In one book, a woman, trapped at night atop a Ferris wheel sees herself have sex with a man in her apartment. In another book, a man repeatedly has a startling lucid dream in which he searches around a hotel for a mysterious woman who may be his recently missing wife. He can’t tell if the dream is real or not. In yet a third book, a man in an office tower enters a closet which leads to a subterranean cave where he is warned to avoid beings that steal your thoughts called INKlings.
Many of the plot points in a Haruki Murakami novel exist on the border between believable and unbelievable, real and unreal. They feel like modern-day fairy tales. Clearly designed to be metaphors, they are nonetheless presented as completely real and often leave physical traces on a character. For instance, the woman in the Ferris wheel is forever mentally scarred by seeing her double, and her hair turns white that night.
Whether or not a reader—or a character—believes that these surreal plot points actually occurred or are just figments of an overactive imagination, the fact remains that they are evocative of the inner mind of a character. They may not be a factually correct version of what is happening in a character’s mind, but they are accurate. So much so, that in a Murakami novel people construct these fictions and live by them. “On the whole, I think of myself as one of those people who take a convenience-sake view of prevailing world conditions,” says the narrator of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. “More often than not I’ve observed that convenient approximations bring you closest to comprehending the true nature of things.” (4)
These convenient fictions are extensions of the stories that we tell ourselves every day. Something happens to us, and as we recount the memory we turn it into a narrative. We then tell our friends about it and the narrative mutates a bit. Eventually after we’ve discussed it enough, the narrative has taken on a final form, and we regard it as a the truth. For especially important events, things that switched the direction of our lives and made us into different people, we explain how they changed the way our mind works. “After that, I became less trustful,” we say or, “Because of him, I understood what love is.”
Does it matter if a narrative is factually correct so long as it works as an explanation? I believe Murakami would say yes. He’d say, it’s the difference between a sign and a symbol.
In Sputnik Sweetheart, Sumire asks her friend, the book’s narrator, “what could be the difference between a sign and a symbol?” Her friend replies that with a symbol “the arrow points in one direction. The emperor is a symbol of Japan, but Japan is not the symbol of the emperor. . . . Say, for instance you write ‘The emperor is a sign of Japan.’ that makes the two equivalent.’” (28-9) If a story is a literally factual depiction of events, then it is a sign, and the two are interchangeable. But if the arrow only points in one direction, then the story is a metaphor, a symbol.
Signs and symbols are essential to a Murakami novel. Sometimes Murakami gives us an explanation that’s meant to be a sign: a scientist explains that certain events have changed a character’s neural pathways, and that’s why she’s a new person. Sometimes Murakami gives us a symbol: the narrator of Hard-Boiled Wonderland says that his explanation is just something he made up for convenience’s sake. Occasionally, Murakami makes it very clear that something is to be a sign or a symbol, but far more often he leaves it vague. The essence of a Murakami novel is his exploitation of our uncertainty as to whether a story is a sign or a symbol.
The difference is essential. Often allegorical stories appeal more to our feelings because they ask us to project our own interpretations into them. Factual stories, on the other hand, are much more descriptive in nature. They are impermeable, good at providing information, but much less interpretable. By leaving us in doubt as to which is which, Murakami makes his books that much more interpretable. Not only do the allegorical elements invite our interpretation, but the very shape and structure of the plot itself.
Let’s take, for instance, the plot of Sputnik Sweetheart. The book involves a love triangle: our narrator is a twentysomething man in love with his best friend Sumire. Sumire, in turn is in love with an older woman, her mentor Miu. Miu is in love with nobody, having lost her capacity to love due to a traumatic event over a decade ago. The event is as follows: stranded atop a Ferris wheel, Miu saw her double having dirty sex with a man. Horrified, she blacked out and was found the next morning in the Ferris wheel. From that night on she felt half herself to be missing. Although she was only 28, her hair turned snow white and she stopped feeling physical attraction.
The narrator has long been in love with Sumire, but Sumire has never been in love with him. Instead, for months she’s been completely taken with Miu. However, as the novel progresses, it seems that perhaps Sumire is beginning to become more attracted to the narrator.
Just as things between the narrator and Sumire seem to be going somewhere, however, Sumire and Miu take a business trip together to Italy. After their business is complete, they head off to spend a few days in a cottage together on a small, beautiful Greek island. One night, Sumire, overcome with her attraction to Miu, creeps into bed with her and begins touching her all over. Despite wanting to, Miu can’t reciprocate her passion, and Sumire takes it as a rejection. She completely disappears. Miu calls the narrator, and together they search for her. Although the island is small, has a tight knit community, and is impossible to leave without being noticed by the ferryman, Sumire is never found. The narrator speculates that she disappeared to “the other side,” the place that Miu believes her other half remains.
Months later, the narrator receives a call from Sumire. She tells him that she’s somewhere nearby, but she doesn’t know where. She wants the narrator to come get her. “I really wanted to see you. . . . I really need you. You’re a part of me; I’m a part of you. You know, somewhereI’m not at all sure whereI think I cut something’s throat. Sharpening my knife, my heart a stone. Symbolically, like making a gate in China.” (209)
Readings abound. Possibly, everything is true—Sumire went to “the other side” where she found Miu’s other half and sliced its throat so that she could free herself from her attraction to Miu. Possibly, Sumire symbolically sliced Miu’s throat—she hid and contemplated events in solitude until she was ready to get on with her life. Possibly the phone call didn’t even happen—the narrator recounts it all in retrospect, and it’s clear that after that one call he never heard from Sumire again.
Murakami so thoroughly embeds these metaphorical stories into each characters’ thoughts and actions that it’s impossible to tell which are real and which are not. All we can do is create interpretations of the novel that partition some stories as symbols and some as signs. This teasing ambiguity gives Murakami’s metaphors great depth while making them resistant to any one interpretation. They are like holograms, changing shape when viewed from different directions and impossible to grab hold of. This is Murakami’s genius. Although his prose is only so-so and is often riddled with clichés, it is the ideal material for Murakami to construct his elaborate plots. They are structures that shimmer and twist as we look at them, awe inspiring constructions that are strangely engrossing. Almost magically, they take on the complexity and uncertainty of real life.
Or, to use Murakami’s words, blood has been shed. Early in Sputnik Sweetheart, the narrator and Sumire are discussing how to write a novel. Comparing it to an ancient Chinese ceremony, the narrator says:
People believed the city’s soul resided in the gates. . . . People would take carts out to old battlefields and gather the bleached bones that were buried there or that lay scattered about. . . . [T]hey’d construct a huge gate and seal the bones inside. . . . When the gate was finished they’d bring several dogs over to it, slit their throats, and sprinkle their blood on the gate. Only by mixing fresh blood with the dried-out bones would the ancient souls of the dead magically revive. . . .
Writing novels is much the same. You gather up bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn’t make it a living, breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side. (italics Murakami’s)
Murakami’s earlier novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World provides a key to help unravel this quote. That book involves an ancient city with a sealed gate and bleached bones that hold the memories of the city’s inhabitants. The city’s despotic ruler is the Gatekeeper, the only one allowed to possess memory. By depriving the city’s residents of their memories, he prevents them from being fully human. To paraphrase Murakami, they are only shells, like hollow, bronze statues.
Murakami is saying that the stories we tell ourselves—our memories—are the key to creating a living, breathing human. They are the bleached bones that are essential to our souls. Yet they are no good to us unless they link us with “the other side”: other human minds or our true selves, the invisible parts of our identities that normally remain hidden from us. Yet to create these stories, blood must be shed. There must be a sacrifice, pain, a loss.
This quote is also Murakami’s sly way of clueing us in on what he does as a novelist. When writing a novel, human characters that are free and human can only be created when their stories have that magical something that establishes empathy between the reader and the book. We the readers are “the other side” that a novel’s magical baptism links it to. There are many ways an author can establish this link, but Murakami does it with his metaphors. The shifting, shimmering qualities that make his metaphors so unique are also what give them that extra something that makes his characters come across as so real and makes his stories feel so personal. They suck our minds into Murakami’s novels, forcing us to project our thoughts and feelings into the characters.
By the end of Sputnik Sweetheart, the only thing that’s clear is that the narrator has changed. In the months leading up to Sumire’s final phone call, the narrator has an experience that confirms this. He breaks off an affair with a married woman because he realizes that it’s negatively affecting her, her son, and himself. He only sees this after empathizing with her son, something e could not have done if he hadn’t taken in Sumire’s and Miu’s stories.
Sputnik Sweetheart is a typical Murakami novel in that the narrator has matured in his understanding of sex and love, and this maturation has happened because he has created stories to explain events. Importantly, these stories have been informed and expanded by the stories—often surreal—of other characters he meets along the way. Taken as a whole, the stories are how the narrator understands himself (and with Murakami it’s always a him).
Toward the end of Sputnik Sweetheart, Murakami sums this up while describing a key:
I took the key and held it in my palm and could feel the weight of the countless people that had seeped into it. It struck me as terribly wretched, dirty, small-minded. Flustered for a moment, I ended up dropping the key into the river. (196)
Murakami’s narrators end up like this key, full of the weight of countless people yet, inevitably, wretched and alone. They have lost their ignorance, which at the beginning of a Murakami novel is indeed portrayed as bliss. Powerless to stop their slide from ignorance, the narrators are almost always the book’s least active character, a patsy to people and events. The novels end with them on the brink of establishing a relationship with a women who are no longer available, or with the tools to begin the long task of overcoming their personal misconceptions. They have gained the ability to understand signs and symbols, to use them to bridge the distances between consciousnesses (including their own), but they are mated with pain.
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