Sunday, August 24, 2014

Murakami's Book Of Sand

This review appeared in the latest issue of India Today.

Haruki Murakami’s new novel is quite unlike the baggy mess that was his earlier 1Q84. Here, there are no Little People, towns of cats and skies with two moons. It does bear the usual Murakami trademarks – alienated characters roaming Tokyo, references to jazz and classical music, the leaking of the past into the present and a collapsed distance between fantasy and reality – but it is closer to his “quieter” works such as Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart. Yet, there’s an odd insubstantiality to the novel which makes it less than satisfying, an unintentional colourlessness that seems to have leaked into the text from the character of the protagonist.

The eponymous Tsukuru Tazaki, when the novel opens, has fallen “like Jonah in the belly of the whale…into the bowels of death, one untold day after another, lost in a dark, stagnant void.” This suicidal mood arises because he has suddenly and inexplicably been excluded from a charmed circle of four high school friends, all of whom have names related to colours: Miss White, Miss Black, Mr Red and Mr Blue. Tsukuru alone is a colourless and lacklustre Mr Average, but there’s also “something about him that wasn’t exactly normal, something that set him apart”.

Tsukuru changes a great deal after his friends summarily announce that “they did not want to see him, or talk to him, ever again”, thus banishing him from a fraternal Eden that once was an “orderly and harmonious community”. Now in his mid-thirties, a solitary creature of habit, almost an automaton, he lives in Tokyo working for a company that constructs railway stations (Tsukuru, you see, means “to make” or “to build”). Into his life comes a girlfriend who, wanting a more meaningful relationship, urges him to finally investigate the cause of his rejection, something he has turned his back on all these years. “You need to come face to face with the past,” she tells him, “not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up, independent professional.” And so the man who builds stations that enable people to converge and connect embarks on a journey to meet his former friends and find the reason behind his own uncoupling.

There is much exposition, especially in the early sections, to do with the characters of the friends, their togetherness and their meetings, and this has the effect of robbing the narrative of a certain granularity. Then again, this being Murakami, the narrative is intertwined with tales and occurrences that can best be described as otherworldly, especially when it comes to another solitary character whom Tsukuru befriends in Tokyo. Death tokens, auras, six-fingered individuals and intense sexual dreams put in appearances, among other things, and characters openly engage in ruminations on philosophy, free will, the nature of evil, the unfolding of talent and the qualities of solitude. We’re thus encouraged to look upon reality as we know it in a new light. In the words of one of the characters: “One thing I can say, though, is that once you see that true sight with your own eyes, the world you've lived in till now will look flat and insipid. There's no logic or illogic in that scene. No good or evil. Everything is merged into one.”

Tsukuru comes across his friends again without too much trouble; they’re in infrequent contact with one another now, and his pilgrim’s progress even takes him to Finland to meet one of them who has settled there. The reason that they turned against him all those years ago comes as a surprise to him, containing as it does shades of the Marabar Caves episode in Forster’s A Passage to India. This provides Murakami with more opportunities to cogitate on the space between emotional and rational reality, with Tsukuru wondering whether he has just one self belonging to just one world, and whether the actions of one impinge upon the other. In his valiant attempt to bridge these divergences, he learns, among other lessons, that “there is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.” Deep.

At times, Murakami delineates with grace and tenderness moments of connection between individuals, as well as the opposite, agonising periods of sorrow and solitude. As with his earlier work, the effect of music on characters is movingly shown, in this case notably Liszt’s Le mal du pays, part of a suite titled Years of Pilgrimage. “Our lives are like a complex musical score,” Tsukuru thinks. "Filled with all sorts of cryptic writing, sixteenth and thirty-second notes and other strange signs. It's next to impossible to correctly interpret these, and even if you could, and then could transpose them into the correct sounds, there's no guarantee that people would correctly understand, or appreciate, the meaning therein.”

The conclusion is characteristically open-ended, and though this fits in with the unresolved aspects of reality that Murakami has explored in almost all of his work, in this case it comes across as more functional than whimsical, a consequence of a certain tossed-off quality. Towards the end of the novel, one of Tsukuru’s friends tells him that “the truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand. As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what's below is revealed.” That explains it: with Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, there’s too much sand and too little city.

Turning Books Into Art

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

'A Bit Of Paper Art' /

Earlier this month, a Mumbai gallery showcased a book collection featuring volumes designed not to be picked up and read, but to be viewed as works of art. Here, there were “book sculptures”, pages with gold leaf illustrations, books embedded with bullet casings, pages folded into shapes of waves, butterflies and more. Ironically, if inexactly, the show was entitled Reading Room.

Artists have been using books as material for a while; last year, hurrying through an overseas mall, I was brought up short by a large installation in the foyer featuring the work of Los Angeles-based Mike Stilkey, who paints surreal figures of horses, dogs, cats and people, among others, on the spines of discarded books stacked together. (The highest of these is 24 feet tall and made up of 3,000 volumes.) “Books don't hold the same amount of power that they used to, because of the Internet and whatnot,” says Stilkey, “and [people] throw them away at an alarming rate”.  With the rise of the e-book, it’s the physicality of the printed book that has become its defining characteristic.

This is also reflected in the increasing attention paid to book covers: look at the ingenious and impressive designs of Chip Kidd, for instance. The apotheosis of such efforts so far could well be graphic novelist Chris Ware’s acclaimed Building Stories, comprising 14 separate printed works -- broadsheets, magazines, pamphlets and more – enclosed in a box.

The case of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, however, shows that such attention to presentation can go too far. In addition to the striking cover, there’s also a sheet of stickers designed by Japanese illustrators pasted within, supposed to represent Murakami’s characters and their concerns. (My copy’s sticker sheet remains within; I haven’t bothered to remove or inspect it, before or after reading the novel.)

Interior designers and fashionistas have been quick to capitalise on the nature of the book-as-object. The website of one design firm affirms that there’s “nothing like a well styled bookcase filled with books, accessories, collectibles, and photos that add warmth, intrigue, and uniqueness to a space…They can make a bare wall go from blah-to-beautiful”.  Coffee table books have long been seen as elegant decor accessories, and one can only avert one’s eyes from bookshelves where volumes have been arranged according to the colour of their spines. More evidence of form over content comes in a recent New York Times article which mentions that NYC’s Strand bookstore is one of the places you can order books by color or spine size; further, on Etsy, the online crafts marketplace, retailers offer “instant libraries”, colour-co-ordinated books in “ocean hues” or “custard to cream colored.”

Elsewhere, there are people who choose books as fashion accessories; presumably, if you’re in a nostalgic mood you can venture outdoors with a copy of a Victorian bestseller -- after ensuring that the shade of the jacket matches your own jacket, of course. (Authors, too, aren’t immune: an online men’s clothing store recently held up Samuel Beckett as a style icon, pointing out that “Gauloises, Jameson and tweeds make the Nobel Prize winner a paragon of geezer cool”. One can’t go on, one goes on.)

Leaving such fashion-forward folk aside, artists are, of course, entitled to choose whatever objects they think best suit their purposes.  One can’t, however, help but feel a sense of unease at treating a printed book purely as raw material. Such volumes are manufactured objects, yes, but certainly not in the same category as, say, the urinal that Marcel Duchamp famously employed for his own artistic ends. Such is the minefield of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. You know things have gone too far when you hear of German artist Dieter Roth’s installation, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Work in 20 Volumes. Roth ground up the philosopher’s complete works and used the results to stuff sausages, creating what’s been called literawurst. Cheeky, but hard to swallow.