Murakami vs. Bolaño: Competing Visions of the Global Novel
What Should International Fiction Accomplish?
In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura offers a harsh judgment on the state of Japanese literature. “Representative works of today’s Japanese literature,” she writes, “often read like rehashes of American literature—ignoring not only the Japanese literary heritage but, more critically, the glaring fact that Japanese society and American society differ. One hundred years from now, readers of those works will have no idea what it was like to live in the current Heisei period (starting in 1989) of Japan.” Like many other critics, Mizumura sees Americanization as a synonym for deracination, commodification, and dumbing-down: “Works of contemporary fiction tend to resemble global cultural goods, which, like Hollywood blockbuster films, do not require language—or translation—in the truest sense of the word.”
The name of Haruki Murakami does not appear in this passage or in Mizumura’s book at all. But when she writes that “Japan’s best and brightest have turned their backs on literature,” there is a pointed and inevitable reflection on Murakami, who is by far the most popular novelist writing in Japan today. In 2009, when he published 1Q84, a huge novel in three parts, it immediately became one of the best-selling books in Japanese history, selling a million copies in just one month. Murakami’s celebrity in his native country is almost matched by his popularity abroad. His work has been translated into 50 languages, and he is often named as a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize. Yet in 2014, Murakami told an interviewer that he considers himself “a kind of outcast of the Japanese literary world,” an “ugly duckling” who has never been embraced by writers and critics. Indeed, the criticism leveled at Murakami by the Japanese literary establishment has been remarkably consistent. As the New York Times summarized it, “in Japan, the traditional literary critics regard his novels as un-Japanese and look askance at their Western influences, ranging from the writing style to the American cultural references.” Murakami’s interest in American culture and literature is indisputable. He has translated a wide range of American writers into Japanese, from Raymond Carver to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he spent several years living in the United States.
But in a world literary ecosystem where the domination of the English language is seen as the source of many ills, Murakami’s very success in and with English inevitably becomes a point of criticism. In a Paris Review interview, Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 1994, made the point diplomatically, saying, “Murakami writes in a clear, simple Japanese style. He is translated into foreign languages and is widely read, especially in America, England, and China. He’s created a place for himself in the international literary scene in a way that Yukio Mishima and myself were not able to.” The compliment barely conceals the implication that Murakami’s success abroad is owed precisely to his simple, or simplified, language. Rather than mastering the full resources and history of the Japanese language, the way Oe and Mishima did, the suggestion is that Murakami writes a version stripped for export. Japan Today made the same argument in so many words, writing that Murakami’s success was owed to “the continued hegemony of American publishing interests who understand that English readers have little tolerance for the foreign.”
In a sense, then, Murakami serves as a test case for the aesthetic and even moral validity of global literature as a project. When a novelist writes books that are equally popular in Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Athens, does he prove that 21st-century life in all these places is fundamentally similar, and therefore mutually comprehensible—perhaps even interchangeable? Or is this universality really just a lowest common denominator—the manipulation of a set of conventions and references that everyone understands because they have been drilled into us by the global culture industry? Can there be a global novel that is at once richly textured and widely legible, or is there always a trade-off between these values?
1Q84, Murakami’s biggest book, is an ideal text for confronting these questions, since its perspective is at once local—almost the entire story takes place in Tokyo—and cosmic—playing with questions about the fundamental nature of reality, and whether that reality is permanent or mutable. It is also, not coincidentally, a book about the writing and publishing of fiction. At the core of 1Q84 lies a novel-within-the-novel called Air Chrysalis, a short manuscript that is submitted to a literary contest. Its author, Fuka-Eri—the pen name of Eriko Fukada—is a 17-year-old girl with no previous experience in writing. Indeed, we soon learn that she is actually unable to write; she is severely dyslexic, and the manuscript was actually dictated to a friend, who surreptitiously entered it for the prize. Murakami emphasizes that, technically and stylistically, Fuka-Eri’s “writing” is amateurish, incompetent.“First of all, look at this style,”says Komatsu, the editor who plucks the manuscript from the slush pile. “No amount of work is going to make it any better. It’s never going to happen. And the reason it’s never going to happen is that the writer herself doesn’t give a damn about style; she shows absolutely no intention of wanting to write well, of wanting to improve her writing.”
Yet as badly written as Air Chrysalis might be, Komatsu is certain that its story is compelling and potentially popular. That is why he enlists Tengo, one of the novel’s two main characters, to rewrite the manuscript, giving it a professional polish that will make it worthy of publication. Tengo, a novice writer who earns his living teaching mathematics in a cram school, is at first reluctant to take on the job, seeing it as a species of fraud. But he is soon deeply engaged in the task, which he finds creatively liberating; and thanks to his efforts, Air Chrysalis does indeed become a bestseller.
In telling this story, Murakami displays what might be taken for cynicism about writing and publishing. Komatsu is an author’s satirical portrait of the editor as manipulator. Yet Murakami plainly does not mean for the reader to be offended by Tengo’s rewriting of Fuka-Eri’s novel. The fraudulence, if any, is merely technical. In a deeper sense, the two are collaborators, and their collaboration is legitimate because of a distinction that Murakami embraces, though most critics wouldn’t—the distinction between form and content. It is possible, Murakami suggests, for a book to be deficient in style—the very charge lodged against his own books by some Japanese critics—and yet to have a universal appeal, thanks to the originality and inventiveness of its story. In a sense, writing fiction is a joint effort between the imagination, which is primal and untutored, and the intelligence, which is dedicated to craft and technique. In 1Q84 these roles are played by two different people, but Murakami implies that the same two faculties exist within individuals as well.
This is also, unmistakably, the wager of 1Q84 itself. Stylistically, the book is plain, almost impoverished. Its length is partly the product of repetition and redundancy: for instance, there are very many scenes in which a solitary individual prepares a meal, whose ingredients Murakami always lists with painstaking completeness. Outfits are described as if they came out of a catalogue—color, cut, name brand. But the book’s size is also owed to Murakami’s spacious sense of scale and pacing, which are reminiscent of the 19th-century serial novel. Over the course of more than 1,100 pages, plot points are frequently recapitulated. There are long scenes in which characters explain to one another exactly what is going on, a useful technique in a book replete with supernatural mysteries.
As for characterization, Murakami’s people often have the sleek one-dimensionality of movie characters. This is especially true of Aomame, who joins Tengo as the novel’s main focus—the two of them are subjects of alternating chapters for most of the book. Aomame seems to have stepped out of the pages of a comic book, or the frames of a spy movie. She is a sexy assassin, much given to lesbian fantasies and contemplating her own breasts, whose mission in life is to kill men who are guilty of abusing their wives. As the novel opens, we see her en route to her latest assignment, where she commits righteous murder using her trademark weapon—a long needle that she inserts into the brain of her victim, killing him instantly and painlessly. She is sent out on missions by an elderly woman known as“the dowager,” a mastermind who uses her vast wealth to track down abusers. This phase of the novel has the exciting implausibility of genre fiction, and Aomame is at least a cousin to Lisbeth Salander, the avenging angel of Stieg Larsson’s popular books.
At the core of 1Q84, however, there is a kernel of strangeness that elevates the surrounding machinery, which is often workmanlike at best. This has to do, again, with Air Chrysalis, which plays a major role in the plot for hundreds of pages before we actually get a summary of its contents. The book Fuka-Eri has written turns out to be a straightforward, ostensibly factual account of an alternative reality, in which human beings share the earth with a race of supernatural creatures known as the Little People. These Little People have the power to weave a kind of cocoon out of the air—thus the title Air Chrysalis—which they use to create copies of human beings for their own inscrutable, probably nefarious purposes. Murakami deliberately leaves much about the Little People—their origin, their powers, their purposes—vague and uncertain. This not only increases their ominous power, but keeps 1Q84 from entering the territory of science fiction, with its industriously worked-out imaginative laws. Murakami is more interested in atmosphere and evocation than in creating a mythology.
The insignia of the alternate reality, as described by Fuka-Eri, is that its night sky contains two moons. At first this seems like a mere fictional invention; but soon enough, first Aomame and then Tengo discover that they can see two moons themselves. At some point, the novel’s present, set in the year 1984, has branched off into the other world Aomame dubs, in an untranslatable Japanese pun, 1Q84. Broadly speaking, the suspense of the novel comes from the question of whether Aomame and Tengo will be able to find one another and escape 1Q84. Along the way, they must battle supernatural forces and a Little People-worshiping cult. They are aided in their quest by the unconquerable power of love, which Murakami invokes in an epigraph from the Tin Pan Alley song “Paper Moon”: “It’s a Barnum and Bailey world / just as phony as it can be. / But it wouldn’t be make-believe / if you believed in me.”
This epigraph is the first cue that the cultural frame of reference Murakami employs in 1Q84 will be largely American and Western. In the novel’s first scene, Aomame is wrenched out of the real world into 1Q84 as she sits in a taxicab listening to Janacek’s Sinfonietta; this piece of Czech classical music becomes a kind of theme song, recurring in various connections throughout the book. (The popularity of 1Q84 actually created a vogue for the piece in Japan.) Later, characters read and discuss Chekhov and Proust and of course George Orwell, whose 1984 is one of Murakami’s prime inspirations; they listen to Nat King Cole and Vivaldi. Culturally, Murakami suggests—and not polemically, but simply by matter-of-fact description—Japan is part of the West, speaking the lingua franca of Western culture. Significantly, the only character who lays claim to any kind of traditional Japanese culture is Fuka-Eri, who is able to recite long passages from the medieval epic poem The Tale of the Heike. This is presented as a freakish, almost idiot savant–like ability, and a sign of Fuka-Eri’s profound divorce from the actual, modern world.
When it comes to modern life, Murakami offers a diagnosis that emphasizes its isolation and emotional poverty. Both Tengo and Aomame are profoundly solitary people, without family ties or real friendships. They work at jobs because they have to, and they largely enjoy their work—he is a math teacher, she is a physical therapist—but this work has little to do with their inner lives or real personalities. They live alone in small apartments, cook for themselves, and only rarely venture out to bars or restaurants. Indeed, Aomame and Fuka-Eri, as well as a fourth important character, the private detective Ushikawa, spend long stretches of the novel in hiding—a condition that seems almost like a natural extension of their ordinary lives.
1Q84, then, is a long but deliberately underpopulated novel. It operates on two levels, that of the isolated individual and that of the cosmos; Tengo and Aomame are on their own beneath the two moons. Almost totally missing from the book—indeed, almost unimaginable on its terms—is anything like politics, history, or society. The Tokyo of 1Q84 is a city out of history, or after it, as Aomame reflects late in the novel: “She only watched TV twice a day—the NHK news broadcasts at noon and at seven p.m. As always, nothing big was going on—no, actually, lots of big events were happening in the world. People all around the world had lost their lives, many of them in tragic ways—train wrecks, ferry boats sinking, plane crashes. A civil war went on with no end in sight, an assassination, a terrible ethnic massacre. . . . Aomame deeply sympathized with the people caught up in these tragedies and disasters, but even so, not a single thing had occurred that had a direct bearing on her.”
“Almost totally missing from the book—indeed, almost unimaginable on its terms—is anything like politics, history, or society.”
The detachment of Murakami’s characters is not necessarily intended as social commentary. There are biographical reasons why Aomame and Tengo are as lonely as they are, and it serves Murakami’s purpose to emphasize their loneliness in order to make their final reunion sweeter and more intense. But it is unmistakable that this stripping down of the texture of social life—like the accessibility of his prose style—is one of the things that makes 1Q84 so translatable, and so amenable to being read as a global novel. Murakami does not deny place—the book is full of details about Tokyo neighborhoods, highways, train stations—but he does implicitly deny the significance of place. The characters of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow couldn’t exist anywhere but Turkey, so deeply are they in the grip of its history and mystique; but the urban isolates of 1Q84 could almost as easily be living in New York or London. Culture, technology, and psychology combine, for Murakami, to create a modern lifestyle that is contentedly rootless. The worldwide success of his books suggests that this insight captures something real about the way we live and read now.
In 2004, five years before 1Q84 was published in Japan, the similarly named 2666 appeared in Spanish. 2666, too, was a novel in parts—its author, Roberto Bolaño, originally envisioned the book’s five sections being released as separate volumes. But Bolaño died in 2003, at the age of 50, and his heirs decided to publish the work as a single long book. Like 1Q84, 2666 seems to bear the name of a year—in this case, a year in the distant future, rather than the recent past. But it is characteristic of the difference between the books that, while Murakami explains just what 1Q84 designates, the date 2666 does not appear at all in Bolaño’s novel. Like so much in the book, it remains a mystery, speaking of a buried logic or a hidden perspective that might unite its wildly proliferating stories.
If 2666 is a year, it sounds like an ominous one, containing as it does the traditional number of the Beast from the Book of Revelations. And the dominant mood of Bolaño’s magnum opus is certainly apocalyptic. Like Murakami, Bolaño operates on the level of the cosmic, suggesting—through metaphor and imagery, as much as through plot and character—that the world he writes about is fundamentally disturbed, a place of evil past, present, and to come. From the Holocaust in the 1940s to the epidemic of murders of women in 1990s Mexico, Bolaño is drawn to times and places where that evil comes undeniably to the surface, turning the real world itself into a surreally menacing alternative reality. It is in this spirit that, late in the book, a character looks at the night sky and sees it as an insignia of the terrifying inescapability of history: “When these stars cast their light, we didn’t exist, life on Earth didn’t exist, even Earth didn’t exist. This light was cast a long time ago. It’s the past, we’re surrounded by the past, everything that no longer exists or exists only in memory or guesswork is there now, above us, shining on the mountains and the snow and we can’t do anything to stop it.”
By insisting that we ourselves inhabit the worst reality— rather than quarantining evil into a parallel dimension, as Murakami does with his haunted 1Q84—Bolaño produces a book that is never simply entertaining, and often actively burdensome to read. This thorny ambition is consistent with his open contempt for the notion that a writer’s calling is anything but the creation of masterpieces: “By now I knew that it was pointless to write, or that it was worth it only if one was prepared to write a masterpiece. Most writers are deluded or playing.” Such a point of view on writing directly contradicts Murakami’s sense, as captured in the character of Fuka-Eri, that a writer combines an imaginative seer with a practical craftsman. Every moment of a novel, Bolaño suggests by precept as well as his own practice, must work the fantastic into the very texture of the prose, if it is to do justice to the ominous strangeness of our world.
The terms of engagement with the world mark another significant difference between these two writers, each of whom has attracted an international readership. Murakami insisted on Aomame’s sense that the news she sees on television has nothing to do with her own life. Indeed, the fantastical nature of her adventures can be seen as the replacement for the absence of history from her life. This sense of detachment from history is a faithful reflection of the experience of most people in powerful and prosperous First World countries, particularly Japan, with its postwar history of international neutrality. Bolaño, on the other hand, lived on both sides of the divide between history and post-history. The first half of his life, from 1953 to 1977, he spent in Latin America: first Chile, where he was born, then Mexico, where he began his literary career. In this time and place, Bolaño the writer was inevitably thrust into political commitments—indeed, he claimed to have been imprisoned in Chile in 1973, following the right-wing coup by Augusto Pinochet. In 1977, however, he moved to Europe, and spent most of the rest of his life in Spain, effectively in exile from the literary and political conditions of Latin America.
2666 sharply reflects Bolaño’s sense that the world is divided into zones of immunity and vulnerability. If, to interpret his title, we are all on the path to the cataclysm of the year 2666, then different parts of the world are progressing toward disaster at different rates. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when most of the novel is set, Europe is a zone of peace, culture, and self-absorption. Its representatives are the four professors who dominate the novel’s first part, “The Part About the Critics.” Each of these characters comes from a different Western European country—they are English, Spanish, French, and Italian—and each is an expert in the work of a reclusive (and invented) German writer, Benno von Archimboldi. They live in an E.U. where national borders have ceased to be menacing—they are constantly flying from city to city to visit one another or attend scholarly conferences—and those borders now provide only the slight piquancy of manageable difference. Similarly, the love quadrangle that emerges, as the three men in various ways pursue the only woman, belongs to the pacific genre of comedy.
Being European, Bolaño suggests, means occupying oneself with study and with love—a kind of end of history of the spirit. If these writers are critics and not creators—if they are doomed to a parasitic relationship with literature—this may be a small price to pay for emancipation from the terrible history that sponsors creation. Still, the novel does not forget that this postwar European paradise is of recent date, and that it may only conceal the permanent human drives toward violence. This becomes clear in one of the first part’s most significant episodes, when two of the critics—the Spanish Espinoza and the French Pelletier—are in a taxi in London with the Englishwoman they both love, Liz Norton. As they discuss their love triangle, in which the two men tacitly agree to share the woman between them, their Pakistani taxi driver overhears and erupts in disgust:“In his country they had a word for what she was, the same word they had for it in London as it happened, and the word was bitch or slut or pig.” As soon as their hypercivilization is challenged, Espinoza and Pelletier erupt in violence, beating the taxi driver nearly to death. It is a telling scene, in which Bolaño reveals the way European tolerance, in matters of sex and gender, turns into, or is identical with, aggressive intolerance of those foreigners and immigrants who do not share it.
In time, however, the critics are drawn out of Europe and into the place Bolaño proposes as the sick heart of contemporary reality: the fictional city of Santa Teresa, closely based on Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexican-American border. Santa Teresa, which will come to dominate the remainder of the book, is a creation of the globalized economy, with all its moral contradictions. Superficially, it is a thriving place, where poor people from all over Mexico come to find work in the maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories which produce goods for export. Yet this economy creates a poor and transient population which proves to be highly vulnerable—to government corruption, drug gangs, and above all to the terrifyingly random and seemingly unmotivated murder of women.
“Global fiction, in this case, is a tool for undoing the complacency of global citizenship—a way of forcing the reader to attend to the realities of the world’s violence and injustice.”
Bolaño allows us to see Santa Teresa from several foreign points of view, before plunging the reader directly into the heart of its violence. The critics, who arrive there in pursuit of their reclusive idol Archimboldi, seldom leave their hotel and remain in the detached role of tourists. In the next section, “The Part about Amalfitano,” Bolaño focuses on another immigrant, a Spanish university professor who has come to teach in Santa Teresa, and who is being slowly driven mad by the place. The third section, “The Part about Fate,” introduces us to an American reporter, Oscar Fate, who comes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match but is drawn against his will into a fascination with the killings—and with Amalfitano’s daughter, Rosa, who is just the kind of young woman who is most vulnerable.
Finally, in part four, “The Part about the Crimes,” Bolaño brings the murders to the center of the narrative. He does this in blunt and unremitting fashion: For hundreds of pages, the narrative consists of short summaries of murder cases, as in a police blotter. Bolaño reports how a body was found, its condition of decomposition and injury, how it was identified (or remained anonymous), and how the police, after a brief and half-hearted inquiry, almost always failed to solve the crime. This section of the book is difficult to read, in a double sense: Its monotony repels attention, and its subject—the rape, torture, and murder of women and girls—repels imagination. In this way, Bolaño enacts, and even makes the reader complicit in, the psychological mechanism that allows Santa Teresa to go on ignoring the murders, even as they grow into a terrifying epidemic. The fact that these killings are based on the real-life violence in Ciudad Juarez—where, between 1993 and 2005, an estimated 370 women were murdered—adds a terrible irony to Bolaño’s project. For most of us, these real-world murders are exactly what history was to Aomame—a news item, briefly registered and then ignored. It is only by means of fiction that we are compelled to recognize their reality. Global fiction, in this case, is a tool for undoing the complacency of global citizenship—a way of forcing the reader to attend to the realities of the world’s violence and injustice.
Much of the force of the“The Part about the Crimes” comes from the way it eschews the style—intensely poetic, surreal, and digressive—that dominates 2666 and gives the book its mysterious mood. The murders in Santa Teresa are the indigestible core of reality, which can only be reported or recited. Yet around that core, Bolaño weaves a richly unsettling universe of images and stories—as if every aspect of the imagination is commanded by, or serves to reflect, the corruption at the center. The key narrative technique of 2666 is digression: The ostensible plot of each section is constantly being interrupted by anecdotes, stories told by minor characters, things read in books, and especially accounts of dreams. Dreams, suggests one character—a man in prison in Santa Teresa who is a murder suspect—are not isolated but shared, and they reflect a deeper reality: “It’s like a noise you hear in a dream. The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious. Suddenly someone dreams it and after a while half the prisoners dream. But the noise you hear isn’t part of the dream, it’s real. The noise belongs to a separate order of things.” In a similar way, all the proliferating narratives in 2666 are trying to communicate a message from the heart of reality—a message that has to do with violence and death.
The transitions between these miniature stories, these tiles in the book’s mosaic, are abrupt and unaccountable, giving the sense that the book is proliferating almost beyond its author’s control. These are stories that seem to press forward, wanting to tell themselves. Fittingly, then, nearly all the major characters in the book turn out to be writers of one kind or another—that is, professional tellers of stories. From the literary critics to the reporter Oscar Fate to the novelist Archimboldi—whose biography and connection with Santa Teresa are finally revealed in the fifth section, “The Part about Archimboldi”—Bolaño creates a series of opportunities to reflect on different kinds of writing.
Naturally, it is Archimboldi the novelist who is first in rank among these writers, and who seems to come closest to the mystery that defines the cosmos of 2666. Archimboldi, we learn, is the pen name of Hans Reiter, a German World War II veteran whose horrific experiences turned him into a vagrant and misanthrope. Having lived through Europe’s own “crimes,” Bolaño implies, is what allows Archimboldi to become a great imaginative writer—as opposed to the other writers in the book, who are mere craftsmen or critics. Perhaps different parts of the globe take turns as the point in closest contact with reality, as the winds of violence and chaos sweep over them. The key to literary creation, Bolaño’s life and novel suggest, might be to remain in contact with that overwhelming reality, while retreating in space and in thought to the distance necessary for imaginative creation. If this feat involves a pressure of contradiction that leads to deformity, even madness, then the book of our times must be mad—as 2666, with its bizarre beauty and force, insists on being.
From The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century. Used with permission of Columbia Global Reports. Copyright 2017 by Adam Kirsch.