By now, American readers are used to the idea that World War II is symbolic. Ever since the war ended, our novelists have used China, Italy, the Philippines, Dunkirk, Dresden, and many other battlegrounds to represent everything from the effect of racism on American society to the strength of the American family.
Contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami introduces us to an altogether more unexpected warfront in novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase. His war zone is the barely inhabited Mongolian desert where the war first began, and his wounds are the supernatural and psychic curses that soldiers bring back to their homeland. The novelist’s perspective gives us a new narrative of colonization and war, shaping the bare facts of World War II into a mysterious and nearly ungraspable sense of the effects it had on the soldiers who fought in it.
Few Americans are familiar with even the name of Manchukuo, Japan’s Mongolian colony. Only a scattering of academic studies discuss the colony, while English-language popular histories and historical fiction almost ignore it. Murakami’s novels, on a purely informational level, fill this gap. He gives a well-researched and fascinatingly detailed history of the Japanese settlements in Manchuria. After Japan defeated Russia in 1904 (the first time in modern history that an Asian nation had defeated an imperial European power), Japan, desperate for the room to expand and the raw materials that all imperial nations sought, expanded its own vision towards Korea and the Asian continent. It established a puppet regime in Manchuria, supported by Japanese troops and dotted with multi-ethnic, Japanese-controlled cities. In this tense area, filled with Chinese, Mongolians, Japanese, and Russians, the war for Japanese control began.
But in Murakami’s fiction, Manchukuo is a supernatural place as well as a physical landscape. The desert, and by extension, Japan’s urge to colonize its neighbors, is the origin of a “curse” that hangs over those who fought there and contemporary Japan. In A Wild Sheep Chase, the curse can be “caught,” like a physical disease. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a young soldier is metaphysically cursed with the words, “Wherever you may be, you can never be happy. You will never love anyone or be loved by anyone.” In both novels, the curse, passed from the soldier to contemporary life in the center of Japan, must be defeated by a sympathetic but otherwise ordinary Tokyo yuppie.
Curse is a strong word, especially when it is found in war fiction, and it is easy to read it in a way that Murakami does not intend. We are used to war novels that provide a moral basis for destruction, and to an extent, Murakami offers us versions of the familiar World War II war stories: civilians are killed, POWs languish in sadistically run enemy camps, politicians advance their careers through violence. But Murakami also includes less-expected, and therefore more gripping, violence. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a man is skinned alive by Mongol bandits who then finish up the event by retiring to the side to compare skinning techniques. (The visceral impact of this scene is greatly enhanced by the extreme detail Murakami depicts the skinning in.) However much the bandit’s actions add to the heightening sense of supernatural horror, through, they do not influence the curse. For Murakami, the curse is not a punishment or atonement for bloody atrocities. It is simply the blame-neutral result of stirring up the underlying order of the world. Murakami argues that war and colonization make people go where one should not be, both physically and supernaturally.
Murakami purposefully keeps explanations of the war curse confusing. It is there, physically and supernaturally manifested, but it is impossible to pin down. However, he offers clues on how the curse works in smaller, more personal acts of violence. As the narrator of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle explains about an abortion, “I was a new me and I could never go back to where I had been before. . . . It was a physical fact that I would have to confront coolly and logically, beyond any question of punishment.” The curse appears as a disconcerting change, something quiet yet horrible, akin to depression.
Murakami also visits the personal curse in a short story, “The Second Bakery Attack,” which appeared in the collection The Elephant Vanishes. The narrator (who like many of Murakami’s narrators is a young white collar everyman) realizes that he is cursed because he once held up a bakery when he was “so broke [he] couldn’t buy toothpaste.” During the hold-up, the bakery owner tells the young attacker and his friend that they can have all the bread they want if they listened to a full record by Wagner. The narrator doesn’t tell us what happened because of his brush with enforced Wagner, but the reader’s mind creates answers that would explain why this former street punk would suddenly break from his old life, attend a university, and become a lawyer. Giving in to the baker was a mistake, and “this mistake . . . just stayed there, unresolved, casting a dark shadow on our lives.”
The dark shadow manifests itself in a sinking physical hunger. It is the hunger of having nothing in the refrigerator and no foresight to stock up before the grocery store closes, but it is hunger nonetheless. The narrator and his new bride resolve to break the curse by sticking up a McDonald’s restaurant, revisited and undoing the crime by stealing food the correct way—with guns and wool masks—rather than by listening to music. Once the young man admits his guilt to his new wife and accepts his own criminal nature, he is able to satisfy his hunger and fall asleep.
The narrator of “The Second Bakery Attack” resolves his feelings of crime-related blame, at least for the time being, but in Murakami’s war stories the blame for war is bigger than any one soldier, politician, or bandit. It cannot be expelled by a simple action, no matter how much its victims try to hide it. Instead, the curse reappears while those afflicted live in the heart of Japanese society; it appears not as something genetically passed down to children, but as a symptom of continuing disruption. Japan has yet to accept the effect of the war, Murakami argues, and has yet to confront its
politicians’ colonizing urges.
Although so many Americans have written about World War II for so many years, no American novel has used the war in a way equal to Murakami’s supernatural curse. After years of reading World War II fiction, I have found only one similar book in English, The Pied Piper’s Poison, by Christopher Wallace (Overlook Press, 2000, originally published 1998). In The Pied Piper’s Poison, Soviet invaders during World War II incarcerate an entire village of German-speaking peasants, who die from a mysterious, skin-cracking disease. The disease feels as though something is fighting its way out of them. Different characters have different explanations for the disease, but in the end it does not matter whether the peasants are dying from atomic testing or from a curse originated during the Thirty Years War, in which plague is borne by supernatural rats. Regardless, the village dies: as it is torn from centuries-long isolation, the modern soldiers and doctors are forced to confront the effects of their war. Wallace is not nearly as strong a writer as Murakami, and his book has none of the delightful wordplay or polish of Murakami’s works. Murakami, it seems, is along in having the skill and ability to use World War II to give us a puzzling explanation for the world, as well as a new way of thinking of the war.
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