states, this is a ‘novel of love, metaphysics, history, politics and ghosts … an unforgettable vision of our common humanity’ – what more could you ask for?

Well, even though I definitely enjoyed this book, one of the issues I had was the inconsistency of Mitchell’s prose. Some passages were smooth, silky and elegant, some were rigid, clunky, and frankly just seemed a little try hard (I’m thinking specifically here about the Margarita Latunsky character who I just found somewhat annoying – I don’t think Mitchell’s talents as a writer are expressed well writing under the guise of a narcissistic Russian woman). There were quite a few points where I literally stopped reading and went back over a word or line thinking I’d read it wrong, but no there was just a really awkward choice of wording, It’s like he couldn’t quite get into some of his characters (maybe a the pitfall of  being overly ambitious in your first novel). I understand that Mitchell was trying to incorporate different styles of writing into each different chapter/perspective but some of them were just not consistent enough, which to me made some of the characters seem less believable, and even very slightly boring at times.

Saying that, on the whole this was really a pretty minor issue in an otherwise very impressive book. The imagination and inventiveness of some of the characters (and how they interlink) was where this book really shone. I loved the idea behind the Mongolia chapter (which I can’t really go into without spoilers) and how that concept was subtly interwoven throughout the other stories. The Tokyo chapter was like something straight out of Murakami (in a good way): a thoughtful meditation on young love sprinkled with some vintage jazz references to boot – all that was missing was a few talking cats! And the book’s opener, following a member of a sinister Japanese cult, was thrilling and sometimes darkly funny. After finishing those first 30 pages you’re definitely left wondering what could possibly be in store for you in the pages that follow.

However, to me, although it wasn’t necessarily the most imaginative part of the book, I found one of the most heartfelt chapters was ‘London’. I think maybe it was because the writing here seemed to be the most honest, like it was Mitchell recounting a past experience or just spewing words straight out of his head onto the paper. Either that or I just saw a hell of a lot of myself (maybe myself in years to come) in the main character – a man, bit of a writer, bit of a musician, and not really much of anything, wandering the streets of North London pondering about the meaning life and the arbitrarity of chance? All too familiar…

After ‘London’ the final chapters take a rather interesting turn. Let’s just say, the novel, which had previously seemed like a slightly disjointed collection of short stories, really starts to piece together, and not necessarily in the way you might think…

All I’m going to say is it involves islands and tunnels; quarks and quasars; a bat and a zookeeper… I’ll leave you to figure out the rest.

But anyway, in conclusion, Mitchell has written a really fantastic book here. The way he merges the individual story lines of each character with different genres, themes, and writing styles, is, although sometimes slightly over-ambitious, a really entertaining and imaginative way to put together a novel. I don’t quite think it deserved 5/5 (for some of the reasons I stated above) but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I look forward to reading the next chapter in the ‘mega-novel’ – Number9dream – at some point in the not too distant future!