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.

 

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)