Sunday, June 3, 2007

Book of the week

After last week's unexpectedly timely choice of book, I think this week is an appropriate time to step back and recommend a novel. (Everyone could probably use a break from more serious matters after the past week.)

As such, I would like to recommend Murakami Haruki's most recent novel, After Dark, which was just published in English translation (translated by veteran Murakami translator Jay Rubin).

While there are those in the Japanese literary establishment who dismiss Murakami's novels as trite, I find them remarkably appropriate for our anxious age — and morally serious to boot. Murakami is a humanist. Throughout his novels and short stories (and non-fiction) runs a clear thread: after the horrors of the twentieth century, the only morally appropriate belief is humanism, the firm belief that each individual has a right to live as he sees fit without external interference (and without interfering with others). His world view rejects the idea of there being one best way to live, but instead leaves each individual to find his own way.

Beyond that, Murakami has a phenomenal ability to make the bizarre seem normal, and the normal seem bizarre.

Both of these ideas are on display in this latest novel (though at 191 pages it is more of a novella). Set over the course of an autumn evening in Tokyo, Murakami spins a yarn starring a prickly university co-ed, her sister, a teenage bikini model, an amateur jazz trombonist studying to be a lawyer, the manager of a love hotel, a Chinese prostitute and other flotsam and jetsam of Tokyo after dark. The setting is undoubtedly familiar to anyone who has missed the last train and been stranded in Shibuya or Shinjuku. But when used by Murakami as a setting for his story, the mundane becomes eerie, unfamiliar — the Tokyo night won't look the same again.

As for Murakami's humanism, it is probably best voiced by his scruffy, awkward lawyer-to-be, when he tells the heroine his reason for taking law seriously. He explains to her how after watching trials, he went from feeling that a wall separated the accused from him and everyone else to feeling that all are trapped in the same web of conditions; the line between a criminal and a law-abiding citizen is not so clear as one would like to think. He writes: "What I want to say is probably something like this: any single human being, no matter what kind of a person he or she may be, is all caught up in the tentacles of this animal like a giant octopus, and is getting sucked into the darkness. You can put any kind of spin on it you like, but you end up with the same unbearable spectacle."

While I cannot say that After Dark is my favorite Murakami novel, it is among his best work, and a fine illustration of how Murakami has refined his craft.

1 comment:

Simon said...

I would have thought that you c/would read Murakami in the original Japanese! (thats too many conditional/subjunctives - sorry).
I seem to be constantly reading him too - puzzled today over short story "Sleep" from 'The Elephant Vanishes'.
Interested to know why you read the Rubin translations -