Murakami: Unicorns and cyberpunk

I have never read anything by Haruki Murakami (known for Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood), until a friend of mine gave me one of his books a couple of weeks ago. She saw the blurb saying: “the world of the trench-coated detective and cyberpunk sci-fi”, and thought about me. It was lovely of her. That was how a copy of The Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World came into my possession.

murakami_wonderland

The book has two storylines that alternate with each chapter: the “hard-boiled” one and “The End of the World” one. The first involves a guy, who is a Calcutec, a man able to encrypt data by passing it through his brain. He gets called in to do a job, to “shuffle” some highly important data, and finds himself in heaps of trouble. The second story takes place in a town called The End of the World surrounded by an impregnable wall, where the inhabitants have to have their shadows cut away from them, before they are allowed to enter. It’s a strange town without pain or suffering, fighting or greed, but also no love or happiness, no song. There’s also a herd of unicorns. I won’t say any more about the plot, as I would spoil it for you.

Murakami certainly knows how to put his words together (the translator has done an excellent job too!). Though I must say, when I started reading the book, I had an impression of odd words popping up now and again. For example, he describes a scent as reminding him of “a melon patch on a summer’s morn“. I’m not sure why the translator used this particular word, which otherwise seems to be at odds with the language the narrator uses. Perhaps it’s a  reference to something I’m not aware of. There were others, but now that I have finished the book, I can’t spot any of them. Maybe the oddness was in my head?

Another thing that stood out for me was the description of a woman the main character meets at the beginning of the book. He describes her as “Young and beautiful and all that went with it, but chubby”, and explains that he is confused by such women. Confused because he’s turned on and might “end up sleeping with her”. I’m not entirely sure what to think of that passage. It seems a bit judgemental to me, even though his fascination is clear. There is definitely an issue here, since another woman he meets is a librarian with a gastric dilation, who can eat large quantities of food without gaining any weight.

Then there’s food itself. I am not very familiar with Japanese cuisine. I have had meals at different Japanese or Asian fusion restaurants, but that country’s food escapes my grasp. To draw a parallel, imagine only ever having French onion soup, but not knowing anything else about French cuisine. That’s how I feel about Japanese food. It’s no surprise then, that I have found the following passage intriguing:

While I waited for her, I fixed supper. I mashed an umeboshi salt plum with mortar and pestle to make a sour-sweet dressing; I fried up a few sardines with abura-agé tofu-puffs in grated yama-ima taro batter; I sautéed a celery-beef side dish. Not a bad little meal.

There was time to spare, so I had a beer as I tossed together some soy-simmered myoga wild ginger and green beans with tofu-sesame sauce.

I have no clue how would any of these things taste, but it still gives an impression of being delicious (it all gets polished off by the librarian, and the main character has to cook extra). I suppose this is what makes Murakami’s writing interesting – the perception and description of the world, which is different from what I’m normally used to. As well as that, he succeeds in conveying the unfamiliar in such a way that it becomes compelling. I suppose that’s a mark of an excellent writer.

At some point a while ago I have noticed that most of the books I read are about/by white, male, English speaking people, so I have been consciously trying to include books by authors who do not fit that description (not at all, or just a bit – I think I haven’t read enough English speaking female writers either). Therefore, reading Murakami and finding all the things that my mind instantly filed under ‘unusual’ was a great experience.

I finished the book and my thought was: what the heck has happened? I hear Murakami is one of those authors, who like to confuse you. Fair enough, I actually enjoy that; a bit of mental exercise is beneficial. I have my theories on what happened, but I’m leaving spoilers for comments. If you read this book, I’d really be interested to hear what you thought. If you haven’t, get on it. It’s good.

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