Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Reading Haruki Murakami in English

One of the books I read on my way home from England about two weeks ago was a book by NATSUME Soseki, “Kusamakura,” known as “The Three-Cornered World” in English translation.

Natsume is one of the three Japanese cultural icons who are featured on yen notes along with FUKUZAWA Yukichi and HIGUCHI Ichiyo.

The book is a portrait-like description of a resort place in Japan by a protagonist as an amateur painter. It takes a form of a novel, but it is more an essay than a novel, from which readers usually expect some plot. Rather, it depicts scenes and people he saw. Between the descriptions, he inserts his thought on life. He is, or wants to be, detached from the human bond of the 19th century Japan. He calls his cool attitude towards life as “non-humanistic,” but not “anti-humanistic,” meaning that he is away from the secular human relationships of Japan, but nevertheless a human as an individual.

The Japan of the late 19th century was supposedly separated from the feudal samurai Japan, but it was far from a full-fledged “western” modern country. The protagonist is a symbol of the late 19th Japan, something hard to be identified in between the old feudal Japan and the modern westernized Japan. The dilemma is expressed by his occasional quotations from classical Chinese poetry and the 19th century English poetry. It is interesting to note that although the protagonist is such a modern intellectual as to recite English poetry as he walks along, he sympathizes more with Chinese and oriental taste. He is an ‘individual,’ not a common being in the old Japan, who still feels much sympathy with the old culture.

But for Haruki MURAKAMI, or MURAKAMI Haruki as we usually call him in Japan, cultural heritage of old Japan or China, or indeed things Japanese in general are not much of importance (see my article on March 4, 2007, ESL Empire of, by and for Multitude). He embodies a new Japanese icon of the 21st century, but he perhaps inherits the detachment and coolness of Natume Soseki as well. His protagonist is detached from the craze of money-monger society of contemporary Japan. He is “non-capitalistic,” but not “anti-capitalistic.” He retains his cool-style as an urban solitary person, yet is decent (and sometimes brave enough) in various matters. The hope you can feel from his novels is that decency in daily or routine matters of life leads you somewhere even in a troubled time. He dislikes self-righteous cliché and is ever trying to find laconic words to express his being. That style is readily translatable into various languages of this global society where people seek a hiding place of decency in the turbulence of global mega-competition and loud voices of self-righteousness.

My late 20s was very much influenced by Murakami Haruki. He ranks as one of the very few authors whose books have been all read by me several times. I identified myself with protagonists of his novels. I liked the life style described in his essays. My Japanese language was also very much influenced by the rhythm, tone and melody of his style. I still keep buying his books.

As I read Natsume Soseki’s Kusamakura on my way back from England, I wondered what it was like for him to be in the 19th century Japan. Perhaps on the next trip to England in April, it would be interesting for me to read Murakami Haruki, this time in English, the language of global convenience, wondering what it is like to be in Japan of the global world of the 21st century.

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