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Głos japońskiej postmoderny: Haruki Murakami
A postmodern detective novel in which dreams, hallucinations and a wild imagination are more important than actual clues.
As these two quotes - appearing on the back cover and front page of the paperback edition of A Wild Sheep Chase, the English translation of Haruki Murakami's novel Hitsuji o meguru boken (1982) - might suggest, the author, perhaps the most popular and widely read, if not the most highly respected, among the current crop of the more "serious" Japanese writers, is frequently identified as a "postmodernist" by both Japanese and Western critics alike. The attribution somehow rings true. Still, what the term postmodern signifies exactly, and in what sense (complimentary, derisive, neutral) it is being employed, is not always made clear.
Cutting across a multitude of disciplines, discourse as postmodernism, originated by such European thinkers as Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Guatari, has now been a staple on the Western academic landscape for about the past two decades. Popular usage of the term has not lagged far behind. A recent issue of Time (31 August 1992), for instance, reporting on the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow debacle, refers to the prescandal couple as having "produced the portrait of an ideal postmodern family. Unmarried, they lived apart yet loved together." Japanese scholar-critics, taking their cue from Western pronouncements on the subject, have been no less voluble in expatiating on the so-called postmodern condition. As effort in 1987 by a group of Western scholars to draw Japan into a larger orbit of postmodern discourse resulted finally in a volume of essays, edited by Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian, called Postmodernism and Japan. Representing expertise in a society of fields, the book includes, for example, an insightful piece by the anthropologist Marilyn Ivy, who sees Japanese culture in postmodern terms by virtue of the way knowledge is consumed, like a commodity, via its extensive high-tech information network. The essays as a whole raise a host of provocative issues, among them the role Japan has played in the East-West confrontation that has contributed to the delineation of the premodern-modern-postmodern dialectic.
The question of the literary, artistic, and cultural manifestations of postmodernism has also received considerable attention from many scholars. Among them is Ihab Hassan, whose wide-ranging inquiries into Western postmodernism (as seen, for instance, in his collection of essays entitled The Postmodern Turn,) include attempts, in somewhat abstract terms, to differentiate between "postmodern" and "modern" literary traits. Hassan, a frequent visitor to Japan, was moved on a recent visit to comment on the postmodern signs suffusing its hybrid East-West culture, specifically identifying, though without any elaboration, Haruki Murakami and Yasuo Tanaka as postmodernist writers.
There is little question that many contemporary Japanese artistic productions exhibit aspects of the numerous characteristics that Hassan identifies as postmodern: for example, "a diffuse self, fugitive forms, a culture open to syntagma and parataxis instead of hierarchic or generative models of organization." Indeed, Tanaka's Nantonaku kurisutaru (Somehow Crystal; 1980) is regarded unanimously by Japanese critics as the quintessential postmodern work. Most of the novel shows, in nonlogical fashion, its characters euphorically immersed in the mood, atmosphere, and feelings generated by the brand-name goods of a consumerist society. Their attempt to forge an identity from the acquisition of these brand-name items is complemented by a section of guidebooklike notes, equal in length to the main text, that provides the reader with such information as the special qualities of the products and where they might be purchased.
An interesting facet of the discussion on postmodernism is the articulation by a number of Japanese scholars, notably Kojin Karatani, of the presence already in premodern Japanese culture of those elements, such as hostility toward a logocentric system, the Western scholars have called postmodern - a phenomenon that has facilitated the acceptance of postmodernism in Japan, without the resistance to it seen in the modern West. This observation, at the same time, confirms the view that the concept of postmodernism should not be regarded in strictly chronological terms. The assertions of the Japanese scholars accord uncannily in some respects with Roland Barthes's singular "reading" of Japanese culture in L'empire des signes (1970; Eng. The Empire of Signs, 1982), focusing largely on the traditional aspects (chopsticks, sukiyaki, puppet theatre, Zen Buddhism, haiku) still remaining in the contemporary society, where he sees a propensity for decentering and the privileging of the signifier over the signified that tend to produce "silences" and to diffuse "meaning." In literary terms, these characteristics in turn beget such traits as fragmented structures, deemphasis on plot, delight in verbal and rhetorical playfulness, et cetera. Indeed, it might even be argued that the emergence of postmodernist literary modes in the West should help close the gap that Western readers have apparently sensed in approaching Japanese works with their episodic, nonlinear structures 0- say, those of Yasunari Kawabata - thus rendering them less "exotic."
How to situate Haruki Murakami in the scheme of postmodernist literary discourse is somewhat problematic. Whence does his postmodernist penchant derive? It is easy to surmise that, as a Japanese growing up in a post-industrial, late-capitalist society already permeated with so-called postmodern properties from the traditional culture, Murakami (whose parents were teachers of Japanese literature) imbibed osmotically the tendency toward postmodernist modes. Still, it would be remiss to ignore the possible Western sources. Japanese commentaries on Murakami never fail to point out his love affair with Western, especially American, literature and culture. Born in Ashiya, near Kobe, in 1949, the author majored in drama within the Literature Department of Waseda University, where he wrote a thesis entitled "The Ideology of Journeys in American Films" to graduate in 1973. From 1974 to 1982 he managed a jazz bar in Tokyo, during which time he began his writing career, including translation work from American literature. His choices for translation have veered toward authors recognized as somewhat "popular" and/or for their postmodernist leanings: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carer, John Irving, Paul Theroux, Tim O'Brien, and Truman Capote. His won work has also been compared with that of Jay McInerney, that chronicle of American yuppie life.
A Wild Sheep Chase, the third of Murakami's novels, displays an abundance of those postmodernist qualities noted above. To begin with, the notion of dispersal and decentering can be sense d in the novel's supreme indifference to the categories of writing in which Japanese works have been habitually and rapidly placed, as though the author were intent on collapsing hitherto sacrosanct boundaries. Is it, for instance, a tsuzoku-shosetsu (popular novel) or jusbanguku (pure literature)?
The story concerns the first-person narrator, "I" (Boku in Japanese and so identified in the discursion that follows), the "hero" of the narrative, who is coerced by the secretary of a well-known and powerful (but silent) right-wing figure into abandoning his part-ownership in a small advertising agency in Tokyo to go in search of a sheep with a star-shaped birthmark on its back. The sheep appears in the midst of an idyllic landscape photograph o clouds, mountains, grassy pasture, and sheep that Boku had used in advertising copy for an insurance company. The picture had been taken by an old friend of Boku nicknamed "Rat," who had suddenly disappeared several years earlier and was now apparently roaming aimlessly in Hokkaido. Thus caught in the meshes of an invisible "system," the recently divorced Boku begins a wild sheep chase to Hokkaido, his newly acquired girlfriend, an ear model, in tow. In the pursuit he encounters a motley crew of quirky, oddball characters and learns about the incredible tale of the spirit/ soul of the sheep with the star-shaped birthmark entering the bodies of first the Sheep Professor, then the right-wing leader and now his lost friend Rat.
The elements of fantasy, mystery, adventure, and detective story, all presented with suspense and humour in a smooth, sophisticated style, nudge the novel in the direction of the "popular." There is enough of the "pure" and "serious" about the work, however, to have held critics back from dismissing it merely as popular stuff - enough, it might be said, of the adversarial role against established norms of all sorts that the distinguished writer Kenzaburo Oe sees as the defining feature of "pure literature." In other words, it seems to register a concern, albeit in a playfully oblique manner, over the human condition in the contemporary world.
Postmodernist too is A Wild Sheep Chase's fragmented, discontinuous structure. It is paratactic, agglutinative, and cavalierly unfaithful to the rules of cause and effect that might be expected in a narrative that carries a detective- or mystery-story line. For instance, part 1, chapter 1 (titled "Prelude: Wednesday Afternoon Picnic" in the translation, "25 November 1970" in the original) bears no organic relationship to the story of the sheep chase, which is loosely launched in chapter 2 that begins part 2 ("July, Eight Years Later" in the translation, "July 1978" in the original). This beginning episode recalls Boku's relationship with a woman who has just died and whose funeral he attends - a relationship that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s during his university days, when she was still a free-spirited, teenage flower child. At most, what the chapter contributes is a sense of Boku's nature and tastes. He records: "Those were the days of the Doors, the Stones, the Byrds, Deep Purple, and the Moody Blues. The air was live, even as everything seemed poised on the verge of collapse, waiting for a push" (4). The chapter closes with Boku's indifferent response to the news of Yukio Mishima's suicide on 25 November 1970, an event widely seen by critics as a marker for the end of the politically tumultuous 1960s and the beginning of the politically apathetic, economically prosperous 1970s.
Boku may well be viewed as an exemplar of the diffusion of the ego, the dispersal of the self, the death of the subject, that are an integral part of postmodern discourse. Fredric Jameson, who enunciates such features as the "technological sublime" and "high tech paranoia" as symptoms of the postmodernist mode, puts it in the following way:
Such terms [the alienation and fragmentation of the self] inevitably recall one of the more fashionable themes in contemporary theory - that of the "death" of the subject itself - the end of the autonomous bourgeois monad or ego or individual - and the accompanying stress, whether as some new moral ideal or as empirical description, on the decentring of that formerly centred subject of psyche. (Of the two possible formulations of this notion - the historicist one, that a once-existing centred subject, in the period of classical capitalism and the nuclear family, has today in the world of organizational bureaucracy dissolved; and the more radical poststructuralist position for which such a subject never existed in the first place but constituted something like an ideological mirage - I obviously incline towards the former; the latter must in any case take into account something like a "reality of the appearance".)
Does boku of A Wild Sheep Chase possess shutaisei? In a recorded conversation (taiwa) among three contemporary Japanese critics concerning Murakami where the question is repeatedly raised of whether or not the author and by extension his characters are empowered with shutaisei, the answer is ambiguous and inconclusive. Boku, thirty years old, is in many respects an average middle-class citizen who, free from excessive financial worries, enjoys the kind of independence his status bestows. A product of 1960s, he takes endless pleasure in smoking, drinking, and eating, in bars, coffehouses, and restaurants. He dresses with casual chic and frequents the movies regularly. His tastes in music and reading materials, though predominantly popular, are disarmingly eclectic - from the Beatles to Mozart, from Sherlock Holmes to Nietzshe - in the postmodern way of leveling elite/popular boundaries. Boku is far from gregarious, yet by no means a true loner; he is by all counts a likable, easgoing fellow, devoid of malice and an overbearing aggressiveness. Indeed, endowed with a sense of humour and self-irony, he is engaging in his displays of sensitivity and tenderness, possesses a wry and ready wit, and evinces a bemused air.
Significantly, however, Boku is a member of the advertising world, that symbol of media-dominated and consumer-orientated contemporary Japanese culture, which is revealed to be under the thumb of the right-wing leader by virtue of his financial holdings; it is this man who indirectly draws Boku into the maelstrom of the sheep chase and robs him of his independence. No wonder, then, that there is no core, only vacuity, to Boku's being. He is literally without a post (or a future, for that matter). Victims of erasure, neither his family nor his divorced wife, for instance, impinges much on his consciousness. Paradoxically, he is often filled with a sense of loss, though the content of that loss is not clearly spelled out. There are, at most, references to the style and climate of the 1960s (as noted earlier), a post that Boku tends to estheticize into an indulgent, wistful nostalgia.
The thinness of Boku's shutaisei is exposed by the absence of an interiority and in his relations with other people. If, as Jean-Paul Sartre claims, true identity is forged in the crucible of the dialectic between self and other, Boku fails the test. The "other" is a problematic force for the subjective "I" or self, because it too, unlike inanimate objects, is endowed with a consciousness and subjectivity that often clash wit those of the self. Consciously or unconsciously, Boku tries to escape the self-other confrontation by viewing others as objets, no doubt because his own subjective self is wanting in depth.
A case in point is his relationship with his former wife. The divorce effectively takes place early on in the novel, in chapter 2, when Boku returns to their apartment after attending his old girlfriend's funeral to find his wife read to move out for the final time. The conversation between the two skirts everything that might e thought of as essential for an understanding of their situation. At one point Boku remarks, "I' not explaining. I' just making conversation" (`6) - suming up the tenor of their relationship. Boku is dejected over and saddened by the failed marriage; but there is no reflection whatsoever on what might have gone wrong. and the matter is soon erased from his consciousness.
The relationship with his new girl friend is carried out on no firmer ground than that with his former wife. First attracted to her by her beautiful ears glimpsed in a photograph, Boku regards her, perhaps unknowingly, as an object (her ears), thus depriving her of a subjectivity. It is not that Boku is intentionally mean and insensitive, only that he is fundamentally more comfortable with exteriors and averting the deep probe. Indeed, he is fully adept at displaying affection of the surface variety - a candlelight dinner in the romantic setting of a posh French restaurant, for instance. The chitchat they engage in, often bordering on the ridiculous, produces a delightful humour; but in the end it signifies nothing more than the postmodernist "noisy silence." Most telling is his reaction to her sudden disappearance toward the end of the novel. They have finally reached the site in the mountains of Kokkaido where the picture of the grazing sheep had been taken. As Boku naps in the villa, formerly the property of the Sheep Professor and now owned by Rat's family, she mysteriously vanishes. (The reader is informed shortly thereafter that the Sheep Man, who turns out to be the ghost of the now-dead Rat, had urged her to leave.)
I could not accept the fact of her disappearance. I was barely awake, but even if I were totally lucid, this - and everything that was happening to me - was far beyond my realm of comprehension. There was almost nothing one could do except let things take their course (244)
Far from chasing after her, Boku proceeds to prepare his dinner - stew, bread, an apple, and wine - which he consumes while listening to a record of the Percy Faith Orchestra playing "Perfidia." The extent of his reflection runs as follows, laying bare his penchant for estheticizing and romanticizing even the very recent past: "I was feeling lonely without her, but the fact that I could feel lonely at all was consolation. Loneliness wasn't such a bad feeling. It was like the stillness of the pin oak after the little bird had flown off" (246).
Boku's attitude toward "others' is perhaps most basically reflected in his aversion to referring to them by their proper names(which are never revealed), as denying them their independent, subjective identities. (Since Boku ["I" himself is not assigned a name, the proclivity in turn mirrors that of the author, who in fact has littered his oeuvre with nameless characters.) Thus, Boku's wife is merely "the wife," his girlfriend "the girlfriend wit the beautiful ears." and , like the "secretary," the "business partner," and the "hotel clerk," who also inhabit the novel's world, they are reduced to their functional categories. Whatever names do appear are nicknames, such as Rat and Sheep Professor, perhaps suggesting these characters' less-than-human capacities.
The antipathy toward naming is no accident. The topic is taken up within the novel itself and given a comic turn. When Boku is forced to leave Tokyo in search of the special sheep, in a funny scene of reverse bullying, he insists that the right-wing leader's secretary care for his aged cat. Sent to pick up the feline, the secretary's chauffeur asks its name.
"Nice kitty-kitty," said the chauffeur, hand not outstretched. "What's his name?"
A symptom of Boku's exteriority is his almost fetishistic attention to trivia, to "things." It is as if a careful tracking of "things" furnishes him with a handle and a grip on a recalcitrant reality. He notes the exact number of steps from the elevator to the door of his apartment, the amount of coffee and cigarettes he consumes, or the time that a particular song was in vogue; he becomes obsessively curious about a whale's penis on display at an aquarium he visits. Even something so intimate as sex turns into a "thing." Concerning his own sexual affairs, about which he is surprisingly reticent, at one point he records perfunctorily, "We returned to the hotel and had intercourse. I like that word intercourse. It poses only a limited range of possibilities" (172) Sex, it would seem, offers him not much more than the sensual gratification he derives from the consumption of "things," like gourmet foods.
Boku's perception of and response to people and things leans heavily on the side of the immediate, the physical, the sensual, mixed with not a little affectation. Riding in the limousine driven by the chauffeur, he comments, "Compared to my fifteen-year-old Volkswagen Bettle I'd bought off a friend, [it] was as quiet assisting at the bottom of a lake wearing earplugs" (65). He reacts to his girl friend's ears in the following way:
She'd show me her ears on occasion; mostly on sexual occasions. Sex wit her with her ears exposed was an experience I'd never known. When it was raining, the smell of the rain came through crystal clear. When birds were singing, their song was a thing of sheer clarity. I'm, at a loss for words, but that's what it was like. (39)
Anything requiring sustained thought, spiritual input, or a committed stance bores him, perhaps even frightens him. What he finds hard to handle or bothersome, he dismisses with slick, flippant aphorisms, something he remarks Russians are prey to: "Russians have a way with aphorisms. They probably spend all winter thinking them up" (96). Here he is on the matter of sex:
To sleep with a woman: it can seem of the utmost importance in your mind, or then again it can seem like nothing much at all. Which only goes to say that there's sex as therapy (self-therapy, that is) and there's sex as pastime.
There's sex for self-improvement start to finish and there's sex for killing time straight through; sex that is therapeutic at first only to end up as thing-better-to-do, and vice versa. Our human sex life - how shall I put it?? - differs fundamentally from the sex life of the whale.
It bears reiteration that Boku is by no means a despicable man, out to perpetrate evil. Neither is he coldly indifferent toward those around him - his former wife, his girlfriend, or J the bar owner. He seems genuinely fond of his friend Rat in particular, carrying out with good cheer and curious favors the latter requests. In fact, Rat appears in many ways to be the alter ego of Boku himself - Rat's letters to Boku have the same mannerisms and tone as Boku's speech. Ultimately, however, Boku avoids engagement and commitment, those qualities Sartre deemed to essential in human relations. Short in attention span, he is constitutionally incapable of giving fully of himself to anything. All is surface.
Some Japanese critics have expressed dissatisfaction with Murakami, complaining that his works lack a deep-seated sociopolitico-historical awareness, as if such an awareness were a sine qua non for a fully developed shutaisei. There is no denying that Boku, who apparently dodged the turbulent student riots of the 1960s, is mostly uninterested in such matters. However, to assert that Murakami is oblivious to sociopolitcal concerns seems extreme. There is enough in A Wild Sheep Chase to prove otherwise. What troubles the critics, perhaps, is the teasing, playful, oblique, and incomplete manner - a postmodernist manner -with which they are treated, never allowing them to become central to the narrative. There is, for instance, the matter of the socio-politico-historical implications of the sheep. A third of the way into the novel, the right-wing leader's secretary furnishes a ponderous summary of the history of sheep in Japan, an animal alien to Japanese soil. The importation of sheep from America began in earnest in the Meiji period (1868-1912), paralleling the country's modernization process. Why, it is logical to ask, is the spirit of the sheep with the starshaped birthmark made to lodge in the brain of a right-wing nationalist who comes to control politics and the advertising the information industries? And why is it made to find, just before the leader's death, anew host in Rat, who commits suicide in order to kiss the sheep? What does the sheep "mean"?
Not a few Japanese critics have taken up the task of sorting out the puzzle of the sheep. To mention but two examples: Kazuo Kuroki, briefly put, interprets the sheep chase as a sentimental journey on Boku's part in search of his lost youth; Mitsuo Sekii sees the sheep as a symbol of Christian, Western society, which Japan tried to emulate in its course of modernization, and its death at the end signifies the demise of modernity. None of the analyses, however, accounts convincingly for, for example, the connection between the sheep and the right-wing leader. Murakami himself has admitted that the sheep as a "key word" was used primarily in the spirit of a game without any deep significance. There is the temptation to take Murakami at his word, for the "clues" lead nowhere, leaving unanswered what at first looked like a serious historical query about Japanese-Western relations. In the end the novel appears to argue for the postmodern position of decentering and dispersal. The ghost of Rat explains to Boku his reason for murdering the sheep The sheep he says, was lusting after " realm of total conceptual anarchy. A scheme in which all opposites would be resolved into unity. With me and the sheep at the centre" (284).
That A Wild Sheep Chase found an immense readership in Japan is no surprise. It deftly combines equal measures of hard-boiled realism and beguiling lyricism, of humour and seriousness. It is easy to conjecture that countless readers se mirrored in Boku's breezy, go-with-the-flow attitude their won approach to living in a glossy world dominated by high technology and consumerism. Much more difficult to assess is Murakami's disposition toward Boku and his noncommittal moral posture, or toward the kind of cultural condition that produced him. To be noted, however, is a more openly critical stance discernible in, for example, Murakami's recent collection of sort stories called TV piipuru (TV People; 1990).
Artykuł ten pochodzi z World Literature Today (1993: Wiosna), 295-300.