This past summer, I spent the many hours of my flights between Philly and Prague engrossed in Haruki Murakami’s 1997 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It was such a pleasure to read, it’s come very close to supplanting Philip K. Dick’s VALIS as my favorite novel. Murakami’s writing style is nothing like Dick’s, but he shares Dick’s talent for spinning tales that are bizarre, dryly humorous, philosophical journeys of self-discovery.
If you are a fan of the TV show Lost, you will love Murakami. There are several elements of the show that are undoubtedly drawn from Murakami, such as the characters’ frequent trips down wells and other dark holes as catalysts for finding themselves. Lost has already acknowledged its debt to VALIS – we’ll see if Murakami gets his due in Lost’s upcoming final season.
To give you a sense of how many clever analogies Murakami can pack into a small space, here are a couple paragraphs from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This is the protagonist describing a strange man he unexpectedly finds waiting for him in his house:
He was a short man, dressed in a suit. It was hard to guess his height with him seated, but he couldn’t have been five feet tall. Somewhere between forty-five and fifty years old, he looked like a chubby little frog with a bald head – a definite A in May Kasahara’s classification system [his friend May made wigs for bald men]. He did have a few clumps of hair clinging to his scalp over his ears, but their oddly shaped black presence made the bare area stand out all the more. He had a large nose, which may have been somewhat blocked, judging from the way it expanded and contracted like a bellows with each noisy breath he took. Atop that nose sat a pair of thick-looking wire-rim glasses. He had a way of pronouncing certain words so that his upper lip would curl, revealing a mouth full of crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. He was, without question, one of the ugliest human beings I had ever encountered. And not just physically ugly: there was a certain clammy weirdness about him that I could not put into words – the sort of feeling you get when your hand brushes against some big, strange bug in the darkness. He looked less like an actual human being than like something from a long-forgotten nightmare.
The man had on a brown suit, white shirt, and red tie, all of the same degree of cheapness, and all worn out to the same degree. The color of the suit was reminiscent of an amateur paint job on an old jalopy. The deep wrinkles in the pants and jacket looked as permanent as valleys in in an aerial photograph. The white shirt had taken on a yellow tinge, and one button on the chest was ready to fall off. It also looked one or two sizes too small, with its top button open and the collar crooked. The tie, with its strange pattern of ill-formed ectoplasm, looked as if it had been left in place since the days of the Osmond Brothers. Anyone looking at him would have seen immediately that this was a man who paid absolutely no attention to the phenomenon of clothing. He wore what he wore strictly because he had no choice but to put something on when dealing with other people, as if he were hostile to the idea of wearing clothes at all. He might have been planning to wear these things the same way every day until they fell apart – like a highland farmer driving his donkey from morning to night until he kills it.
Credit is also due to Jay Rubin for an impressive translation of Murakami’s Japanese. In preparing to write this post, I learned that he was forced to abridge his translation, due to a word limit imposed by the American publisher (I guess they think Americans are afraid of large books). An Amazon reviewer who read the unabridged Russian version says that 15%-20% of the book has been cut from the English translation, with entire chapters missing. I’m dying to know what I missed!