Book Review: Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

I’ve theorized that Japanese literature seems to be the best adjusted to modern life. A singular lack of angst distinguishes novels such as Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, in which I take vicarious delight as its protagonists go about their lives at such places as diners, noodle shops, convenience stores, bus stations, bookstores, museums, and other mundane oases. Of course, Murakami’s characters aren’t simply going about their lives but are engaged in quests that are of great consequence to themselves if not to the universe as a whole. Isn’t that what we’re all doing: adventuring through the turnpike rest areas and shopping malls, like Don Quixote without the satire, discovering meaning wherever it is to be found?

Japanese fiction doesn’t abstract itself from the humdrum environment that produces it. Rather than to imagine more exciting times and places via historical fiction, say, Japanese writers make do with where and when they are. Or as Mr. Hoshino says in this book:

“We’re all pretty much empty, don’t you think? You eat, take a dump, do your crummy job for your lousy pay, and get laid occasionally, if you’re lucky. What else is there? Still, you know, interesting things do happen in life – like with us now.” (p. 306)

As a matter of fact, Mr. Hoshino is addressing his remarks to a man with the ability to talk to cats and to make it rain leeches.

But this book, like all of Murakami’s books, isn’t really about the paranormal. It’s about those not supernatural but nonetheless magical things that give our modern lives meaning: music and books and libraries.

A deserted library in the morning – there’s something about it that really gets to me. All possible worlds and ideas are there, resting quietly. (p. 313)

A library, even in the middle of a boring place like Takamatsu or Tacoma (or Taipei, as in the photograph), gives us all the magic we need. The same could be said of this dream of a book.


Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.