What do you make of an author who makes no concessions to the readers' expectations?
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker, p.334, £16.99.
HERE is a strange thing: I can't decide whether or not I liked this book! I blame it on the author's style. His short stories, of which this book is a collection, typically end on a quizzical note. Their characters are curiously deadpan, inhabiting the descriptions of their lives as observers rather than actors. It is almost as if the author wants to annoy his readers. He refuses to beguile us with intricate plots and handsome heroes, he never offers easy solutions or comfortable conclusions. Yet, the precision of his language and the acuteness of his observations are such that we are led back into each of his piquant word-pictures, always hoping to read an explanation, an apology, a surprise. And we are routinely disappointed. Is that a sign of strength or of weakness? I don't know.
There are 25 stories in the collection. The author's personality functions as a constant backdrop in each of them, regardless of whether he enters the story as himself or not. He describes his subjects with the detachment of a marble statue surveying the warm-blooded world of humans from its remote pedestal. Indeed, one of his stories is called "The Ice Man", about a character who is glacial in form and personality. I found his language disconcertingly American, but instead of distrusting the translators (two of them, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, share credits on the title page) I would rather assume that they have been true to the mood of the author's style in Japanese. The stories in this collection are crisp, spare and unsentimental. The war years are barely mentioned and romance is presented as a minor theme. Sex is also a minor theme, reported upon with weary familiarity, like paired exercises at the gym. What endures is the simple breathing reality of the human experience, men and women inhabiting their lives like commuters on a train, hurtling between points A and B, noticing the landscape flying past, or ignoring it, as the case may be.
There is a recurring theme of strangeness, with several stories featuring spectral presences: "The Mirror", "A `Poor Aunt' Story", "The Seventh Man", "Hanalei Bay", to name a few. But they are presented in such a coolly irreverent voice that they might just as well be about visits to the supermarket. All the way through the collection, I found myself stopping to wonder whether the reason I couldn't settle into either enjoying or disliking the stories was because I missed the qualities I associate with Japanese writing — the lyricism combined with exquisite savagery of Mishima or the beautiful melancholy of Kawabata. By contrast, Murakami's writing is brusque and dry, his characters apparently indistinguishable from Westerners. It's impossible to know whether or not he has chosen to present them this way in order to underscore the uniqueness of an Eastern culture that has adopted Western capitalism almost to the point of parody. It is as if he goads his readers into re-thinking whatever they know about Japan, while confirming that there is after all, something extreme and absolute that sets the Japanese apart from the rest of us.
If I had to identify the stories I liked best, I would choose "Birthday Girl", "A `Poor Aunt' Story" and "Hanalei Bay". The first has the light touch of a fable, in which a young woman upon the occasion of her twentieth birthday, experiences something that may have been mystical and then again, may not: it is left to us to decide. The second is an insightful examination of what it means to live in the grey periphery of social acceptance, as insubstantial as a spider's sigh, as unwanted as a misplaced apostrophe mark. The third is a masterful portrait of a woman whose only son dies in a shark attack in Hawaii in the U.S., and how she structures her life around his haunting absence.But even the ones I don't like remain with me: the talking simian of "A Shinegawa Monkey", the hapless interviewee of "Dabchick", the crying woman of "Airplane", the peculiar ending of "New York Mining Disaster". I find Murakami's distinctive voice growing upon me. His style causes every moment to acquire a limpid significance, not because of what happens but because of what doesn't. Does that makes sense? I find myself distrusting my opinions, questioning my own perceptions. If the keys of my computer were to mutate softly into bees, if the walls of this room I'm sitting in were to shimmer and vanish like a mirage on a hot day, it would no longer surprise me. Murakami has infected me with uncertainty. I feel as empty of opinions as a visiting echo from someone else's nightmare. Am I the reviewer of his stories or has he reviewed my life without ever having met me? No idea!