I was utterly entranced by my first two Haruki Murakami novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore; both are so richly layered, dreamlike and bizarre. For Japanese Literature Challenge 13, run by Meredith of Dolce Belezza, I decided to pick up another of his books. First I tried Norwegian Wood, but, ironically, it was so normal (from the little I read, a standard, nostalgic coming-of-age novel set on a college campus) that I felt disoriented and set it down after 20 pages – I’ll keep it on the shelf for some other time. Instead I read A Wild Sheep Chase, a fairly short one for Murakami at just under 300 pages.
I loved the zany premise: the unnamed narrator, who works for a small advertising firm, gets a threatening visit one day. A PR bulletin his company created happens to feature a photo his friend The Rat sent him of a traditional Hokkaido landscape with sheep, among which is visible one particular sheep – “the third sheep from the right in the front row” – with a distinctive brown star-shaped birthmark. “The Boss” and his emissary give the narrator an ultimatum: he has two months to find this sheep, or he’ll be driven out of business.
So, along with his girlfriend, who has psychic powers and unbelievably seductive ears, he sets off by train in search of typical mountains-and-fields scenery. She chooses, seemingly at random, a hotel that turns out to be the former headquarters of the Hokkaido Ovine Association; its owner’s father, who lives like a hermit upstairs, is the Sheep Professor. Not just an expert on sheep, he believes he was at one time possessed by the star-marked sheep.
As the narrator makes his way to The Rat’s mountain hideaway, an hour and a half from the nearest town, he’s moving further from rational explanations and deeper into solitude and communion with ghosts. There’s some trademark Murakami strangeness, but the book is too short to give free rein to the magic realist plot, and I felt like there were too many loose ends after his return from The Rat’s, especially around his girlfriend’s disappearance.
Also, after just three and a bit of his novels (I DNFed Killing Commendatore in 2018), I’m already noticing a lazy reliance on the same setup: a directionless thirtysomething man whose marriage has recently fallen apart starts a new and pretty peculiar life. There are also a couple of specific failings that I’m noticing for the second or third time now: a slow, pointless start (the first 40 pages here could easily be shaved off) and slight misogyny: “Women with their clothes off have a frightening similarity. Always throws me for a loop.”
I appreciate the imagination that went into this, and enjoyed some specific witty metaphors (“the effect was unpalatable. Like serving sherbet and broccoli on the same silver platter” and “The elevator shook like a large dog with lung disease”) and observant lines (“Age certainly hasn’t conferred any smarts on me. Character maybe, but mediocrity is a constant”), but overall the novel was a letdown. Can anyone recommend me another surefire Murakami?
Note: This was Murakami’s first novel to be translated into English, in 1989. I had no idea that it’s actually the third book out of four in a series called “The Rat.”
Longtime readers will know how much I enjoy reading with the seasons. Although it’s just starting to feel like there’s a promise of spring here in the south of England, I understand that much of North America is still cold and snowy, so I hope these recent reads of mine will feel topical to some of you – and the rest of you might store some ideas away for next winter.
Silence in the Snowy Fields and Other Poems by Robert Bly (1967)
Even when they’re in stanza form, these don’t necessarily read like poems; they’re often more like declaratory sentences, with the occasional out-of-place exclamation. But Bly’s eye is sharp as he describes the signs of the seasons, the sights and atmosphere of places he visits or passes through on the train (Ohio and Maryland get poems; his home state of Minnesota gets a whole section), and the small epiphanies of everyday life, whether alone or with friends. And the occasional short stanza hits like a wisdom-filled haiku, such as “There are palaces, boats, silence among white buildings, / Iced drinks on marble tops among cool rooms; / It is good also to be poor, and listen to the wind” (from “Poem against the British”).
Favorite wintry passages:
How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
The white flake of snow
That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!
(“Watering the Horse” in its entirety)
The grass is half-covered with snow.
It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon,
And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.
(the first stanza of “Snowfall in the Afternoon”)
Wishing for Snow: A Memoir by Minrose Gwin (2004)
One of the more inventive and surprising memoirs I’ve read. Growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s–30s, Gwin’s mother wanted nothing more than for it to snow. That wistfulness, a nostalgia tinged with bitterness, pervades the whole book. By the time her mother, Erin Clayton Pitner, a published though never particularly successful poet, died of ovarian cancer in the late 1980s, their relationship was a shambles. Erin’s mental health was shakier than ever – she stole flowers from the church altar, frequently ran her car off the road, and lived off canned green beans – and she never forgave Minrose for having had her committed to a mental hospital. Poring over Erin’s childhood diaries and adulthood vocabulary notebook, photographs, the letters and cards that passed between them, remembered and imagined conversations and monologues, and Erin’s darkly observant unrhyming poems (“No place to hide / from the leer of the sun / searching out every pothole, / every dream denied”), Gwin asks of her late mother, “When did you reach the point that everything was in pieces?”
The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2018)
It has been winter for five years, and Sanna, Mila and Pípa are left alone in their little house in the forest – with nothing but cabbages to eat – when their brother Oskar is lured away by the same evil force that took their father years ago and has been keeping spring from coming. Mila, the brave middle daughter, sets out on a quest to rescue Oskar and the village’s other lost boys and to find the way past winter. Clearly inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia and especially Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, this middle grade novel is set in an evocative, if slightly vague, Russo-Finnish past and has more than a touch of the fairy tale about it. I enjoyed it well enough, but wouldn’t seek out anything else by the author.
Favorite wintry passage:
“It was a winter they would tell tales about. A winter that arrived so sudden and sharp it stuck birds to branches, and caught the rivers in such a frost their spray froze and scattered down like clouded crystals on the stilled water. A winter that came, and never left.”
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1937; English translation, 1956)
[Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker]
The translator’s introduction helped me understand the book better than I otherwise might have. I gleaned two key facts: 1) The mountainous west coast of Japan is snowbound for months of the year, so the title is fairly literal. 2) Hot springs were traditionally places where family men travelled without their wives to enjoy the company of geishas. Such is the case here with the protagonist, Shimamura, who is intrigued by the geisha Komako. Her flighty hedonism seems a good match for his, but they fail to fully connect. His attentions are divided between Komako and Yoko, and a final scene that is surprisingly climactic in a novella so low on plot puts the three and their relationships in danger. I liked the appropriate atmosphere of chilly isolation; the style reminded me of what little I’ve read from Marguerite Duras. I also thought of Silk by Alessandro Baricco and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – perhaps those were to some extent inspired by Kawabata?
Favorite wintry passage:
“From the gray sky, framed by the window, the snow floated toward them in great flakes, like white peonies. There was something quietly unreal about it.”
I’ve also been slowly working my way through The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, a spiritual quest memoir with elements of nature and travel writing, and skimming Francis Spufford’s dense book about the history of English exploration in polar regions, I May Be Some Time (“Heat and cold probably provide the oldest metaphors for emotion that exist.”).
On next year’s docket: The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell (on my Kindle) and Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Last year I had a whole article on perfect winter reads published in the Nov/Dec issue of Bookmarks magazine. Buried in Print spotted it and sent this tweet. If you have access to the magazine via your local library, be sure to have a look!
Have you read any particularly wintry books recently?
I don’t know why I resisted reading Haruki Murakami for so long. I have some friends who are big fans of his work, but I always thought his fiction would be a bit too odd for me. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994), which I just finished last night, is certainly bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements in the way that dreams do. This is the story of a young man who’s become lost in his own life and is looking for the way back. It’s a hero’s quest through a baffling, mystical underworld.
It all starts with a missing cat and a dirty phone call. It’s 1984. Thirty-year-old Toru Okada recently left his job as a law clerk and has been aimlessly spending days at home while his wife, Kumiko, goes out to her magazine editor job. A week ago the cat – named Noboru Wataya, after Toru’s hateful brother-in-law – disappeared, so he’s cooking himself some spaghetti and pondering his cat hunting strategy when he gets a call from what seems to be a phone sex hotline, except that the female speaker claims to know him well. And unexpected phone calls just keep coming, including from Malta Kano, a clairvoyant who foretells that he will experience “Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.”
There’s a narrow alleyway behind their suburban Tokyo house that cuts between two rows of back gardens. On these hot June days, it’s an almost preternaturally still place, with the quiet broken only by the mechanical-sounding call of a creature Toru thinks of as the wind-up bird. He heads down the alley to look for the cat, but all he finds is the deserted (haunted?) Miyawaki house with a bird sculpture and an old, dry well in its yard. He also meets May Kasahara, a blunt sixteen-year-old who’s taking a year off school after a motorcycle accident.
So far, so realist (mostly). But things keep getting weirder, mainly through a series of further appearances and disappearances. The first to go is Kumiko, who says she’s been having an affair. Toru doesn’t believe, her, though. Or, rather, he doesn’t think a pattern of cheating is enough of an explanation for her leaving everything behind one morning. He knows there’s a deeper force driving this, and he’s determined to rescue his wife from it. Meanwhile, he has more encounters with and stories of pain from peculiar characters – everyone from a World War II lieutenant and a former fashion designer to Malta Kano’s ex-prostitute sister, Creta.
Rather like a Kafka antihero, Toru simply can’t grasp what’s happening to him.
I shook my head. Too many things were being left unexplained. The one thing I understood for sure was that I didn’t understand a thing. … “I’m sick of riddles. I need something concrete that I can get my hands on. Hard facts. Something I can use as a lever to pry the door open. That’s what I want.”
Yet his first-person narration anchors the book, making him an Everyman who we journey along with in his state of confusion. So even as the plot gets increasingly outlandish and somewhat taken over by other voices – via long monologues, letters, or tales stored in computer files – we always have this sympathetic protagonist to come home to. Like in Dickens’s novels, I noticed that minor characters like the Kano sisters keep turning up just when you’re in danger of forgetting them due to the weight of the intervening pages.
Yesterday I gave a gleeful squeal when a review copy of just 190 pages arrived. “So you love short books?” my husband asked. I do … but I also adore long ones that have a darn good reason to be that long – creating a whole world you can get lost in. That’s what I’m trying to celebrate with this year’s monthly Doorstopper series: books whose 500+ pages fly by, best consumed in big gulps. Such won’t always be the case: City on Fire and Hame both felt like a slog in places, though were ultimately worth engaging with. But my first encounter with Murakami showcased expansive storytelling at its best. I want to read more books like this.
I’m not entirely sure I comprehended all that happens at the end of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but that doesn’t really matter. The novel left me mesmerized, shaking my head as if waking up from the strangest dream but hoping to someday go back to its world. And for 99.8% of it I forgot that I was reading a work in translation.
If I were to make a word cloud of important phrases from the book, it would look off the wall: lemon drops, a necktie, wells, bald men, baseball bats, birthmarks, being skinned alive, zoo animals, a hotel room, a wig factory, and so on. That list might intrigue you; equally, it might put you off in the same way that I was always daunted by the idea of Japanese magic realism. Let me assure you, this stunning novel is so much more than the sum of its parts.