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Friday, 11 January 2008

Review: After Dark, Haruki Murakami (2007)

A year ago, an interview with Murakami appeared in a major Japanese newspaper. In it the great writer spoke about his translation of The Great Gatsby. "[T]he Great Depression ... [was] a dark age in contrast to the flashy '20s. Fitzgerald matured as a writer as America did as a society. Both became introspective, and they had to mature in their own ways."

The new novel demonstrates that Murakami has matured. It is significant that he has started to look for new models, and even more significant that he should find one in Nabokov. In After Dark we frequently come across an authorial trope, a piece of meta-narrative architecture with which the writer dispenses, with a casual flick of the hand, with any requirement for a fictional character to be present in order for the reader to see an event unfold.

The metaphor is a camera, perhaps a hand-held one. With it, he pans in and out while letting us view scenes in this world and in the other, parallel world where the souls of the living resolve our dilemmas, much in the same way as, in the pre-Reformation age, Englishmen and -women bound to write a final will and testament, would request that songs be sung for their souls, trapped in the hereafter.

In Nabokov's underappreciated Laughter in the Dark the writer uses a flying eye to swiftly leave one scene up, up, up into the empyrean before descending down, down, down to let us view a car racing along a mountain road. An accident is about to occur and we, the readers, are privileged by our witnessing.

But Murakami has done more to make me think of his reference to Fitzgerald. The previous book (Kafka By the Shore) was too forceful, too didactic, too plain in conception (though complex in execution). Prior to that we had Sputnik Sweetheart, a novel not quite complete, with a denouement meant to be sad but which somehow failed to achieve that elusive emotion.

In the new novel the romance between Takahashi and Mari evolves as quietly as a foetus, ensconced in its mother's womb: all the cells twin in silence like the birth of an idea (Shakespeare: "The wish is the father of the idea").

This romance succeeds because it is truly about love (erotic love) whereas in Sputnik Sweetheart the affection between the girl who disappears on the Greek island and the young man, is more like friendship.

Of course, there is more to After Dark than this. Of tonic moment is the ambiguity possessed by Shirakawa, the computer technician who has beaten a Chinese prostitute not because of the money or out of sadistic delight, but because he "had to do it". Shirakawa is a truly modern hero and I don't think we have seen his like before.

I very much enjoyed the Cohen brothers' new movie No Country for Old Men, with its fabulously precise and relentless villain Anton Chigurh (played by the talented Javier Bardem), but in Shirakawa Murakami has devised an even more interesting villain: an everyman, a cypher, a hero for the post-industrial age.

After Dark opens with casual violence but closes with the twitch of a young woman's mouth as she lies asleep in something resembling a coma. This twitch is the sign that Murakami has survived the darkness.

"I'm just sketching what I saw in the darkness," said Murakami in a November 2006 interview with Nick Jones of The Prague Post. "Sometimes it's fun, [but] sometimes it's dangerous, so I have to protect myself. That's why I'm running every day. You have to be physically strong to survive that darkness."

In the previous two novels he barely survived. Now, older, tougher and wiser, he streaks out the far end of the tunnel that connects the world he routinely inhabits with the other one: the one inhabited by the rest of mankind.

Highly recommended.

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