This week is the start of the yearly Nobel Prize announcements. One of the prizes I most look forward to hearing is Literature. It’s been handed out to 109 writers, with only one for Arabic novels: Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz.
This year, Haruki Murakami is favored to win with the highest odds. There are five names in the short list announced by the Swedish Nobel Academy on Twitter. Speculations on who these five authors range depending on which newspaper, critic or blog you read. Most everyone says Murakami is a definite win, especially since he was expected to win last year, when Chinese author Mo Yan won instead.
Some believe Chinua Achebe will win because he passed away last March and there hasn’t been an African winner in ten years. Others believe a woman will win, because there has only been twelve female literature laureates out of the 109. Female Canadian authors Alice Munro or Maragaret Atwood seem to be the main contenders.
Since it’s the week for Nobel winners announcements, I decided that it would be best to review the most probable winner. I have been wanting to read Murakami for a long time, so I finally decided to pick up Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and it was the perfect place to start.
First published in 1985, the book is set in Tokyo, Japan. There are two stories, told in alternating parallel narratives.
The futuristic novel seems exactly like today’s world, although it was written 28 years ago. This truly shows what an incredible imagination Murakami has. I was reminded of the vision of Orwell’s 1984, with a global government, a global economy and endless cycles of consumerism.
The two stories remain separate, with different personalities and different chapter numbers, odd chapters for “Hard Boiled Wonderland” (the conscious mind) and even chapters for “End of the World” (the subconscious mind), and then everything ties up in the end. All the characters are nameless – even the narrators – instead they are described by their jobs. Murakami does this to emphasize that it’s not about the characters, it’s not about the people, it’s the underlying plot that is more important.
“Hard Boiled Wonderland” is a futuristic story with peoples called Inklings, Semiotecs and Calcutecs. One of the Calcutecs narrates the story. At one point, he describes how he dashes through the concrete jungle, with all its materialism, restaurants, technological advances, supermarkets, phones, abandoned subway lines and sewers.
The story captures all the negative aspects of the city – the pace, the robotic language, the unemotional relationships, the anonymity, the facelessness. Even the neighbors don’t hear the narrator when he is beaten up and his apartment trashed.
In this world, the currency is information. Semiotecs of The Factory try to steal information from The System. “The left hand stole what the right hand protected” – an endless circle of corruption, which sounds so much like Cairene organizations today.
Murakami also addresses the dangers of science and technology overriding our life. In one instance, twenty Calcutecs die through a process of bio-encryption created to fortify the information in the story and The Professor feels little remorse because it was in the name of progress. Like in the story, so many scientific/technological areas today walk a tight ethical rope. Where and when do we stop? When do we say our values are more important than progress? These are the questions I believe Murakami wants us to ponder.
In “End of the World”, the Dream Reader is the narrator and much of the story is strolling in the hills and woods, forests, rivers and lakes. Nature is plentiful, with exotic fantastical creatures.
A high brick wall surrounds the Town where the narrator is becoming a resident. He is forced to separate from his Shadow and leave him at the Town gate with the Gatekeeper. When the Dream Reader’s shadow dies, his memory will vanish like the rest of the town folk, who are all without memory of their previous lives. The town’s people all have no self because unicorns absorb their egos and carry them outside the wall.
This story makes us think about more existential questions. Who would we be without our memory? Who would we be without the ego or the self?
Both stories juxtapose themselves perfectly against each other – nature versus fantasy, virtual reality versus what’s most important in life: love. The responsibility of the individual to himself and to society. The search for individual identity. The individual versus the system or the factory, like the Corporacry in Cloud Atlas. The individual against a much larger, much more complex, overwhelming organization. Some felt like it was Murakami’s way of criticizing Japanese patriarchy.
The book has so many influences, including Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled fiction, Kafka’s The Castle and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I even felt it reminded me a little of Aesop’s famous fable “The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse”.
Murakami eloquently combines elements of modern realism, postmodern fantasy, magical realism, science fiction and surrealism. The song “Danny Boy” is also mentioned in two consecutive chapters because of his love of music – like many Murakami novels with scattered musical references. (He and his wife ran a jazz bar in Tokyo called The Peter Cat from 1974-1981.)
I would say the exact opposite of Paul West’s 1991 review in the New York Times, where West claimed that Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World has none of the elements of a good story. Interestingly, reviewer Chad Ozrel in 2002 enjoyed it tremendously. In those ten years between the reviews, Murakami’s future became our reality and hence much more understandable. It seems you either love Murakami or hate him.
One of the most interesting things Murakami does in this story is to render mundane things interesting. In typical Murakami style, he goes on long-winded tangents about elevators, couches, sandwiches, songs. Some critics felt that this diverted the storyline. I felt the opposite. It made the characters more human – because that’s exactly what we do in conversations: We jump from one topic to another sometimes forgetting what we started with in the first place.
Murakami gave me the best gift a book can give: So much to think about and a story that transported me through a wonderful adventure. I can’t wait to read the next one, and here’s hoping he wins the Nobel.