After Dark, Haruki Murakami

After Dark

Translated by Jay Rubin

Haruki Murakami (1949 – ) is Japan’s “best-known novelist abroad”. I came to him late, borrowing an audio book version of 1Q84 from my local library one or two years ago. The opportunity to read this one came up when I saw our house in the Rue de la Tombe Issoire had a shelf of English language Murakami’s, selected this one as the shortest, and knocked it off in one night (that is, I read it, I didn’t take it with me). But I’ll have to make room in my posting schedule to fit it in.

After Dark (2004) is both short – 200pp – and unlike 1Q84, relatively straightforward, but still with elements that occupy the space between SF and magic realism. A young woman is sitting in a cafe, a Dennys, late at night, reading.

She is probably college freshman age, though an air of high school still clings to her. Hair black, short, and straight. Little make-up, no jewellery. Small, slender face. Black-rimmed glasses. Every now and then, an earnest wrinkle forms between her brows.

She’s pretty, but we learn that she doesn’t think so herself. A lanky, young man with long, tangled hair comes in and, after a minute, joins her at her table. It appears that he has met her before,  on a sort of date with her spectacularly good looking older sister. The name of the young woman is Mari, and her sister is Eri. It is only later that we discover the young man’s name, Takahashi.

Takahashi leaves. He’s a trombonist in a band having an all-night practice session in a near-by warehouse. Later, a big, athletic woman, Kaoru, comes in, a former wrestler now managing a love hotel. A Chinese prostitute has been beaten and abandoned. Takahashi who sometimes helps out at the love hotel, has told Kaoru that Mari speaks Chinese. Mari goes off with Kaoru.

Murakami’s voice alternates between narration and observation.

The room is dark, but our eyes gradually adjust to the darkness. A woman lies in bed asleep. A young, beautiful woman: Mari’s sister, Eri. Eri Asai. We know this without having been told so by anyone… We allow ourselves to become a single point of view, and we observe her for a time.

There is a television in the bedroom. The screen shows a seated man staring out into the room. Sometimes the screen flickers. Later in the book Eri’s bed is empty, the bedding undisturbed, but through the screen we see that, somewhere, she sleeps on. When she eventually wakes she seems unable to make her way back.

With Mari translating, Kaoru and her workmates patch up the Chinese woman. Mari feels they might have been friends if circumstances weren’t dragging them in radically different directions. The Chinese woman is picked up by her minder on a motorbike. Throughout the night the bike cruises past Mari and Takahashi. They don’t notice.

Mari talks to the women at the love hotel, to Takahashi who has cut short his rehearsal. Mari’s parents have concentrated all their attention on Eri and her modelling career, Mari is the ‘plain’, sporty one. She can’t go home, something is wrong with her sister, she, Eri won’t wake up. Takahashi has decided to give up music and concentrate on his studies to become a lawyer. We find that Eri has confided in Takahashi, who was in her year at school, but not in her circle. The night passes.

Allowing ourselves to become pure point of view, we hang in midair over the city. What we see now is a gigantic metropolis waking up. Commuter trains of many colours move in all directions, transporting people from place to place. Each of those under transport is a human being with a different face and mind, and at the same time each is a nameless part of the collective entity.

Mari finds a way to begin bridging the gap to Eri.  After Dark is a good read, and  just sufficiently weird to keep you intrigued.

In the rue de la Tombe Issoire we are sitting up late, watching new episodes of Big Bang Theory on British TV. Geology daughter says “if it’s written by a man, with that cover” then she doesn’t want to read it. She’s right, Murakami is telling us women’s stories, of being in the beauty industry, of being a sister, so now I am unsure. You will have to decide for yourself.

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Staircase and skylight

Haruki Murakami, After Dark, first pub. 2004, this ed. translated by Jay Rubin, Harvill Secker, London, 2007

see also this comprehensive guide to reading Murakami in the blog Book Oblivion (here)

 

Snakes & Earrings, Hitomi Kanehara

snakes-and-earrings.jpg

translated by David James Karashima

Snakes & Earrings (2004), a novella which is Japanese and punk (and which “won the top Japanese literary award, the Akutagawa Prize in 2004”) is a bit outside my usual reading and more particularly, my reviewing. The only Japanese novel I can think of is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (2009) which I really enjoyed, though William Gibson’s cyberpunk SF reflects a time, not so long ago but now largely forgotten, when it was thought that Japanese would be the dominant culture. Still, I came to adulthood reading William Burroughs and enjoyed Australia’s brief (and disputed) ‘grunge’ movement and wrote about it here in a post on Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (1995).

Perth’s Crow Books is in the Victoria Park cafe strip so ex-Mrs Legend and I picked up Snakes & Earrings, which I had on order following Kim’s recent review in Reading Matters, on our way to dinner last night (as I write) – we had ‘Asian tapas’, very, very good. Ex-Mrs Legend was taken by the introductory info:

Hitomi Kanehara is a twenty-one-year-old new writer who stopped attending school at the age of eleven. After she left home as a teenager, she sent her stories by email to her literary translator father who helped her edit them.

We’ve had some experience of unhappy teenagers, so this resonated. My first thought was that the important thing was that the father stayed in touch, x-ML was worried about how he dealt with the material he was receiving – alcohol, sex, self-mutilation, body modifications. We breathed a sigh of relief that those risks were all behind us now. Then we thought about the grandchildren. No, I thought about the grandchildren, x-ML is infinitely optimistic.

Snakes & Earrings is a very quick read, probably only about 30,000 words, which is why I knocked it off overnight. And yes, I enjoyed it, though I found the actual writing (or translation) a bit flat, without any of the literary flair of the works cited above. There are just three characters, Lui who is the first-person narrator, her boyfriend Ama, and Shiba who runs a tattoo/piercing shop. Lui and Ama are both ‘minors’, less than 20 years old, though neither knows that about the other until it comes up in a conversation about something else. Shiba is a little older, 24 or 25. Lui in particular, is entirely careless of her own safety and knows nothing about Ama, with whom she lives, except his first name, and even that is probably invented.

Lui and Ama don’t do drugs, they’re not mentioned, but they drink, and Lui drinks heavily and eats less and less as the story progresses, her weight dropping to 34kg. Interestingly Ama and Shiba see Lui as a ‘Barbie-girl’, a definition derived from her dyed blonde hair and the way she dresses, a definition she rejects. She sees them as ‘punks’, for their tattoos and piercings. When Lui accepts casual employment as a ‘companion girl’ – serving drinks to suits – she must wear a dark wig and remove her ear studs, to go with the traditional kimono.

The story, which begins with a discussion of Ama’s forked tongue, is really Lui’s little ‘odyssey’ to achieve this, and a spectacular tattoo, herself.

A few days later I went with Ama the snakeman to Desire – a kind of punk/alternative store in a side-street basement just off the shopping and entertainment district. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a close-up shot of a vagina with a pierced vulva, and the walls were lined with photos of pierced scrotums and tattoos too. Further inside, there was a range of standard body jewellery and various accessories on display. There was also a selection of whips and cock-cases. Basically, it was a store for perverts.

There is a lot of technical talk about piercings and how to enlarge them, and how tongue splitting begins with a small piercing which is gradually forced wider and then, finally, a cut is made from the piercing to the tip of the tongue. Lui gets her tongue pierced almost immediately.

Once we got back to [Ama’s] room he kissed me for what felt like an eternity. He ran his forked tongue along my tongue-stud and the pain that vibrated through my body felt good.

For Lui, Ama is a series of contradictions, a punk and a store clerk, an inconsiderate lover but a thoughtful boyfriend, weedy looking but sometimes seriously violent. He bashes to death a tough who deliberately bumps into Lui when they are walking home late at night. The next morning Lui sees a report of the bashing in the paper and dyes Ama’s bright red mohawk to alter his appearance, but without telling him why, or what she has read.

While Ama is at work Lui goes back to Desire to talk to Shiba about a tattoo. They decide on a dragon and a Kirin

‘I want it to be about the same size as Ama’s and I want it to be just on my back. How much would it cost?’

He pretended to think about it, giving a theatrical pause, then said ‘Hmmm … how about  … one fuck,’ looking at me from the corner of his eye.

‘That’s all?’ I shot him a sideward glance, and saw him glaring at me, the sadist in him coming to the surface.

‘Take off your clothes,’ he ordered.

It goes on from there. There’s another death. Lui keeps working on her tongue.

 

Hitomi Kanehara, Snakes & Earrings, Vintage, London, 2005. translated by David James Karashima