20th century Literature, Book review, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami, literature in translation

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum

In my notes on “The Shadow of the Wind” I was harsh, some might say brutally so, towards the translator. So I wanted to open this review by tipping my hat to Alfred Birnbaum. This must have been a fantastically difficult novel to translate. I’ll come to why later but I wanted to start by saying this was one of the strangest books I have read in a very long time. It is set in Japan, and that is one of the very few definite things I can say about it. It is constructed of two parallel storylines, and while it is reasonably clear they are connected early on – otherwise they wouldn’t be in the same book would they? – it takes a long time for the connection to become apparent. Murakami slowly reveals the links – thinking about a novel he has just read about a prisoner, the narrator in one storyline meditates on
the image of a world within walls. I could picture it, with no effort at all. A very high wall, a very large gate. Dead quiet. Me inside. “ (164)
Which is a description of the setting of the parallel narrative. The conclusion suggested here is that the second story is a dream of the narrator of the first story. I resisted the temptation of this interpretation for a long time, (although it turned out to be right), because while fantastical, dreamlike things happen in story B, story A is almost as bizarre.
Story A follows a data analyst with special powers. The author spends a lot of time trying to explain the nature of these powers and the circumstances in which they were acquired, but the effort was wasted on me. Gibberish is gibberish whether written at length or not. Here’s an example
“Whatever we do t’your cognitive circuits, we must never sever that channel. The reason bein’ that your surface consciousness – your first circuit – developed on nurture from your subconscious – that is, from your second circuit. That channel’s the roots of your tree. Without it your brain wouldn’t function. But the question here is that with the electrical discharge from the meltdown of Junction B, the channel’s been dealt an abnormal shock. And your brain’s so surprised, it’s started up emergency adjustment procedures. “ (283)
(As an aside, why the scientist speaking here has this strange accent is one of the many things that went over my head). The narrator has a magnetic attraction to women, who cast aside their clothes and implore him to sleep with them at every opportunity, which is irritating. The nearest style this all approximates to is magical realism. Supernatural things such as unicorns, and subterranean, murloc-like beasts called INKlings appear, and sound can be turned on and off. This is not a naturalistic world, although it is recognisable.
On the other hand, Story B is more dream-like, and follows a similar character (yes, the same person, as we find out sooner or later) who goes to a walled city, has his shadow surgically removed (although it survives the procedure) and spends his time “dream-reading” – trying to interpret mystically readings generated by skulls in a library. As you do.
Eventually the narrative settles down, and a storyline emerges. Despite myself, towards the end of the novel I found myself caring for the romance between the narrator and his librarian girlfriend, a love so compelling that it can cross the boundary between the narratives.
There are so many unusual things about this novel that it is hard to select one, but if forced I would point to the chapters where the author suddenly begins a crude pastiche of American noir detective novels (Chandler, Hammett, etc) – at one point a character stores an object at a baggage check counter, then posts the claim ticket to himself – precisely what Marlowe does in “Farewell my Lovely” (I think).The characters (at this point) all crack wise, even when being smacked around, facing death with smart alec comments, and talking about “spilling the beans”, “rubbing people out”, and “getting sweet”.
This was such a mash-up of genres that I was left utterly bewildered. Which is probably a first. Murakami is hugely popular, and his new novels (this dates back to1985, and includes references to the Police and Duran Duran) are something of an event. If this is representative of his work, I might wait a while before trying another.
I mentioned earlier the credit due to the translator. The different styles of Idiom used are handled well, as is the challenge to make the nonsensical technical explanations, have a veneer of sense. Murakami’s prose can be dense – here’s an example of the translation challenge:
 “This is very important…because to believe something, whatever it might be, is the doing of the mind. Do you follow me? When you say you believe, you allow the possibility of disappointment. And from disappointment or betrayal, there may come despair. Such is the way of the mind”. (351).
Indeed, and as is well know, fear can turn to hate, etc.
I did a quick once-over with the shaver, splashed water on my face, combed my hair. My puss was puffy like cheap cheesecake.” (128/9). A good simile, although the last time anyone used the term “puss” to mean face was around 1945.
Authors often anticipate critical reactions to their work, and include them as a way of fending them off. Murakami does just this towards the end of this novel, when he has a character say “The Wizard of Oz had to be more plausible” (341) If plausibility is what you want this is probably the wrong place to start.