Ten years ago, I tried to read Norwegian Wood, a semi-autobiographical novel by the author Haruki Murakami. I couldn’t finish it, but for some reason, the first few pages stuck with me.
The book begins with Norwegian Wood, the Beatles song, playing on an airport speaker system. The protagonist is boarding a flight. He hears the song and is taken back in time to his university years, on a walk with a girl in a meadow on a hot day, looking for a well.
When I first read the chapter, ten years ago, I had no connection to it. Last year, I read it again, and suddenly it resonated. In fact, the whole book resonated. Something had changed. About me. And about my reality too.
I’ve spent the last few weeks reading Murakami’s work, trying to understand exactly what it is that draws me in. I’ve devoured novels and interviews with a view to understanding the man behind the prose. I want to understand his point of view, to be able to see the world according to Haruki Murakami.
My pilgrimage began with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, then Dance, Dance, Dance, before I reread parts of Norwegian Wood. I had already read Kafka on the Shore. So, I watched the Korean film Burning, based on Murakami’s short story Barn Burning. Finally, I read a few quotes from Murakami’s (other semi-autobiographical) book on running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
In each case, I was taken out of my own life and into a different place and time. Going into that blend of magic and realism, that surrealism alongside the mundane, that awe alongside the everyday, I began to see my own world more clearly.
Through Murakami, through the fantastical, I gained a clearer view of my own reality.
Murakami has this beautiful way of building atmosphere with words. His prose is full of the senses. The sights, sounds and smells of, typically, Japan. When he writes about that meadow and that girl on that day in that year, I am immediately transported to it. I can see the meadow. I can feel the breeze. I am on the walk. I am experiencing the world through his eyes.
And how different it looks in that moment.
Now we were walking through the frightful silence of a pine forest. The desiccated corpses of cicadas that had died at the end of summer littered the surface of the path, crunching beneath our shoes. As if searching for something we’d lost, Naoko and I continued slowly along the path.
If there is a definitive Murakami aesthetic, it is in the symbols he sprinkles throughout his prose. Most of the stories feature cats who mysteriously appear and disappear; many have wells as places of reflection; most have characters with deep psychological wounds expressed through magic and surreal events, represented as externalities of their internal suffering; most of them have a gratuitous male sexuality, where men desire women from a distance, disconnected from their core being; and most have an aura of women being distant, mysterious and flighty.
The antagonists are embodiments of the darker side of human nature. Each antagonist possesses a cruelty that cuts against the often-naive and hopeless optimism of the protagonist. This includes the skin carving lunatics of World War 2, the manipulative politicians of Japan or simply the violent and sadistic. The world is a cruel place, Murakami often tells us, but it’s our way of navigating that cruelty that defines who we are.
His final trick is something of a punctuation mark. Alongside the construction of an atmosphere, a feeling of place, a disturbing underbelly, Murakami routinely uses silence and the gaps between things, to create distance.
We came to a stop and stood in the silent forest, listening. I tumbled pinecones and cicada shells with my toecap, then looked up at the patches of sky showing through the pine branches. Hands in pockets, Naoko stood there thinking, her eyes focused on nothing in particular.
In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist boils spaghetti, routinely, alone in his kitchen. In Burning (an adaptation co-written by director Lee Chang-Don), the protagonist runs through empty fields, looking for burnt down greenhouses. In Norwegian Wood, the protagonist spends days by himself writing long letters to Naoko, a woman who rarely ever replies to him. Even when he is with her, he often seems alone.
There is a loneliness to these moments. An intentional distancing of the characters from their worldly surroundings. This distance is, at times, just as intense as when the characters get transported to a foreign magical world, that is actually very distant from their daily lives. Murakami seems to suggest here that our daily life is the strange thing, the omnipresent and the silent thing. Sometimes we are so distant from our lives, even when we are right in the middle of them.
Magical worlds are not so much an escape from our reality but a reengagement with it. If life exists in the daily tasks of boiling spaghetti and reading alone, we require out of body magical experiences to re-engage with our higher senses, our sense of space and time, and our place within the universe as a greater whole. Here, opposites come together in neat ways. Distance creates closeness. Supernatural creates natural. Magical creates normality. Normality creates magical.
Murakami’s novels abide by various core ideals of the Romantic movement, which I’ve talked about before. Instead of embracing the objectivity of our reality, Murakami takes us into the subjective realms of human existence and even higher into a spiritual existence, making the mundane magical and the magical mundane. He uses the five senses to cement subjectivity as a higher spiritual transcendence over our own lives. He tells us, in something short of a whisper, that we have to leave the world in order to enter back into it.
To know one’s own state is not a simple matter. One cannot look directly at one’s own face with one’s own eyes, for example. One has no choice but to look at one’s reflection in the mirror. Through experience, we come to believe that the image is correct, but that is all.
― The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
If there is a criticism of Murakami’s work it is the ‘male gaze’. Women tend to disappear and men tend to chase after them. Women are often represented as objects of desire. This leads to an asynchronistic power dynamic, where women lack agency to decide their own goals. There is a risk that the women in his books merely exist for the benefit of the male protagonist, and if so, that they are not fully represented as three dimensional.
This critique can be overstated. Naoko, the female lead in Norwegian Wood, as one example, has her own journey of self-discovery, her own goals and motivations separate to the male protagonist. She is less motivated by a romantic interest in the protagonist and more motivated by a journey towards her own psychological wellbeing and fulfilment. At a crucial point in the book, she stays in a mental health retreat. This, in some ways cuts the traditional love story plot structure in half – making the romantic interest distant and unavailable. In turn, the male protagonist’s fantasies are brought into focus.
It also brings up an interesting question about love itself. If love is more than desire alone, then the male protagonist has his own work to do to figure out how to appreciate someone for who they are in their totality, outside of physical desire. It is this appreciation of everything about someone, that seems to represent a more authentic, and less base, version of love.
In 2017, the novelist Mieko Kawakami sat down with Murakami and grilled him on these questions from a feminist perspective.
This is an extract from their conversation:
MK: In these transformations, as long as sex is being posited as a way into an unfamiliar realm, the women, when faced with a heterosexual protagonist, have basically no choice but to play the role of sexual partner. Looking at it from a certain angle, I think plenty of readers would argue that women are forever in this situation, forced into an overly sexual role, simply because they’re women. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
HM: I’m not sure I follow. When you say more than the necessary role, you mean…?
MK: I’m talking about the large number of female characters who exist solely to fulfill a sexual function. On the one hand, your work is boundlessly imaginative when it comes to plots, to wells, and to men, but the same can’t be said for their relationships with women. It’s not possible for these women to exist on their own. And while female protagonists, or even supporting characters, may enjoy a moderate degree of self-expression, thanks to their relative independence, there’s a persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads. So, the question is, why is it that women are so often called upon to play this role in Murakami novels?
HM: Now I see, okay.
MK: Would you mind sharing your thoughts on that?
HM: This may not be the most satisfying explanation, but I don’t think any of my characters are that complex. The focus is on the interface, or how these people, both men and women, engage with the world they’re living in. If anything, I take great care not to dwell too much on the meaning of existence, its importance or its implications. Like I said earlier, I’m not interested in individualistic characters. And that applies to men and women both.
… I can’t agree that women are always stuck playing the supporting role of sexual oracles or anything along those lines. Even once I’ve forgotten the storylines, these women stay with me. Like Reiko or Hatsumi in Norwegian Wood. Even now, thinking about them makes me emotional. These women aren’t just novelistic instruments for me. Each individual work calls for its own circumstances. I’m not making excuses. I’m speaking from feeling and experience.
Murakami’s defence here is interesting.
To some extent, Murakami’s large body of work gives him an easy way out of these questions. He can always point to other female characters in other situations that defy the generalized statements put to him. At the same time, there is something fundamental, and perhaps unavoidable, about representing women from a male perspective. Desire is inherent in the characterisation, particularly when romance is on the cards.
What if the same stories were told from a female perspective?
Recently, I had the chance to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The 2019 film directed by Céline Sciamma depicts love between two women and features no male characters. It offers a startlingly different view of romantic love of a woman, by removing the male gaze entirely.
The film is set at the end of the eighteenth century on a remote island off Brittany. A young aristocratic lady, Héloïse, is set to be married off to a Milanese nobleman, whom she does not want to marry. Her sister, who was given a similar fate, chose to kill herself.
Prior to the wedding, Héloïse must have her portrait taken by an artist. A young female painter, Marianne, is commissioned to do the job. The only problem is that Héloïse has refused to pose for any portrait.
Marianne is asked to pretend to be her ‘walking partner’ instead, going on long walks on an island off Brittany and trying to remember her features (her facial expression, hands, and so on) purely by memory, for the painting.
It becomes clear that the two women are attracted to one another. This is captured in a very subtle form, in lingering eye contact, in hesitation and in moments of silence that pass between them with great significance.
The beauty of the film however, is the way in which it suspends the idea of dominance in romantic relationships. Instead of one character being superior to the other (in wealth, position or hierarchy), both are presented as similarly vulnerable to the world that they are in. Both are lesbians in a world that forces them to marry, dealing with the consequence, and loneliness therein.
As opposed to a hetero romance, where conflict often comes in the distance between the two characters’ respective social positions (the classic rich man, poor girl, or vice versa trope), Portrait is a film intentionally about the idea of an equal relationship.
The director, Céline Sciamma, describes the idea as follows:
It was my initial desire to shoot a love story. With two apparently contradictory wishes underlying the writing. Firstly, to show, step by step, what it is like to fall in love, the pure present and pleasure of it. There, the direction focuses on confusion, hesitation and the romantic exchange.
There was also the desire for a love story based on equality… A love story not based on hierarchies and relationships of power and seduction that exist before the encounter. The feeling of a dialogue that is being invented and surprises us.
This is a very powerful idea that seems to upend traditional ideas about romance. As opposed to the male perspective, presented by Murakami (the strong desire, pre-formulated attraction, focus on beauty and the chase), Sciamma takes us towards a higher appreciation of each character as an individual, lost in the moment.
And what is love but being lost in the moment with someone?
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