Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Destination: Japan

I've never met a Murakami fan who was not a die-hard Murakami fan. So if I write about Murakami's 1Q84, released one week ago, those of you who know of it, have probably already read it, and those of you who don't, probably don't care.

So I'm not going to write about 1Q84, but why not take the occasion to talk about Japanese literature in general? True, as Sam Anderson reports in his interview with Murakami in the New York Times Magazine, Murakami does not claim writers of the Japanese canon as his literary ancestors, citing instead European and American influences on his work. The current, however, flows both ways. Over the past few years I've been delighted by the subtle and sweet beauty to be found in the literature of Murakami's Japanese predecessors--including Natsume Soseki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima--a current perhaps contemporary American writers would do well to pay attention to today. Last week, while everyone else was reading Murakami, I was reading Mishima.

Mishima's The Sound of the Waves was published in 1954, and is set in the twentieth century. However, because it takes place on the island Uta-jima, the isolation of the culture lends the story an archaic tone. Mishima's beautiful descriptions of the island landscape are tied directly to the narrative events, as nature and culture have yet to be severed on the island. There is an innocent charm to the traditions and the characters, such as the boy Shinji, that rise out of this culture. Throughout the entire love story that develops between Shinji and Hatsue, the daughter of a rich and powerful citizen of Uta-jima, I feared the destruction of this beauty and innocence. While Mishima does bring tragedy dangerously near, ultimately what the reader wishes for is preserved, which is not always the case (hardly ever, my coworker Katie assures me) in Mishima's novels.

However far Murakami's work might at times feel from the Japanese writers who came before him, it is not difficult to discover some connections between them. Murakami, for example, loves to play around with memory, imagination, and reality. During his interview for the NYT Magazine, he stops the car to point out a place in the landscape where a key point in the plot occurred. "But it's not real," he assures his interviewer, but does not seem convinced of the fact himself.

Last week, I found hints of such imaginative play in Mishima's Sound of the Waves: "The children of the island got their first notions of the world outside from the pictures and words in their schoolbooks rather than from the real things," Mishima writes, "How difficult, then, for them to conceive, by sheer force of imagination, such things as streetcars, tall buildings, movies, subways. But then, once they had seen reality, once the novelty of astonishment was gone, they perceived clearly how useless it had been for them to try to imagine such things, so much so that at the end of long lives spent on the island they would no longer even so much as remember the existence of such things as streetcars clanging back and forth along the streets of a city."

For those of you wondering about the "Q" in 1Q84, the number "9" is pronounced like a "Q" in Japanese. To hear the numbers 1-10 pronounced in Japanese, and in about 30 other languages for that matter, visit our Used Book Cellar, and ask for Natasha. To hear another bookseller rave about more of Mishima's works, ask for Katie. To find more of the forerunners of Japanese literature, visit the shelves of Destination Literature.

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