Haruki Murakami, 1985
translated from Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum
This book started weird and I was instantly hooked.
The first chapter titled, “Elevator, Silence, Overweight,” is spoken from the voice of an unnamed protagonist as he is lead through a maze-like corridor by a chubby, attractive young woman wearing only pink. The woman speaks but no words come from her mouth and the protagonist must only guess at what she is telling him, confusing her communication with a reference to Marcel Proust.
The second chapter, “Golden Beasts,” takes a complete left turn, appearing to have nothing to do with the mystery set up in the first. This chapter is also spoken from the voice of an unnamed protagonist who describes his arrival at a mystical town surrounded by a wall, guarded by an ominous gatekeeper and populated with one-horned golden haired beasts.
The first chapter drew me in with intrigue and offbeat humor, but the mystical second chapter was so different in tone that it totally confused me and I had to reread it to try to figure out what was going on. The only perceived connection that the second held with the first chapter was it was told from the first person voice of an unnamed protagonist. By the third chapter Murakami hints at what is going on with this distinct storytelling. In hard-boiled fashion, the protagonist is revealed to be part of a Data Mafia that serves to encrypt secrets through a subconscious method. He is lead by that chubby, attractive pink woman to meet her grandfather, a genius scientist of sorts who has enlisted the protagonist to encrypt some data as this genius explains his specialty in biological and psychological sciences. This genius scientist who is capable of turning off sound – and has, in absent minded style, forgotten that he turned off the sound of his granddaughter’s voice – alludes to a left/right brain dichotomy that is inherent in the protagonist’s ability to encrypt data.
The left/right brain skills of the protagonist are of course an allusion to Murakami’s intent to tell two stories from two different perspectives and after this revelation I noticed that the odd numbered chapters all had the header “Hard-Boiled Wonderland,” and all the even numbered chapters had the header “The End of the World.” The Wonderland chapters are a sort of sci-fi mystery taking place in what appears to be modern Tokyo (of the 1985 authorial time-frame) with a hard drinking protagonist who only wants to retire to learn Greek and play the cello. His plans for early retirement are foiled as he is led off-track by the arrival of a strange skull that appears to be unicorn, his apartment is trashed by a couple of goons, and he is caught up in a love interest with a librarian. The End of the World chapters are of another world, with the protagonist confused by his loss of his memories as he is separated from his shadow (who can speak) as he must take on the role of “dreamreader” in the library of skulls. Without fully revealing what is going on here, I’ll say that as the narrative progresses there are allusions that the two protagonists are one and the same, such as the reference to the skulls, a love interest with a librarian, and overlapping memories.
I noted above that the first chapter hooked me with its intrigue, mystery, and humor, and the second chapter threw me off with its weird fantastical setting. As the story progressed I found myself inversely drawn towards the fantasy/dreamlike setting of the “End of the World” chapters and distracted by the quasi-real science fiction of the “Hard-Boiled” chapters. In the Hard-Boiled sequence, Murakami portrays a Tokyo that is partially grounded in reality with an alcoholic protagonist butting heads with a secret System of the data mafia, however this reality grows increasingly unreal with numerous references to underground sewer dwelling INKlings (some sort of lizard demon of Japanese lore) and a prolonged sequence with the protagonist traveling and lead by the uncharacteristically athletic, chubby pink-wearing girl through an underground temple as they dodge threats of leaches, a rope ladder, and a flood. The writing of this section was a bit of a nuisance, with an overly lengthy discussion of the subconscious and mortality told through the genius grandfather’s experiments with the mind, as well as a long sequence of unbelievable feats of strength and endurance for a man who has suffered a wound to his abdomen.
Although the writing of the Hard-Boiled sequence often drifted into oblivion and excessive overly weirdness, these weaknesses are forgivable because the World sequences were fantastic as a tale of self-discovery and escape in oddly utopian fantasy world. All of the characters in both the Hard-Boiled or the World sequences remain nameless throughout the novel, however in the World sequences the unnamed characters are additionally without minds as they go about their business day-to-day, never aging, never questioning the oddities of their reality. The protagonist’s shadow reveals to the protagonist that when the shadow dies, the protagonist will become a citizen and share in the same amnesiatic mindlessness of the inhabitants of the town at the end of the world. This sets up an enjoyable narrative of exploration as the protagonist searches for a way out to only discover that the way out is within himself.
Without revealing all, I will say that I found the ending to this double-sided tale to be a very satisfying culmination of both sequences. Although the Hard-Boiled sequence did reach too far into the realm of science-fiction neo-philosophy, it all wrapped up into a nice package that was entertaining and enjoyable to read. Since the story started off with a weird an intriguing hook I found myself giving Murakami a lot of leeway with his narrative exploits and I think that the best way to enjoy this book is to try not to over-think it. It is a humorous farce on reality and the perceptions of the mind and if the reader can accept that, you’re sure to enjoy the ride.