The Politics of Haruki Murakami, Part 2

“Boku” and “the Rat” in the First Three Novels

For a reader of English (and I would be very happy if anyone who has read Murakami would read this essay) Murakami’s literary career is somewhat obscured first of all by the translation, but also by the fact that much of his work has not appeared in English, and what has has been published out of chronological order. Therefore a few words of explanation are in order to give sufficient background for this section.

Here we are concerned with Murakami’s first three novels. These are: Hear the Wind Sing (Kaze no uta o kike, 1979), Pinball, 1973 (1973-nen no pinboru, 1980) and A Wild Sheep Chase (Hitsuji o meguru boken, 1982). All of these have been translated into English, however only the third is widely available to an English-reading audience. The first two are available only in editions published by Kodansha International’s English Library, which is intended to aid Japanese students learning to read English and contain extensive endnotes in Japanese explaining language usage. While they are only published in Japan, Murakami enthusiasts can order them online – I was able to obtain copies for $30 all told. Or you can look at university libraries. At the time of their composition, Murakami was operating a jazz club full-time, so they come across at times as rather fragmentary. Nevertheless there are rewards for reading them closely.

These novels form a trilogy, making it unfortunate that only the third part is widely read in English.* They are about two friends from the same town, Kobe on the southern coast of Honshu. Neither of them are ever named in the novels, the narrator only going by the first person. In Japanese the first person can either be used formally (watashi) or informally (boku) so Murakami’s use of the informal pronoun creates an effect that cannot be translated readily into English. His friend goes by the nickname “the Rat,” making the books “The Trilogy of the Rat.”

Listening to the Wind

Boku and the Rat meet at the Tokyo university they both attend. During Hear the Wind Sing, which takes place from August 8th to August 26th of 1970, they reside mostly at a bar owned by “J,” a Chinese immigrant, drinking beer while Boku reads and the Rat grapples with the shallowness of his existence. Together they muddle through the waning summer of 1970, interspersed with the occasional date with a girl, listening to the radio, from which dialogue is repeated verbatim, and the narrator’s meditations on a fictional American author named Derek Hartfield (whose life and works seem to resemble those of H.P. Lovecraft). Finally the narrator has to go back to Tokyo at the start of the semester to continue his studies (he is a biology student) while the Rat remains behind, having decided to quit school. The novel ends without the two ever talking seriously about their friendship or their future together, despite the fact they clearly for some reason are very attached to each other. The Rat becomes a writer and sends Boku a copy of his latest novel each year for Christmas.

It might be hard for a reader to understand the appeal in such a narrative. In fact, its substance is more in what is not there than what is stated directly. Both Boku and the Rat had participated in the student movement, and both had been wounded in confrontations with riot police. Readers may miss the importance of this, as it is treated rather elliptically. In fact the narrator does not mention it directly until halfway through the novel, when he catalogues the girls he has slept with to date:

The second was a hippy I ran across in the Shinjuku subway station… That night the most violent protest rally swept through Shinjuku [the previously mentioned Anti-War Day mobilization] and all the trains and buses and other transportation were completely out of commission” (61).

Nevertheless, a Japanese reader of around Murakami’s age would pick up on the significance of the time frame which he mentions early on: the student movement had fallen to pieces by the spring of 1970, and during summer vacation was when radicals faced going back to school in the absence of the movement. The book is in this sense a breathtaking portrayal of ennui and existential angst, though in this sense it may be hit or miss for readers unfamiliar with its immediate context.

Both Boku and the Rat have clearly lost whatever idealism had brought them to participate in the student movement, and given into the general feeling of ennui. On a date with a girl (also not named, she is called “the girl with four fingers” after that unique physical trait) Boku talks with her about the “protest rallies and student strikes” he participated in. At one of them, a riot policeman beat him up, knocking out one of his teeth. However, Boku doesn’t seem too bothered about it, saying “that’s all over and done with” (73). In his opinion there was no point to getting beaten up by a cop. But, there is clearly something more to it, even though Boku acts cool.

Pinball in the Year 1973

What there is to it becomes clearer when Boku returns in Pinball, 1973. Here Boku picks up three years (obviously) from the end of Hear the Wind Sing. Having graduated from college, he is now working as a translator in a small firm operated with a partner, a man he met in college. Just 3 years after the collapse of the student movement, he has become the salaryman he dreaded becoming, and is only able to deal with his humdrum existence by deciding “not to want anything anymore.”

During most of the narrative, he lives with identical twin girls, somewhat whimsical (but apparently non-sexual) partners who appear mysteriously in his apartment one day and at the end of the novel leave for just as mysterious reasons. The novel’s title comes from Boku’s growing obsession with pinball, which sparks his quest to find a very specific model of pinball machine, one which he and the Rat used to play on in J’s Bar. He no longer seems to see much point in even thinking about politics, and is unable to answer when the twins ask him which side he supports in the Vietnam War. Indeed, this is the only time the international situation comes into the novel, and other events such as (for instance) the bloody coup in Chile that brought an end to Allende’s attempted socialist revolution through electoral democracy, which took place in the same year as Pinball takes place are not noted even in passing, marking the narrator’s degeneration into solipsism and political passivity.

During this time, the Rat still lives in his hometown, and goes frequently to J’s bar. His career as a writer is progressing, and he is trying to distance himself from a woman who he has become romantically entangled with. The fact that his story is told in third person, interspersed with Boku’s daily life like he tells his memories (below) suggests for the first time that the Rat is something other than Boku’s old school friend who he has lost touch with. The first impression of a reader that Boku and the Rat may function as two sides of the same person is correct, and as Matthew Stretcher says, he “lives in the unconscious mind of the protagonist as a memory.”

Boku’s life, which is apparently just as boring and pointless as it was when he left us in 1970 (or it is hard to imagine he would have become obsessed with pinball), is interspersed with specific memories from the days of the student movement, which makes the connection between its collapse and Boku’s current malaise rather more obvious, as they are introduced from the beginning. For example:

He [allegedly a man from Saturn who tells Boku his life story] belonged to a political group that had staged a take-over of Building 9 in the university. Their motto was “Action Determines Ideology – Not the Reverse!” No one would tell him what determined action. No matter, Building 9 had a water cooler, a telephone, and boiler facilities; and upstairs they had a nice little music lounge complete with Altec A-5 speakers and a collection of two thousand records… Every morning they’d shave themselves neat and clean with all the hot water they wanted, in the afternoon they’d make as many long-distance calls as they felt like, and when the sun went down they’d all get together and listen to records. By the end of autumn, every member had become a classical music fanatic.

Then one beautifully clear November afternoon, riot police forced their way into Building 9 while Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico was blaring away full blast. I don’t know how true all this is, but it remains one of the more heartwarming stories of 1969. (6-7)

While I disagree with the clearly arrogant attitude of the narrator, this seems like a good concrete example of the dead-end of the student movement. From an explicit rejection of revolutionary theory, they proceed to occupy a building and live the high life, while occupation is only supposed to be a tactic to accomplish some other goal. However, and it could be just me talking here, I seem to think there’s a certain amount of wistfulness for the days of strikes and occupations, and a certain amount of empathy for the student radicals (certainly, it is nothing close to the later vicious attitude displayed toward the movement in Norwegian Wood).

The main thread of Boku’s recollections, however, have to do with a girl. His girlfriend was named (rare enough for the series in itself) Naoko, and is a prototype of Toru Watanabe’s love interest in Norwegian Wood, who has the same name. Boku has briefly mentioned her in Hear the Wind Sing as the second girl he slept with. She was a student of French, who hanged herself for mysterious reasons. As with the end of the student movement, Boku mentions Naoko’s death in passing and deals with it rather elliptically in both novels, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about just how much he misses her. In his obliquely related memories, her death and the death of the student movement become associated as the passing from the scene of his youth, which has left his life devoid of a point. He only ambiguously hints that maybe he does still care:

… I told myself over and over again, it’s all over with now, you got it out of your system, forget it… Yet I couldn’t get it out of mind, that place. Nor the fact that I loved Naoko. Nor that she was dead. After all that, I still hadn’t closed the book on anything. (23)

In a rather bizarre (though amusing scene), Boku does seem to get a little bit of closure while attending a funeral. Of course, this is not Naoko’s funeral, but an improvised ceremony for a dead telephone switch-panel. In this ceremony Boku officiates, throwing the panel into a reservoir after a short sermon drawn from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Jay Rubin argues that this “reveals the illusion of thinking that human life has any more meaning than that of a switch-panel,” and is related to Boku’s general alienation from human life. I personally think that Matthew Stretcher is more correct when he writes that the switch-panel and Naoko are linked through metonymical chains stretching from Boku’s inner world of memories into his daily existence. The funeral, of course, makes certain we don’t miss out on this link.

For Pinball is perhaps the first recognizable work of “Murakami as Murakami” in that it concerns itself with conceptions of an unconscious other world, which the protagonist enters in search of meaning when his (almost always “his”) daily life has lost it. In Boku’s daily life the twin girls function as the daily reminders of this other world, while he lives in it directly as he remembers both Naoko and the Rat.

The climax of the novel occurs when Boku enters this other world with full self-awareness. Here the other world is represented as a huge warehouse filled with pinball machines, which stinks of dead chickens. In his quest to find the Spaceship pinball machine, Boku has been led to this place. His devotion to Pinball implicitly connecting him to the joys of his youth, he converses with the spaceship much as he would have with Naoko (and indeed, to use Stretcher’s commentary, in this world they are one and the same.) Leaving her, Boku reflects that

‎The thing we had shared was nothing more than a fragment of time that had died long ago. Even so, a faint glimmer of that warm memory still claimed a part of my heart. And when death claimed me, no doubt I would walk along by that faint light in the brief instant before being flung once again into the abyss of nothingness. (163)

Not much of importance is discussed between them, but Boku finally has been able to meet with his dead lover by entering his own unconscious. Will he remain there? We have to wait to see until his next adventures in A Wild Sheep Chase. In the meantime, the Rat has severed his attachments with the woman he was sleeping with, visited J one last time, and then left Kobe for parts unknown.

* Though Dance Dance Dance (Dansu Dansu Dansu, 1988) continues the story of Boku picking up a few years after the end of A Wild Sheep Chase, it has a different focus and none of what I would consider new developments relevant to this essay. Therefore I am omitting discussion of it. Also, Boku is the protagonist of the short story “The Twins and the Sunken Continent,” taking place about a year and a half after the end of Pinball, in which he sees a picture of the twins in a magazine and reflects on his growing alienation from human life. Likewise this story contains no particular elaboration on the theme I am concerned with. Interested readers can find it here:

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