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Haruki Murakami

I scored a copy of Haruki Murakami's Hear the Wind Sing off ebay today.

I'm quite pleased. it's one of Murakami's earlier novels, his second (if i have it right, it features the narrator from A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance), and it hasn't been released in the states or the UK. I'm sure after getting this thing sent to me, there will be a pretty little local translation within months, but I've been eying the copies that appear on ebay for a while now, trying to find a way to snag one for relative cheapness and not get into a bidding war. Got lucky with a buy it now option of eleven pounds that included free postage, so it worked out well.

I make no secret of my love for Murakami. The first novel of his i read was the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a sprawling metaphysical detective novel that was constructed around characters telling their stories to the main character who, throughout this, was trying to find his wife and his cat. The description doesn't do it justice, and it was the first time i had encountered Murakami's ordinary, disconnected loner character that would feature, in slightly different incarnations, in each of his novels. However, in the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, it is the surrounding cast that drive the story forward, such as with lieutenant Mamiya's story about the Second World War, which resonates through the rest of the novel.* Anyway, what I'm trying to say here, in my roundabout, rambling way, is that the first novel of Murakami's I experienced is the one I like the most--it's hardly surprising, though, as many people like that first experience of an author because it's freshest, new to the head, like nothing before.**

As I mentioned before, Murakami has a stock central character for his novels, which is influenced largely by Raymond Carver.*** It's a fair criticism that many of his narrators are the same, and that occasionally, this stretches into his plots. Norwegian Wood, the book that made Murakami a star in japan, was followed by South of the Border, West of the Sun, and though the latter features a mystery plot, it bares a strong resemblance to that first book. The similarities even lurk in a later novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, which I have to admit, I enjoyed more than the other two.**** What further weakens the three books is the lack the weirdness that the best of Murakami's novels contain. For the most part, they're fairly straight romance stories, narrated by disconnected men who failed to connect with women who were not altogether there in the head. However, Murakami does have range in his central narrators, and it is shown in his short fiction. i recommend his collection After the Quake for that, though the narrators are, in one way or another, disconnected from society and reality. It's the theme that ties all of Murakami's work together, and is especially strong here, in a collection that is linked together by a sense of community disconnection after the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

Murakami is strongest, however, when his imagination is let out. My second favourite of his novels is a prime example of this: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. For my money, I might add, it also features Murakami's best title.

The book is split into two narratives. The first is in present day japan and follows a data processor, of sorts, who likes plump women. the second follows a man in a strange village where there are beasts that grow golden fur. To talk too much about it will give away the plot, parts of it which are quick to pick up, and others that remain elusive until the end, which is the way a good mystery should be. What is also impressive, is the way that the narrative voices for each chapter, both of which are in first person, are distinctly different in tone. I don't know how much of the credit for that would go to the translator Alfred Birnbaum, but one suspects that the ability to pull it off in English must be due to him in no small part.

Indeed, reading Murakami's books, with three different translators, raises an interesting question about how much a translator brings to a text. There is a difference with each of the books--it is felt in the subtle nuances of style that each of the translators writes in, and for my money, I'm partial to the Jay Rubin translations. This, again, could be because Rubin translated the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it is the voice that I most associate with Murakami's work, though in truth, Alfred Birnbaum has translated more of his work. The third translator, Philip Gabriel, left such a bad impression on my with South of the Border, West of the Sun, that even though his later effort of Sputnik Sweetheart is perfectly fine in every way, I find myself twitchy whenever I see his name associated with one of Murakami's books. I have no idea, for example, who is translating Kafka on the Shore, but I hope that it isn't him. However, to turn back to translators, I do find it interesting how much each of the three variate in style. Short of learning Japanese myself, I rather doubt I'll be in a position to know how well each does it, but still, the question remains, even though it is perhaps pointless. Perhaps instead of saying I am a fan of Haruki Murakami's novels, I should say that I am a fan of Jay Rubin's translations of Haruki Murakami's novels, which is a bit wordy. And a bit unfair to Birnbaum, as I've had no problem with any of his translations.

* There's a scene in it where one of the characters has his arm skinned. The line 'it truly was like skinning a peach' still gives me that visceral shudder.

** I do, however, wonder what i am missing from it. I remember reading an interview with the translator Jay Rubin, where he commented that twelve thousand words (I think) had been cut from the English language book by the publisher, which was a shame. I'm now left with want to have a new edition of the book done, complete with all the material.

*** Murakami is the translator of Carver's work into Japanese. The influence is hardly surprising, though Murakami takes it in total different ways to Carver. Still, for me, the influence is still there.

**** I was doubly surprised by this, as the translator for Sputnik Sweetheart translated South of the Border, West of the Sun, and did an awful job. But all the faults where gone in this edition, which makes me think I was blaming the wrong man for the books English language faults.


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Oct. 5th, 2004 11:16 am (UTC)
Great taste per usual, Ben. I think you are absolutely right about the translation making an impact on the work as read in English. One has to be extremely fluent in both languages to match up the nuances and get the flavor just right. I haven't read enough translated from Japanese to in any way qualify as an expert, but I have noticed a big difference in other (esp. Russian) literature.
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:32 am (UTC)
i've really not read much russian literature, though i keep planning too. i'm a big fan of arthur koestler's darkness at noon.
Oct. 5th, 2004 01:42 pm (UTC)
God Murakami's wonderful. When I have some spare cash in the bank I'm totally buying all those recent reissues of his books, the ones in the cool black-white-red trade dress.

And yes, like you my faves are Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard Boiled Wonderland.
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:26 am (UTC)
yeah, they're nice editions those black and white ones, aren't they? but i got to admit, i like the ones i've got, mismatched and uglied up, for the most part.

i'd love some nice hardcovers, though.
Oct. 6th, 2004 02:04 am (UTC)
*increases wishlist*
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:25 am (UTC)
you know you love it.
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:32 am (UTC)
It's cruel and unusual.
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:37 am (UTC)
it makes you happy.
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:40 am (UTC)
It makes me sad. So I sigh.
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:42 am (UTC)
i could make it better.
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:44 am (UTC)
You're going to buy my whole wishlist for me?!? :D

.........I didn't think so. :P
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:45 am (UTC)
well, not now i won't ;)
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:46 am (UTC)
Now you're not even being unusual. You're just being cruel. Grarh.
Oct. 6th, 2004 03:50 am (UTC)
it's just showing that i care, in my own special way. later, i will have a dancing bear.
Oct. 8th, 2004 12:38 am (UTC)
One day, goddamnit, you will be paid vast sums of money for opinions as tasty as these. You give good review.
Oct. 8th, 2004 12:43 am (UTC)
vast amounts--i could do with that. anyhow, thanks muchly, and it's nice to see you round again, man.
Oct. 10th, 2004 08:13 pm (UTC)
btw, do you still wanna see a copy of that paper i gave last week? the fiction is of draft quality, but this didn't seem to stop most people from enjoying it with the theory.
Oct. 11th, 2004 04:25 am (UTC)
Damn straight. Would you care to post it? I, for one, would be fascinated.
Oct. 11th, 2004 04:40 am (UTC)
nah, it's not a post thing. i'm not wanting to the dirty versions of fiction in it up on the web. (which might seem odd, seeing as i put those little bits up, but they're never the same.) i'll sling it to your thru email, if you're wanting, however.
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