Murakami Strikes Again

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Image by Pip via Flickr

Last night I finished Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Courtesy of Wikipedia, here is a plot summary COMPLETE WITH SPOILERS:

“The story is split between parallel narratives. The odd-numbered chapters take place in ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland’, although the phrase is not used anywhere in the text, only in page headers. The narrator is a “Calcutec,” a human data processor/encryption system who has been trained to use his subconscious as an encryption key.

The even-numbered chapters deal with a newcomer to ‘the End of the World’, a strange, isolated walled Town depicted in the frontispiece map as being surrounded by a perfect and impenetrable wall.”

Eventually, as you might guess, these stories converge in that the End of the World is part of the coded subconcious of the protagonist of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Other than that, though, I won’t go into what actually happens.

I found this book mostly disappointing. I hate to say this, because I’m still convinced I like Murakami. I loved Kafka on the Shore so much. But Norwegian Wood, while pretty, was disappointing in plot. Although it did make me engage and it did make me think and when I got to the ending I forgave it completely.

The problem with Hard-Boiled Wonderland, though, was that it was the language that was disappointing. I’m not trying to place blame, but I do wonder how much this has to do with translation. Perhaps something was lost? Reading the plot summary in Wikipedia, I think I might have a point.

In the original Japanese, the narrator uses the more formal first-person pronoun watashi to refer to himself in the ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland’ narrative and the more intimate boku in the ‘End of the World’. Translator Alfred Birnbaum achieved a similar effect in English by putting the ‘End of the World’ sections in the present tense.

I can’t say I agree with that. I can see where it’s going, but present tense by no means suggests the same intimacy. I suddenly get why I felt disappointed when I found out how the two parts interact, it was because I wasn’t sure I had seen it coming whereas if I had known this intimacy perhaps there would have known that the End of the World was in the narrator’s head.

Overall, though, this book feels to me a lot more like clumsy from the off, and that’s in part due to its attempt to include quite so many genres in so few pages and with such little characterisation. It is hard to suggest film noir/detective fiction subtley, when you are also trying to subvert the norms by chucking in a load of science fiction, and writing a mythical side piece. I get that. But from reading the blurb, I kind of thought Murakami was the man to do it.

The tone, I thought, was flat from the very beginning. The narrator does not suggest film noir – for which I expect disdain, cynicism, analysis and propensity towards alcohol. What I got was a dull, uninterested, lacking-in-personality narrator and while he did have a fine collection of whiskeys, this seemed mostly a nod in the right direction, something to tick the box of Detective Character rather than add to the characterisation at hand. Again, he fits the bill as a divorcee, but this he takes with the same disinterest and pragmatism as everything else. There seems to be no emotion to this character, and as such I found it difficult to engage not only with him, but as the others as my sole method of getting to know them was through his tiresome descriptions.  The best way of describing the failure to produce characters I could engage with I am stealing from this review: ” The book’s chock full of pop-culture references, most of them Western, that attempt to stand in for a personality but fail”. And it’s true! While there are some beautiful passages and thoughts; Bob Dylan’s voice described as “a kid standing at the window watching the rain”, most of the book jumps from event to event without much room for reader-engagement.

As well as the tone, the narration itself was uninteresting. I imagine this is because our nameless narrator is so uncaring for the world he is living in and unwilling to engage with it. But again, the descriptions of the science fiction aspect – which, frankly, is brilliant – were rushed and forced to the point where I didn’t understand and then didn’t much care. It seemed that the plot was going to carry on without me, and as the protagonist himself was entirely passive about the situation, I didn’t see why I should be upset either.

I’m going to say this again, because I think it’s worth saying, the idea of having a code produced by a cipher which is totally unique and indistinguishable to the person producing it is brilliant.  I just think it’s a shame it was all so rushed and clumsily exposed.

I have read reviews since which suggest that there is something more to the book, that it is a consideration of the internal space we inhabit versus the external world where everything else happens, and I can kind of see that. But I don’t want to read the book again to look into this further. However, it’s an interesting line of thought, and I’d be interested to talk about this further, should the opportunity arise.

Having said all that, I don’t want to be entirely negative, so. The last four chapters were beautiful, exactly the kind of Murakami I had expected. The narrator engaged, I knew what was going on, I found myself reading passages again and not just to try to remember what they were all talking about. Perhaps the sense of inevitability helped at this point, the narrator was less restrained and taking more care of his thoughts, and it was this (along with the culmination of the second part of the novel) that I really enjoyed. So, if you get that far, it’s lovely. But it by no means makes up for the clumsy writing beforehand.

Incase you would like to read a more favourable review of this book:

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