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New York Mining Disaster

I am making my way, slowly, through Haruki Murakami's new collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I'm enjoying it, and you should take that to mean I like the handful of Murakami's often metaphor driven short pieces that I've read, and I'm sure I'll enjoy the rest.

The piece that struck me as most interesting, structurally, was 'New York Mining Disaster', which begins with the nameless narrator (Murakami has many nameless narrators), telling the reader about a friend who, during typhoons, goes to the zoo. He sits there, watching the animals in a Vietnam army poncho, and drinks beer in front of the cages. He makes a point of drinking his first beer in front of the Bengal tiger cage, because they react mostly violently to the storm. He drinks his second in front of the gorillas, who aren't:

"Most of the time the gorillas aren't the least big disturbed by the typhoon. They stare at him calmly as he sits like a mermaid on the concrete floor sipping his beer and you'd swear they actually feel sorry for him.

"It's like being in an elevator when it breaks down and you're trapped inside with strangers," my friend tells me.

That last part is the important part. It's the first narrative stone, the start of Murakami laying his story out. Except, of course, you don't know this. You won't know it until the end.

The friend, it turns out, isn't central to the narrative. Rather, he is the owner of a suit that the narrator borrows when he goes to funerals. It is the Year of Funerals for the narrators friends who are dying at the age of twenty-eight, twenty-nine. Since they are not revolutionaries, poets, or rock stars, it's not the right time to die, and the whole experience is kind of sad, the narrator notes with a touch of gallows humour. What is interesting about this, however, is that as the narrator talks about his friends dying, by the end of the story you will look back at this moment and see it as a fantasy. That his friends have not died in the way he has noted.

The story continues, of course. The friend tells the narrator of the night he went to the zoo, and found it altered:

"It was a strange experience. I can't explain it, but I felt as if the ground had silently split open and something was crawling up out of it. And then there was this invisible thing on a rampage in the dark. It was like the cold night had coagulated. I couldn't see it, but I felt it, and the animals felt it, too. It make me think about the fact that the ground we walk on goes all the way to the earth's core, and I suddenly realised that the core has sucked up an incredible amount of time."

About this stage, the reader might, if he/she wishes, flip to the title of the story.

'New York Mining Disaster'.

A page later, the narrator's friend says, "I don't want to say anything about other people... but consider the fact that there are ways of dying that don't end in funerals. Types of death you can't smell."

At this stage, the reader is six pages into the slim ten page story. I have never been too good at guessing word counts for page limits, though I know others who can do it at a glance. Editors, mostly. Occupational hazard. I suppose I would say that 'New York Mining Disaster' is a three, four thousand word story. It's not a big story. So far, it's spent all its time talking about typhoons, the zoo, and borrowing a suit to go to funerals. It is pottering. Bubbling. There is a faint sense of discomfort arising from the friend's comments, but shortly after he says that, they begin drinking champagne. Murakami is not in a hurry in this story.

At this length, I begin to understand that the story will be bought together in its final moments. Three hundred words, maybe. Five hundred, tops. That's what will twist the story into shape, rather like a balloon. If this doesn't happen, the story will, most likely, be a one tone piece. You can make that work, but it's not my kind of thing. I find it difficult to connect with a piece like that.

Murakami jumps to New Year's Eve, and a party. There the narrator meets a woman:

"She wasn't the type to turn heads, though she was certainly attractive. She was wearing an expensive green silk dress. I guessed that she was about thirty-two. She could have easily made herself look younger, but she didn't seem to think it was worth the trouble. Three rings graced her fingers, and a faint smile played on her lips."

This woman, it turns out, knew a man who looked just like the narrator. An amazing likeness, she says, before she proceeds to tell him that he is dead. That, in fact, she killed him.

What follows is a short, strange, uncomfortable conversation. The narrator is on the back foot. He doesn't know how to react. The woman tells him that it took less that five seconds to kill the man, but that she wasn't a murderer. Not legally, not morally. There's something odd about her. Something strange. Something not quite right. But the narrator, uncomfortable, and feeling as if he is being tested, doesn't quite know what is happening. Then, the woman says, shortly before midnight, and after the narrator asks if he has passed the test, "You'll be fine. Nothing to worry about. Intuition tells me you'll live a good long life."

Then they bid each other goodbye.

I am telling you this story, laying it out, because I loved the way that the final lines drew everything together. It's such a joy, such a simple, easy joy, and such a simple and easy thing that Murakami does. Simple in theory, I guess, but less so in practice. It's hard to make that end work as something other than a gimmick, but for me, Murakami does it. He has laid the story carefully--perhaps not as carefully or meticulously as he could, but still, the thought is there. It shows in the weight of the title. The conversations about death. The strange, strange woman. The way in which time is reaching a final moment in the New Year's Eve Party.


"They blew out their lamps to save on air, and darkness surrounded them. No one spoke. All they couldhear in the dark was the sound of water dripping from the ceiling every five seconds.

"OK, everybody, try not to breathe so much. We don't have much air left," an old miner said. He held his voice to a whisper, but even so the wooden beams on the ceiling of the tunnel creaked faintly. In the dark, the miners huddled together, straining to hear one sound. The sound of pickaxes. The sound of life.

They waited hours. Reality began to melt away int he darkness. Everything began to feel as if it were happening a long time ago, in a world far away. Or was it happening in the future, in a different far-off world?

Outside, people were digging a hole, trying to reach them. It was like a scene from a movie."


The story appears online, and it's interesting to compare that to the one that appears in the book, I find. For example, the above passage, which so neatly brings everything together for me, which places the story into a whole, was, in the original 1999 translation that appeared in the New Yorker, at the front of the story.

It was, in fact, the opening.

Interesting, yes?


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Oct. 6th, 2006 09:11 am (UTC)
Yes, Ben, very. I think that's what I find fascinating about Murakami's short stories, too. It's his "pottering" structure, to use your word, which seems to go nowhere, and yet, is a kaleidoscope of elements jostling delicately in mid-air that needs to fall into relationship. It's such an open, tender-to-the-reader structuring, one which invites you to play. And is the version in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman an "improvement" on the original, or a turn of the kaleidoscope...?
Oct. 6th, 2006 10:40 am (UTC)
the strange thing about this version is that it is the same translator as the original. so it asks the questions: editor choice, murakami himself (tho he is reportedly very easy going with translators, wanting them to add a bit of their self), or just gabriel changing his mind, seven years on?

personally, i think the new version is much stronger.
Oct. 6th, 2006 10:53 am (UTC)
yeah, I agree. I really liked the deferral--I wouldn't have wanted it closed from the opening.

But as a translator (and I am repeatedly gobsmacked at the stunningly successful translations of Murakami's work) I can't imagine putting that much of myself into a piece. Yes, inevitably you make transformations, but that kind of structural, move-bits-around change would be major. (I once worked as revisionist (a translator's editor, not a Trot turned capitalist roader) on Nicole Brossard's Aerial Letter. That was a text it was impossible not to invest in as a translator. When Marlene (the translator) and I were finished, the ms looked like a work of contemporary art--coloured bits here, chunks of text spliced on there. We wanted to frame some of those pages. But I'm pretty sure we didn't move very much around...)

Oct. 6th, 2006 11:25 am (UTC)
i really don't have any experience about translating, so i got no idea where i'd go on things, but murakami is, as i said, reportedly very laid back about it. it makes you wonder what his translations are like, actually, since he's also responsible for putting parts of raymond carver and such into japanese. does he take such liberties himself? are the liberties that are taken with his own work simply that of the language?

i used to talk about murakami with a friend of mine, who was japanese. her experiences of the books was always very different to mine.
Oct. 6th, 2006 11:47 am (UTC)
ah, I've always really wondered about that. Not that I mind a free-wheeling translation. But I envy you your conversations with your Japanese friend. Can you distill some of what the differences were?
Oct. 6th, 2006 01:11 pm (UTC)
from what i can remember, it had to do witht he tone of murakami. in english, he has a tone that strikes a touch close to raymond carver, in that isolation that his narrators often feel. apparently, in japanese, he's voice is quite different. i don't quite remember what she said in how--it was a year ago, at least.

i do remember her telling me that THE DARK, his new book, featured a female narrator, and felt very much like a transition novel, as if murakami was trying to find what he wanted to write about now. which is similar to what i thought was the problem with KAFKA ON THE SHORE.
Oct. 6th, 2006 01:34 pm (UTC)
hmmm. his narrators always seem so young laddish to me--it will be interesting to see what he does with a woman narrator.
Oct. 6th, 2006 01:40 pm (UTC)
he's been stepping away from that in his short fiction. some of the best peices have featured women. but on a general level, his narrators are very similar. it's getting a bit tired, i think, and you can feel murakami wanting to step outside it, i think.
Oct. 6th, 2006 01:52 pm (UTC)
mmhmm, like in "Birthday Girl". It's Murakami slant. Makes a nice far echo to "A 'Poor Aunt' story".
Oct. 6th, 2006 09:40 am (UTC)
That is pretty cool.

I need to read some.
Oct. 6th, 2006 10:46 am (UTC)
yes, you do :)
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