Short Stories Books

Love me do: Review of Haruki Murakami’s ‘First Person Singular’

Warmth: Marc Chagall’s oil, The Birthday.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In his latest collection of short stories, First Person Singular, Haruki Murakami continues to delight his fans with breezy tales that are snapshots of life. Murakami uses magical elements in his fiction, but unlike, say, Márquez or Rushdie, doesn’t employ them as fictional technique. They come as a part of human life that is experienced as confusing, illogical and mysterious even as it appears to be plain, orderly and sensible.

Dollops of wisdom

In between, he inserts little homilies about life. For instance, in this collection, the narrator of one of the stories says, “Real-life wisdom arises not so much from knowing how we might beat someone as from learning how to accept defeat with grace.” Such epigrams, offered for the reader’s benefit, abound.

Two of the stories stand apart in evoking the unusual while imparting dollops of wisdom. In the very first story, ‘Cream’, a girl invites the narrator to a piano recital, but when he goes to the venue, he is disappointed to find no one there. An unknown voice speaks to him, asking him to imagine “the circle with many centres but no circumference.” The attempt leads the narrator to a simple but useful truth: “There’s nothing worth getting in this world that you can get easily.” And, “Our brain is made to think about difficult things, and to help us get to a point where we understand something that we didn’t understand at first. That becomes the cream of our life — crème de la crème.

Weird relationships

In ‘Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey’, we meet a monkey whose habit is to steal the names of women and rob them of their identity. We are told that he doesn’t feel a speck of sexual desire for female monkeys, but adores women. He delivers a sermon on the value of love: “Love is the indispensable fuel that allows us to go on living. Someday that love may end. Or it may never amount to anything. But even if love fades away, even if it’s unrequited, you can still hold on to the memory of having loved someone, of having fallen in love with someone. And that’s a valuable source of warmth. Without that heat source a person’s heart — and a monkey’s heart, too — would turn into a bitterly cold, barren wasteland.”

The narrator has weird relationships, especially with women, most of them unnamed. ‘On a Stone Pillow’ — about the sexual encounters of the narrator with a tanka poet — brings out the strangeness of human sexuality. Music, Murakami’s favourite theme, forms the backdrop of a couple of stories.

Love me do: Review of Haruki Murakami’s ‘First Person Singular’

In ‘Carnaval’, the narrator shares a common interest in Schumann’s piano solo Carnaval with an ugly but attractive woman, who is later found guilty of assisting her husband in a senseless crime. This makes the narrator reformulate his aesthetic ideal. Having initially declared, “Just as a beautiful woman has imperfections, there is always a part of an ugly woman that is beautiful,” he revises his opinion to label beauty or ugliness as a mask: “An ugly mask and a beautiful face beneath it — a beautiful mask and an ugly face.” Such instances of the working of the male gaze are, of course, found throughout Murakami.

But are we to take such statements at their face value? Is the omniscient narrator to be identified with Murakami or is it an assumed persona? As usual, Murakami combines fact and fiction in an utterly incomprehensible way. ‘The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection’ is explicitly autobiographical, documenting his attempts at publishing poetry. ‘With the Beatles’ — which is a long dialogue between the narrator and his girlfriend’s brother — swings to the other end, with the narrator speaking as what Walter Benjamin called “the storyteller,” rather than as Murakami.

Stories outlive their authors and we are not sure how these stories will be received in the future. Will they be judged on the basis of their intrinsic power or merely on the basis of the author’s fame? It will be interesting to wait and watch.

First Person Singular; Haruki Murakami, trs Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker, ₹799

The reviewer teaches English at Tumkur University.

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2021 10:32:52 PM |

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