Running, Swimming: Me and Murakami

This is a book about which many of you have expressed positive feelings, not just because Murakami is a great writer – though that is not so much in evidence here – but because his dedication to running strikes a chord. I’m not a runner and unlike Murakami, I enjoyed team sports, playing football, hockey, cricket, baseball and basketball in my last year at school (none of them well!), but I am (or was) a competitive swimmer, both at school and for more than twenty years from my late thirties.

If you have read his first two works (Wind/Pinball) you will probably be aware that in his twenties Murakami ran a jazz bar, until he had an epiphany at a baseball game and decided that he should be a writer. Shortly after, he decided that he should also be a runner.

I started running in the fall of 1982 and have been running since then for nearly twenty-three years. Over this period I’ve jogged almost every day, run in at least one marathon every year – twenty-three up till now – and participated in more long distance races all around the world than I care to count.

I resumed swimming because I was taking my kids to Nunawading pool for lessons and, well, because I still thought of myself as a swimmer despite 20 years out of the water. Started with 8 (50m) laps on Saturdays and it grew. I joined the Nunawading adult squad, under my old club mate and later Olympic coach Leigh Nugent, for 3 morning sessions of 3km each per week and was soon a member of Doncaster AUSSI masters club, training with them some evenings and competing at weekends.

Two or three years ago in a review WG, I think, was talking about elite sportsmen being winners, but by definition most of the people in any competition don’t win. Of course they’re often very good, but what motivates them, what motivates Murakami, what motivates me, is the race against an internal standard, to do the very best of which you are capable.

Marathon runners will understand what I mean. we don’t really care whether we beat any other particular runner. World-class runners, of course, want to outdo their closest rivals, but for your average, everyday runner individual rivalry isn’t a major issue.

I’m much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself.

Early on, while AUSSI sets a whole heap of tasks, like five 400m and five 800m butterfly swims per year, my personal objective was in the freestyle sprint, to get my 50m time below 30 sec. Sadly, my best recorded time is 30.01. If only the timekeepers had pressed their stopwatches 2 one hundredths of a second earlier, I would have been able to boast 29 point something.

… the hour or so I spend running, maintaining my own, silent, private time, is important to help me keep my mental well-being. When I’m running I don’t have to talk to anybody and don’t have to listen to anybody… I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I am running? I don’t have a clue.

A 3km swim training set is about an hour too. This is what I think about “cold, god it’s cold, and wet. 1.” Over I go, heading the other way, “1, that was 1, 1, 1. 2” Over I go, heading the other way. “2 … 2, don’t forget, 2” and so on to 20, 40, 100. If I think about anything else, then I do forget, and must try and recall which number I was chanting last.

As well as his philosophy of running, Murakami discusses in detail his preparation for and running of, three or four emblematic races, including a run early in his career, uphill! from Athens to Marathon.

Looking back at my running log, I think I’ve been able to prepare for the race [a Boston marathon] at a decent pace:

June   156 miles
July    186 miles
Aug.   217 miles
Sept   186 miles

The log forms a nice pyramid. The weekly distance averages out in June to thirty-six miles, then forty-three miles, then fifty, then back to forty-three.

The marathon of Australian swimming is the Rottnest Channel Crossing, from Cottesloe beach to Rottnest Island, a distance of 19.6 kms across the Fremantle shipping channel.

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2015. Cottesloe, pre-dawn start

When I moved back to Perth in 2002 my swimming was already dropping back from the peaks I – like Murakami – had achieved in my mid 40s, and anyway trucking was cutting into my opportunities for training. I joined my local AUSSI club, and in 2005 did a Rotto swim in a 4 person relay. Lots of fun and a really luxurious cabin cruiser as our support boat, but I didn’t have the money or the contacts to organize the support team for a solo. And it was another ten years, and I was well into my 60s, before the opportunity came up. O’Neal, one of my 2005 relay partners, offered to train with and coach me, O’Neal’s husband Ben agreed to kayak alongside me – a decision he both regretted and repeated on two more occasions – a mate had a boat, I hired accommodation on the island for the weekend, we were all set. All I had to do was train.

I swam between and during trips (at Port Hedland), sets of three, five and seven thousand metres three, four times a week, building not in Murakami’s smooth pyramid, but building nevertheless through ten, fifteen, twenty kilometres a week over the second half of 2014, peaking at twenty five in January then tapering to the swim in late Feb.

During January there were three 10 km races, completion (within four hours I think) of any one of which was required as a qualifying swim. I made a mess of the first, missing one of the bouys – I actually don’t like ocean swimming very much, and my stroke is not suited to it. But I aced the second, on the shallow, muddy rowing course at Champion Lakes.

On the day I was up at 4.00, round to O’Neal’s and down to Cottosloe. Launch kayak, grease swimmer (Gee’s job, then she raced off to get the kids and her sister and catch the ferry to see me finish). At 6.00 we’re off, high-stepping into the freezing water, dive, stumble, dive, settle into a stroke amidst the kicking of a hundred others, out to the first marker, look for Ben’s bright blue wig (he feels like a git, but he has to be recognisable) we meet and settle down for the long haul. I am at the 10 km mark in a bit over 3 hours, aiming to finish in 7.

Then it all goes to shit. The boat skipper has aimed us straight at the island, but the current in  the shipping channel is sweeping strongly out to sea. I spend an hour swimming back to the line, making almost no progress. I’m ill, I want to get out. What am I thinking? I’m thinking that if I stop moving my arms I will sink straight down. The support boat pulls alongside and they all shout at me to keep going. In the end O’Neal passes me a sea-sickness pill and I promise to do one more kilometre. They lie to me about which mark I’m up to. Slowly I come good. At ten hours and ten minutes I struggle up on to the beach. Gee and Psyche wrap me in towels and escort me to a shower and then to a gin and tonic. I think Psyche thought she was going to lose me. We party quietly into the night. Ben goes to bed early, his back agony after 10 hours of slow paddling.

And how was my time? Truth be told, not so great. At least, not as good as I’d secretly been hoping for. If possible, I was hoping to be able to wind up this book with a powerful statement like, “Thanks to all the great training I did I was able to post a great time at the New York City marathon [2005]. When I finished I was really moved.”

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2016. Rottnest Is. finish line

The following year O’Neal and I kept training, though without the same determination, and we did Rotto as a duo, following a perfect line and finishing in 7 hours 20 min. In 2017 I fronted up again solo, but hadn’t put in the training. Again we got caught in the channel, and by the 17 km mark I wasn’t going to make the cut-off and the officials called time. I love the idea of doing another but I haven’t swum since.

If you haven’t read this already don’t be misled by my ‘review’. In the course of this memoir of his life as a runner Murakami talks constantly about whole heaps of things. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is an important insight into an important writer.

 

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Vintage, 2009. Translated by the author.

see also:
Liz Dexter’s reviews (here) and (here)
Sue/Whispering Gums (here)

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The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami

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I know I came to Murakami late, but now I’m coming to know him I enjoy his work, a blend of literature, grunge, and SF bordering on (dreaded!) magic realism. Murakami’s first three works make up the Trilogy of the Rat. I reviewed the first two, Wind/Pinball (here) some time ago and gave teacher son the third, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) this Christmas, expecting him to have it finished on Boxing Day as usual. Inconsiderately, he took it with him to Morocco from whence he wrote –

I thought you despised magical realism. I liked most of it. The psychic girlfriend, and the historic davinci-code of a mystery, and the banality of everyday life- I expected him to stop by Nighthawks, or find a flatmate dead with a falafel on any given page. The symbolic sheep was exposed in a way that made it a genuine wonder. Not sure about meeting the Rat, though. I felt cheated when even the almost explicable mystical became brazenly magical.

Not all of this makes sense so, in the library for audiobooks this week, I thought to borrow a copy for myself but there wasn’t one and I borrowed The Strange Library (2005) instead. The Strange Library is a strange and beautiful book, seemingly a novella for children/YAs. I think I would read it to Mr 8 and Ms 7, my younger grandkids, and yet I enjoyed it well enough myself. It’s in that rarefied territory occupied by Lewis Carroll, The Magic Pudding and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and there are the most wonderful illustrations throughout taken “from old books in the London Library”.

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The protagonist, a schoolboy, enters his local library and is ushered downstairs to a strange basement area he never knew existed nor thought the local council could afford.

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A little old man asks him “the manner of books that he seeks” and the boy is flustered into answering ‘tax collection in the Ottoman Empire’ which has just popped into his head. The old man ducks through a heavy steel door and returns with three terribly old books, The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector and Tax Revolts and Their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. I might have to explain to the grandkids what an ottoman is (when it’s not being a couch).

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The boy is fearful of being late home to his mother, who has been in a state of nerves since he was attacked by a big black dog with green eyes and a jewel-encrusted collar, and anyway she may, she will forget to feed his pet starling, but the old man is insistent the books must be read on site and straight away.

Are you planning to read this for yourself, then Spoiler Alert. The boy is led away through a maze of corridors, to a prison cell. A warder clad only in a sheepskin attaches a ball and chain to his ankle and warns him that when he is finished reading the old man will remove the top of his head and eat his knowledge-rich brains.

Despite this, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector comes alive as he reads it.

The old man came to check on me that evening. He was delighted to find me lost in my book. Seeing how happy he was made me feel a little happier. No matter what the situation may be, I still take pleasure in witnessing the joy of others.

A pretty girl brings him meals. The sheep man bakes him doughnuts. In the darkness of the night of a new moon they escape together only to find their last exit barred by the old man. And the big black hound.

The starling, or it might be the girl, comes to their rescue. The boy goes home where his mother seems not to have noticed that he has been gone.

To be honest, I was worried before writing this review that I might have missed the point, so I have since been making my way through the reviews I could find on the net. This from the Independent:

It is an odd and beautiful thing – a thing more than a book, whose design doesn’t just adorn but penetrates the story, melting into it with its dainty, surreal and haunting images that almost, at times, seem to finish Murakami’s sentences.

It had me enthralled, a pretty artefact that was a story of childhood, death and reading, drawn in both words and pictures, like a fairytale, yet there was nothing childish about it. (Arifa Akbar, 27 Nov. 2014. here)

So I guess I got it right.

 

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library, Harville Secker, London, 2008. First pub. in Japanese, 2005. Translated by Ted Goossen.

 

All the Lives We Never Lived, Anuradha Roy

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All the Lives We Never Lived (2018) is an Indian novel narrated by an old man recalling his boyhood in the 1930s, when his mother, frustrated by the restrictions of traditional Indian marriage, ran off to Bali. The old man is called Myshkin, the name given him by his grandfather, after the epileptic prince in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

His mother ran off with the Russian-born German artist, Walter Spies – ran off with an ‘Englishman’ according to the townsfolk to whom all white men were ‘English’, or with her ‘German lover’ in many reviews, including the New York Times, though Roy is quite clear that Spies was gay.

Walter Spies (1895-1942) is a real person in this work of fiction, who lived and worked in Bali in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), was arrested in 1938 during a crackdown on homosexuals, and again when war broke out in Europe with the Dutch and the Germans on opposite sides, and who died in 1942 when the ship transporting detainees (ironically) to India was sunk by the Japanese. The community of Europeans to which Myshkin’s mother, Gayatri accompanies Spies was also ‘real’, and included Margaret Mead, “the musician Colin McPhee and his wife, anthropologist Jane Belo, the Swiss artist Theo Meier and the Austrian novelist Vicki Baum.” (wiki)

As an artistic sixteen year old, Gayatri had been taken to Bali by her father and had there met Spies on a raft in a lake and he had taken them up ..

Over the next few weeks, he took Gayatri, her father and their friends to dance performances, concerts, to beaches, to painting schools … Different here, yet familiar. How strange that most of the people around her thought the whole of the Ramayana had taken place in Java and had no connection with India at all!

The story is told from three perspectives, Myshkin as an old man, a retired landscape gardener; Myshkin growing up; and Gayatri, ostensibly from stories she told Myshkin, and later and less satisfactorily, from a cache of letters whose existence Myshkin had been unaware of of. Although told by Myshkin, this is Gayatri’s story – of her rebellion against the carefully constrained freedoms allowed by her ‘tolerant’ husband.

On their return to India Gayatri’s father dies and her mother marries her off as quickly as possible.

What happened next was represented by my father as romance, and he loved retelling it, each time with new flourishes. My mother listened poker-faced, doodling with her fingers on her sari.

He was 33, a teacher, an Anglo-Indian from the north. She was 17, a well-off Bengali Hindu from Delhi, but flighty, artistic, fatherless. They married, moved in with his father in his combined junk shop/doctor’s surgery in a country town in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Spies, and I could not find this in his bio’s, visits India with a friend Beryl de Zoete, in 1937, seeks out Gayatri, and stays on, boarding nearby, befriending the whole family, taking Gayatri on excursions. One day Gayatri begs Myshkin to be home from school on time, but he is held up, and by the time he gets home the three are gone. Sailed to Bali. Myshkin and his mother write, letters arrive intermittently, but war intervenes and contact is lost.

The father is distraught, shamed, becomes even more involved in the anti-British Independence movement, spending some years in jail. Eventually he finds a single mother to marry and bully and over very many years Myshkin and his step-sister become friends. In the latter part of the novel, from her letters to a friend in India, we learn that Gayatri has become a respected artist in Bali, but has fallen into poverty with the war and Spies’ arrests – she was living separately from, but near him.

I have done some research. A little. And as far as I can see, this is a fiction based around a real community of Europeans on Bali. Reviewers in prestigious magazines can’t take the risk of making mistakes, but I can (or do) and have chosen not to read them too closely, so it is still possible that Gayatri is based on a famous Indian of whom I am unaware.

Now. Anuradha Roy. “One of India’s greatest living novelists” it says on the cover. I bought this thinking it was by Arundhati Roy, surprised that she should have a new novel to release so soon after The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and it was some time before I discovered my mistake. Having read this, I prefer Arundhati whose writing is much grittier. Anuradha Roy, on the basis of All the Lives We Never Lived is solidly middle-class, less political.

Anuradha Roy (1967- ) has written four novels including this one, and they have all won or been shortlisted for various prizes. I’m not sure that’s enough to make her “one of the greatest living” etc., but neither is it to be sneezed at. All the Lives We Never Lived is a good maybe not excellent book, but worth reading, and despite the sometimes less than convincing old man narrator, an interesting, feminist account of Indian life, the difficulties of traditional marriage, and the end of the British Raj.

 

Anuradha Roy, All the Lives We Never Lived, MacLehose Press, London, 2018

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) is just the 56 year old Arundhati Roy’s second novel. Her first was the phenomenally successful The God of Small Things (1997) which I read years and years ago and of which I remember very little, and that probably wrongly – a train ride, a woman marries an untouchable, an uncle molests a child – but nevertheless I bought this one as soon as it came out last year and have been determined to read it ever since.

With only odd hours for reading, mostly standing out in the weather waiting for my truck to load or unload (tankers don’t require much physical intervention) I initially found that I was not remembering much more of the second than I did of the first, but around the 200pp mark it began to come together and I think now that I might have a handle on it, though a proper analysis would require multiple readings and reams of notes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an intimate novel inside a great sprawling novel, a novel of India, not the India of our casual acquaintance, of tourism, and brief stories in the business and foreign news pages, but the unseen India of the poor, the homeless, of gradations of skin colour, of untouchables, muslims, trans-sexuals; a novel with not 1.2 billion characters but nearly, all the oppressed of India and Kashmir ground down by a monolithic and indifferent upper class and their violently out of control military and para-military forces.

The ‘outside’ novel contains the story of Anjum, a woman born with a man’s parts, a hijra, who leaves her muslim family to live in a refuge for other hijras and then in mid-life leaves the refuge to construct another, which grows into the Jannat Guest House, little cabins built of scraps over graves in a disused cemetery. During this journey she acquires one daughter, Zainab who prefers to be brought up by another hirja, Saeeda, and then later a second, Miss Jebeen the Second, and a kaleidoscope of friends and acquaintances from all the minority language groups in the sub-continent living on the streets and in the slums of Delhi.

The ‘inside’ novel is a love story, the story of S. Tilottama (Tilo) a young woman from Kerala in the south who is loved by three men whom she meets when they take part in a play as students. Arundhati Roy’s wikipedia entry says that she

“was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, India [in 1961], to Mary Roy, a Malayali Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala and Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned to Kerala with her mother and brother. For a time, the family lived with Roy’s maternal grandfather in Ooty, Tamil Nadu. When she was five, the family moved back to Kerala, where her mother started a school.

“Roy attended school at Corpus Christi, Kottayam, followed by the Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. She then studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

This is also more or less Tilo’s back story. The three men are Biplab Dasgupta who becomes a senior public servant in the Intelligence Bureau, and who sometimes gets to tell his own story; Nagaraj Hariharan, a journalist and for a long time, Tilo’s husband; and Musa (Commander Gulrez) a freedom fighter in Kashmir and always Tilo’s lover.

The story is told in fragments, some from the present, some from the past. Quite early on we see Commander Gulrez’ mutilated body displayed as a trophy by Major Amrik Singh, of the Indian occupation forces in Kashmir, but we also see reports of the murder suicide of Amrik Singh and his wife in America. We meet Miss Jebeen the Second before we meet Miss Jebeen; and we don’t meet the real mother of Miss Jebeen the Second until right at the end when she writes posthumously of her life as Maoist insurgent fighting to protect the tribes in the Bastar forest whose land was/is wanted by mining companies.

At one time Tilo must have an abortion and wakes in a government hospital to find a sick child in bed with her –

There was more than one patient in every bed. There were patients on the floor. most of the visitors and family members who were crowded around them looked just as ill. Harried doctors and nurses picked their way through the chaos. It was like a wartime ward. Except that in Delhi there was no war other than the usual one – the war of the rich against the poor.

The power of this novel is in its depictions of poverty in Delhi; of the petty and not so petty tyrannies suffered by the many minorities; of the consequences of the rise of Hindu nationalism for members of the 21 other nations who weren’t Hindu; Of the consequences of capitalism for people without capital, without recourse to justice – do you remember the Union Carbide disaster?; of the many individual acts of resistance, typefied by Dr Azad Bharatiya and his ten year fast; of the horrific violence in Kashmir; of the many, many individuals whom we get to meet and love as they pass through the Jannat Guest House; but above all the power of this novel is in the language, in all the Hindu, Urdu, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Malayalam (and English) that washes over us.

Tilo ends up one of Anjum’s many friends, a Ustaniji, a teacher of children, in the Jannat Guest House in the abandoned cemetry. More than that I will not tell you, cannot without spoiling this marvellous story of love and war which unfolds unpredictably in all directions at once.

Jis Kashmir ko Khoon se sencha! Woh Kashmir hamara hai!

The Kashmir we have irrigated with our blood! That Kashmir is ours!

 

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), 2017. 445pp

The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh

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The Sorrow of War (1990) is the fictional memoir of a young North Vietnamese man during and after the – from his point of view – American War. The author, Bào Ninh was actually born in 1952, but his protagonist Kien is 17 in 1965, so four years older, when the war starts and he goes straight from school to the North Vietnam Army. In the novel Kien is a famous novelist, 40 years old, writing The Destiny of Love, a story of the war which keeps getting mixed up with his own recollections of the war years, 1965-75, and the years since.

According to Wikipedia, in 1990 Bào Ninh published a roneoed version (who remembers Gestetners?) of this novel with the title The Destiny of Love after completing a creative writing course. “Soon afterwards Phan Thanh Hao translated it into English and took the manuscript to the British publishers Secker & Warburg. Geoffrey Mulligan, an editor there, commissioned Frank Palmos, an Australian journalist who had reported on the Vietnam War and written about it in his book Ridding the Devils (1990), to write an English version based on the raw translation.” This probably explains why The Sorrow of War sounds as though it were written in English by someone familiar with the war from the US point of view, as we are, rather than just translated.

I’m three years younger than Kien. I went up to university from my country high school in 1969 and was straight away involved in politics. Conscription had been introduced by the Liberal government to build up the army to help the Americans stop the supposed spread of Communism through South-East Asia. In 1971 I would have to register for ‘the ballot’, the lottery that chose 20 year olds to enlist, or face two years jail. As it happens I had no intention of killing the old men of the Liberal party’s enemies, or in helping them relive the glory days of World War II (in which of course very few of them had actually fought).

The first term of 1970 was spent in planning for the Moratorium on May 8. On the day, I marched down Swanston Street at the head of the Melb Uni contingent, bearing the pole for one end of our banner, to join up with the thousands already gathered in the Treasury Gardens. Then we marched out of the gardens and down Bourke Street to the GPO, 100,000 people shoulder to shoulder across the street. From where we were, outside Myers you could see marchers back up the hill all the way to Spring Street.

After the Moratorium was the Socialist Scholar’s conference in Sydney, then a fiery July 4 demo, the second Moratorium in September, which I attended in Brisbane having by then started truck driving, and an afternoon in the cells under the old Magistrates Court for ‘publishing a document’ to incite a breach of the National Service Act – ie. handing out pamphlets. By the end of 1971 I had been served a warrant regarding my failure to register and so moved to Queensland to live, to be out of the way. In December 1972 Labor was elected and the National Service laws were repealed. It was all over, for me anyway. For Kien it was never over.

These ‘war years’ of mine are only a fraction of the ten years Kien loses in the NVA, and then he must spend ten years more, reclaiming and losing again his first and only love Phuong, compulsively writing out the horrors he cannot forget, living with the spirits of the dead and, when this story starts, beginning the post-war years by collecting and bagging the bodies of the MIA’s in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, the battleground where he of all the 27th Battalion, was the only survivor.

Briefly, the novel is framed as a novel being written and then discarded, with the scattered pages recovered, out of order, and given to an editor. A standard writing school trope and hopefully now out of fashion again. But the result is a discontinuous narrative, with Kien fighting; Kien and Phuong graduating from high school, Kien too ‘honourable’ to follow up Phuong’s advances; rapes and battles and massacres; Phuong following Kien to the front; Kien and Phuong trying to live together, and failing, after Kien’s ten year absence.

If Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front remains the preeminent anti-war novel by a soldier on the losing side of WWI, then The Sorrow of War reminds us that winning is no great shakes either for the soldiers doing the actual fighting. But the real clue to reading this book is the ‘battle’ over the titles. It is clear Western readers at least are most interested in the war, but that the author is in fact more concerned with Kien’s failure to love and protect Phuong. The Sorrow of War is a love story that breaks your heart over and over and over again.

This is a stunning book. The only Vietnam War book I have read, or will read probably. I’m only sorry I was unable to get hold of a paper copy to give you some examples of Ninh’s writing

 

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War, originally self-published as The Destiny of Love in Vietnamese in 1990. English version, Frank Palmos, Secker & Warburg, London, 1993. Audio version, Trantor, 2015, read by James Langton (no mention in the audio credits of Palmos or any translator)


Lisa at ANZLitLovers discussed The Sorrow of War a couple of years ago (here) and specifically the problem of English language counterfeit copies. This discussion takes a very interesting turn when Frank Palmos, now an Indonesia and Vietnam specialist at UWA (LinkedIn) joins in, at the time and again today (26/08/2017).

Wind/Pinball, Haruki Murakami

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Translated by Ted Goossen

That’s a pretty garish cover isn’t it, I think I prefer the audiobook, below. I listened to it at work, didn’t make any notes, then found the paper version in one of my three local libraries (Victoria Park, WA). Wind/Pinball (2015), containing Murakami’s first two published novels from 1979 and 1980, is a book in three parts. Murakami was born in 1949 so he wrote the novels when he was 30,31. They are not autobiographical – though I imagine he was writing about experiences and situations that were familiar – and are strictly realist, unlike 1Q84 and After Dark (review), the only others of his that I have read.

Introduction: The Birth of My Kitchen-Table Fiction

Murakami married while he was still at university and he and his wife opened a small jazz bar in the student district of Tokyo, before graduating, to avoid having to take office jobs in the City. After five years of working day and night to pay off loans, a baseball game inspired him, he says, to become a writer. He dashed off a novel late at night using a pen and ink (for the Japanese characters) and hated it.

Since I was born in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about and the system crashed.

His solution was to get a typewriter and to write in English, which “led me to discover that I could express my thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammatical structures, as long as I combined them effectively and linked them together in a skillful manner.”

Then I sat down and “translated” the chapter or so that I had written in English into Japanese. Well “transplanted” might be more accurate, since it wasn’t a direct verbatim translation. In the process, inevitably, a new style of Japanese emerged. The style that would be mine.

The resulting novel, Hear the Wind Sing – almost a novella he says (it’s only 100pp) – was a success. He immediately wrote a sequel, Pinball, 1973, and these two, written on his kitchen table, with his next, and first full-length novel, Wild Sheep Chase, form the Trilogy of the Rat.

Hear the Wind Sing

An unnamed narrator and his rich friend, Rat, twenty-something young men, drink in J’s Bar (J, who is older and Chinese, is the bartender) somewhere on the coast, not Tokyo. Interestingly all the cultural references are Western – Hitler, JFK, Flaubert, Mozart, Brook Benton and so on.

The narrator wakes up naked, in bed with a naked young woman. They do not know each other. She interrogates him. He found her unconscious in the toilets in J’s bar, patched her up, brought her home. He didn’t sleep with her. She doesn’t believe him.

There are lots of short chapters. Scenes in the bar. Segments of a DJ on the radio, playing the Beach Boys. The narrator is fascinated by the (fictitious) author Derek Hartfield.

He goes into a record shop and the young woman is there behind the counter. He buys The Beach Boys, Beethoven and Glenn Gould.

The young woman finally works out for herself that nothing happened, gets his number from J’s Bar and phones him, they start going out.

Life goes on. He moves away, to Tokyo. The young woman has moved on. The Rat is writing novels. “California Girls still sits in the corner of my shelf”.

Pinball, 1973

The narrator is living with identical twin girls. They have adopted him, moved in without even a change of clothes, he doesn’t know their names, they tell him to choose, calls them 208 and 209, the numbers on their T-shirts. He is partner in a translation business, pays them pocket money for housekeeping and so on.

They tenderly laundered their sweatshirts once a week in the bath. Lying in bed reading the Critique of Pure Reason, I would glance up and see them kneeling side by side, naked on the tile floor, scrubbing away. Times like that made me feel as if I’d arrived at some faraway place…

Many times I came home after work to see the sweatshirts with the numbers 208 and 209 fluttering in my south-facing window. Occasionally, it brought tears to my eyes.

At college he had interviewed people about where they came from, become fascinated by Naoko who came from the country, a village with a bus stop, a few shops, and “there’s always a dog walking the platform from one end to the other. That kind of station”. No not fascinated by Naoko, by the dog. He has to see that dog.

The pinball machine sidles in later. He becomes expert, the record holder, on a rare three flipper machine, the ‘Spaceship’. When it’s taken away during renovations he has to track it down.

He and his business partner have an attractive receptionist who makes advances to him which he ignores. The Rat has a girlfriend who sold him a typewriter.  This time it is the Rat who moves away. The twins move away too, going home they say.

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Melanie at Grab The Lapels insists I should always answer the question ‘did I like the book?’ I loved it! As far as I’m concerned, Murakami is up there with William Gibson, and in my book that’s high praise indeed.

 

Haruki Murakami, Wind/Pinball: two novels, Borzoi, New York, 2015. Originally published in Japanese in 1979 and 1980. Audio version, Random House Audio, read by Kirby Heyborne, 2015.

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)