Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices



The Acute Jazz Deficiency Manual

by Dmitry Kovalenin

Translated by Max Nemtsov


The books written by this strange man can seriously change your view of Japanese literature. Even the most advanced reader hasn't yet seen Japanese literature this way. Novels and stories by Murakami have been conquering hearts and imagination of readers in the United States, Canada, Korea and Western Europe for over 20 years, but the stormy seas of Russian history have sadly delayed publication of his books for more than a decade in this country, and one of the most eccentric authors in today's Japan is coming to us in Russian only now.
In the lingo of his audience, Murakami is «in and cool». Cool in the same uncompromising sense as on different continents Bob Dylan or J.D.Salinger, Shu Uemura or Akira Kurosawa, Grebenshchikov or the Strugatsky Brothers are cool. It is in good taste for 30-years-old Tokyo yuppies to drop his name sitting at a bar («What do you think, will they ever give him the Nobel Prize?»). A kind of an enculturation ritual, an initiation into the latest trends of «alternative culture». It is not even necessary to be well-read or to know something of other trendy authors' works. For there is «a literature-at-large» and «the worlds of Murakami». To be oblivious of his name is similar to being unable to surf the 'net or to recognize the voice of Janis Joplin. The educated Japanese youth of the 90's believes Murakami to be the ultimate cool and, from all appearances, he will remain as such for years to come -- although he had never aspired for it.
Haruki Murakami is a Japanese expatriate. In the last decade he has moved from Greece to Italy, from Europe to the U.S. and all the while continued to write in Japanese, depressing his translators and publishers with his productivity. On the average, he yields a thick novel a year, along with essays on cultural studies, stories and translations of «high-brow» English-language authors.
The older Japanese don't like him. The younger ones idolize him. Both do that for the same reasons, and primarily because he «reeks of butter too much». The Japanese expression bata-kusai («reeking of butter») means everything pro-Western, arty-crafty un-Japanese, imported, alien for a nation that traditionally doesn't consume milk. For them Murakami reeks of butter head to toe. His characters eat steaks, pizzas and spaghetti, listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Rossini, and one of his most famous novels, «Norwegian Wood» (1987), is named after the Beatles' song. And it seems at first that his stories might have happened anyplace. There are almost no names of people on the pages of his books, and only names of cities or streets mentioned fleetingly sometimes remind you of the existence of this country, Japan. In «the worlds of Murakami» people wear jeans and sneakers, watch Hitchcock's movies, drive Volkswagens, drink Heineken and base their dialogues on metaphors of rock'n'roll and contemporary Western literature, no longer straight-jacketed by history, humor or pop cultures of separate countries. In this lies the special fun of translating Murakami -- seeing the Japanese source you talk to the whole wide world. It is about Japan, yet it is not confined to Japan.


The author was born on January 12, 1949, in Kyoto, but spent his childhood in the large industrial port of Kobe, one of the few Japanese cities in the 50-60's where foreign books were available or one could talk to a foreigner. As a teenager, Murakami spent a lot of time reading books in English that he dug out in small bookstores near the port. Not many Japanese could speak English at that time. American sailors who visited Kobe for a couple of days frequently sold the books they had finished to those second-hand dealers who were eager to buy the alien texts to re-sell them later to some other visiting foreigners. Having filled his brain to the brim with Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, Marcel Proust, young Haruki had endless arguments with his father, a teacher of Japanese, and became more and more convinced that Japanese literature seriously needed some fresh blood. What precludes it to become one of the world literatures, instead of being mere reading material for internal consumption? Frequent disputes between cosmopolitan son and patriot father finally led them apart and became the reason for a long-standing silence between them.
His school years coincided with political unrest. The famous student revolts failed completely: the country's youth wasn't allowed their say in the reshaping of the country that sky-rocketed its industry. Like many rebels of the 70's who threw themselves on the barb-wire fences of U.S. military bases during the Vietnam War, Haruki entered the new decade «matured and disillusioned». He began to see less sense in the search for «justice» in the world around him, and more in the nuances of human relations and in the internal harmony of individuals. «Even though Japan was not involved in that war, we felt obliged to stop it. [Those student revolts] ...were our homage to the dream of a new world without wars,» the author said.
Later Murakami got married and soon after graduated from the Classic (Greek) Drama department of the prestigious Waseda University. And he began writing.
He remembers well how it came to him for the very first time. April 1978. A spring afternoon in Tokyo, «warm breeze smelling of fried flatfish», the deafening roar of the stadium. The 29-years-old Murakami was sitting in the crowd at the stand watching a baseball game between Japan and the U.S. Irresistible Dave Hilton opened the first game of the season. The public was frantic... That was the moment when Murakami first realized that he could write a novel. Even now he cannot say where it came from. «I just realized that -- that was all.»
In those days he and his wife Yoko tended the jazz bar «Peter Cat». Every night after the bar was closed, Murakami sat at the kitchen table and wrote for an hour or two. The book, initially in English, was called «Hear the Wind Sing» (1979) and there was not a word about baseball in it. The title was appropriated from a short story by Murakami's favorite author, Truman Capote. It was pure and sad, precisely assembled from teenager's reminiscences that contrasted with unexpectedly mature philosophical improvisations on life and death. That collage of a novel seemed to fill in the void in the youth literature of the 70's, the decade that was almost over. It's characters' soliloquies captivated with their seeming simplicity and sad wisdom, and you wanted to hear them like you would want to listen to an old friend who speaks your language and tells you of your problems.
«Let me say something about the third girl I slept with.
It's hard enough to talk about someone who's dead; harder still to talk about someone who died young. That's because having died she's forever young.
Whereas we who survive grow older year by year, month by month, day by day. Sometimes I swear I can even feel myself aging by the hour. And the frightening thing is it's true.» (1)
...The award of the «Gunzo» literary magazine was established specifically for beginning authors who had never published before. Submitting «Hear the Wind Sing» to that prestigious competition, Murakami «didn't doubt that he would win». And he was right. That same 1979, an unheard-of 150,000 hard-cover copies of the prize-winning novel were sold.
«A Wild Sheep Chase» (1982), his third «thick» novel concluded the so-called «Rat Trilogy». Its characters have almost become household names for contemporary Japanese young readers. It is also the book where the Mystery woven by the author in two previous parts, «Hear the Wind Sing» and «Pinball, 1973» (1983) became truly universal, giving us the perfect reason to choose it for translation into Russian.

Allegro Non Troppo

It is always hard to identify the genre of Haruki Murakami's books. Occult crime stories? Psychedelic thrillers? Anti-utopias? All of these and more... every time there is much, much more. Can we draw comparisons? American critics are ready, although with massive provisions, to categorize his works as «fantasies» or «non-science fictions». Murakami himself believes that he was especially influenced by the «last Japanese classic» Kobo Abe. Yet he has also revealed that while writing «A Wild Sheep Chase», he «borrowed something» from Raymond Chandler, and his most popular novel «Norwegian Wood» was written under the influence of Francis Scott Fitzgerald... Ultimately the reader must decide how to bridge the gaps between those wildly incomparable sources.
As you read his prose, there is a nagging feeling that you're studying a skillful photographic collage of reality fragments and dreams, and there are musical phrases that constantly sound in your ears, intertwining. Images and metaphors in his texts are Zen-like in their suddenness and Symbolism-like in their precision, the language flow throbs with syncopes of meaning, his tables of contents look like jazz record covers and his plots seem to split into solos for different musical instruments that improvise on a common theme that is impossible to grasp on first hearing, like Chick Korea or Art Blackey recitals. «The musicalization of text flow» -- let's call it that -- is a device familiar from Spanish-language literature (Lorca, Borgues, Marquez, Cortazar) and in the context of traditional Japanese aesthetics it yields wonderful fruit. Jazz Zen? Zen Jam? One way or another, this is a dimension located at the fleeting conjunction of East and West, marginally conditional like B-sharp, where Murakami's characters improvise their lives. Their acts, thoughts and fates, as well as the general plot progression, are impossible to foresee if you base your perception on some particular literary genre laws. They don't know themselves what happens to them in an hour, they don't try to know it and they don't have any plans for the future. They drift without imitating or modifying that wild jazz of life around them, yet even in the sharpest dissonances they maintain their own style of playing.

Part One

Despite the intricacy of situations and entangled plot line, the «Sheep»'s main theme is classically basic. We, the Europeans, are more comfortable with the label «Faustian Conflict». And yet, here is the trap: by invoking Faust we are automatically ready to continue «and the Devil», -- but this would impose the all too familiar and definite image, cultivated by the Christianized art in Western consciousness for the last two millennia. It is just the horns length and hooves size that are subject to individual imagination.
But in Oriental thought we deal with a principally different perception of Evil. As opposed to the West, the East (and Zen) doesn't believe in Evil per se. There's only the Inapprehensible -- or the Still-Unapprehended -- within us...
As the interesting contemporary Japanese literature scholar Susan J. Napier observed, «for twentieth-century writers of both Japanese and Latin American literature... the decision to write in the fantastic mode was, almost inherently, a subversive one. It was a decision to choose an alternative, consciously non-Western way of representing the world. Or as Louis Zamora says of ghosts, one of the key elements of magical realist fiction (and as we shall see, an important element of the Japanese fantastic as well): "{The ghosts'} presence in magic realist fiction is inherently oppositional, because they represent an assault on the basic scientific and materialist assumptions of western modernity: that reality is knowable, predictable, controllable".» (2)
The more one resisted the advance of all-consuming Western determinism, the more the metaphysical was revealed in the literatures of Latin America and Japan. Indeed, as opposed to the West with its attempts to dissect and analyze the human soul and behavior, in non-Western literatures, including that of the Japanese, one can observe the unwillingness (or, rather, the statement of impossibility) of a human to be scrutinized by science, to be comprehended by his own thought to the end. From Cortazar and Marquez to Kobo Abe and Murakami, in the end of the most technocratic era in history, there is that quest for the Inconceivable Mystery of Nature, for the mystical beginnings of the human soul ungoverned by logical explanations.


It looks like that one should be a woman to pay attention to it immediately, but observations of Susan Napier offer a peculiar angle on differences in the nature of writer motivation in the West and in the East.
While in the European epics the images of principal elements were based on the masculine origin one way or another, on the phallus, Susan Napier suggests that the «ethnic subconscious» of at least two cultures, Latin American and Japanese, is characterized by the traditional attraction to the so-called «return to the womb». It is the feminine organ that has mystical Purpose, it is the woman who acts as an intermediary between the protagonist and the Monster in this book. This choice, should he be «born back» or not, should he cease to be The One Who He Was, was to be made by the Rat when the Furnace of the Universe yawned before him, offered by the Sheep.
Yet the most interesting thing is this: before Murakami, women had been seldom personified. Napier believes it to be an «undoubted achievement» on the part of the author that we see the vivid individual female character in the predominantly «male» fiction, in fact, for the first time. Strange as it may seem, in Japanese literature it has been very difficult to find a single full-bodied woman one might associate and sympathize with. In the most cases women had been traditionally one-dimensional and performed a strictly defined function of reflecting male protagonists' characters. It is no wonder, then, that women comprise almost 60% of Murakami's fans in the slowly but truly feminized Japan of the 90's.
Women's portraits in Murakami's novels are a profound and independent phenomenon that would require a special essay. For the purposes of the present one, though, we'll just note that the protagonist's sexual manifesto -- «we are not whales» -- can suddenly become topical. To the followers of the traditional Japanese androcracy and males too centered on their egos of «whale proportions» it sounds like a call to turn from mirrors and see a Personality in a woman close to you.

Part Two

So, apart from «Norwegian Wood», the most realistic of his novels, almost all of Murakami's books offer us a Monster. The beast can have different appearances. In one story it is the decrepit hotel that weirdly twists the lives of its guests, in another one, the ghostly animal that invades humans and «feasts on their souls like it would sip a cocktail through a straw». In the third one, it might become some bodiless substance that appears to a man as qualms and phone calls.
These Monsters are not positive and not negative. They are neither good nor evil. As a rule, their cosmic purpose and goals remain totally beyond human imagination.
«"...What the sheep seeks is the embodiment of sheep thought."
"Is that good?"
"To the sheep's thinking, of course it's good."» (3)
When we meet the Monster, we have to deal with something we cannot be reflected in, we cannot use for our own means, unlike we had been doing along our way before this encounter. Our adversary is infinitely greater than we, and at its background we have to re-evaluate our strength. Compared to what the Sheep presents, our own problems of Personal Conscience which is the dogma of the «person among people» scenario, a traditional irritant of Western writers, become eroded beyond hope. They are over-ruled by issues of human survival, the necessity of this survival, the universal purpose of Homo sapiens as a biological species, gratifying us with the ultimately fresh outlook of ourselves.
In this context, the protagonist's dialogue with the Catholic driver about God's phone number (never used by the hero) is very vivid. Is the conversation between a man and God at all possible, when a man doesn't understand himself what he is? What can he ask Him when all our main problems are within ourselves? The question sort of hangs in the thin air and the comedy of the entire situation, with a twinge of a tragedy unrealized by the mind to the end, and is one of the best-remembered syncopes in the «Wild Sheep Chase» psychedelia.
The goodness of the Sheep to our thinking is shown only once in the novel: before invading the Professor it politely asks for his consent. Thus the Trial begins. For the main Choice we have to make ourselves, Monsters or no Monsters. And only once, and there is no turning back. An encounter with the Monster in the «worlds of Murakami» doesn't suggest the conflict of a man and the external evil, like in a traditional fantasy, but it offers an internal dispute within a man: what do I want myself, how would I like to see myself in this world? To deliver one's soul to the paws of the beast in exchange for the wealth-immortality-power or to remain an insignificant human being with holes in the pockets but one's soul and body free and intact?
Nothing is new under the moon. This dilemma is of course as old as the world itself. Yet it will remain topical as a man lives. But one way or another, the Choice is always private and it doesn't bear any doctrines dictated by society. It cannot be justified neither by logic nor by scripture, not by devotion to any transitory ideals. One has to be a spiritually balanced Personality to make this choice, and damn the money one might have or not have, and the power one might wield. This is the reason why the protagonist «in worn jeans, battered sneakers and a T-shirt with Snoopy hugging a surf-board» turns out to be stronger and more vital than tuxedoed big wheels in limos. Although he loses one thing after another, his family, his house, his job, his very security, everything the life of a respectable citizen is based on, this loss becomes his vital force and he wins the battle with the Monster, though he might neither enjoy it not know what to do with this victory. Because from the very beginning he didn't want to win.
It is here probably where we approach the main secret of the Murakami's popularity. He is in fact the first modern Japanese author of the 1980-90's who openly offers «the hero of our times» to the young, complete with the deeply felt and well-founded position. This position is so vivid and individualized and is presented so unobtrusively jazz-like that, on one hand, it cannot but enter into the Japanese youth psyche, maimed by the doctrines of «group consciousness», like a knife into butter, and on the other hand, it cannot but irritate the proponents of those doctrines. For the main feature of Murakami's protagonists seems to be their inherent un-venality, thus making tem similar to characters from the Strugatsky Brothers' works. They are uncomfortable to be with for those around them and they don't fit into the proverbial «respectable lifestyle». They don't revere tinhorn authority and don't care much about their own future. Whatever befalls them, «those strange people» want to remain humans in the most inhuman situations, both in a figurative sense and literally, like on the pages of «A Wild Sheep Chase». To stay alive even if there's no one there to understand and appreciate their act. To stay alive even at the price of their own lives.


It is not merely coincidental that this conflict, the acrimonious controversy between an individual and stagnant «social values», gets on the tip of the pen of one of the most widely-read contemporary Japanese writers. The last two decades witnessed the unprecedented social crisis, the one of the «Japanese Wonder children generation». Since the 1980's, the problem of self-identification has become infinitely more acute for the Japanese young people than for all previous generations after the WWII. It wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that in the 1980-90's Russia and Japan had much more in common than one is used to thinking on account of the catastrophic lack of information from both sides. When Russia was losing the backbone of the old Soviet system in the 1980's, the Japanese «colossus on clay feet» started to crumble as well -- the system of lifetime employment that guaranteed comfortable existence in exchange for servitude and obedience to the «eternally right» majority. He trick was that without the well-oiled system of mutual guarantees the entire scheme of Japanese life would go to the dogs. 70% of Japanese citizens had built their existence on loans and credits. The money due for a purchased house usually has to be paid in full by the time a person has to retire. More than half of the society has to pay back their debts all their lifetime. The smallest miscalculation, the loss of your job, and you lose everything. The fate of Junitaki, according to Murakami, is the eternal destiny of entire Japan: drudgery and cheerlessness without a single chance of breaking through the vicious circle.
Yet these days the system halts frequently, and the younger generation «just hangs there», like a green musician deprived of his sheets of music who has to play as best as he can. The amount of fear per capita has increased noticeably -- as well as the Monster in people's heads along with it.
It is worth noting that at the same time Japan has started to peek out at the «world-at-large», becoming more and more aware of its own conservatism. More young people study abroad, more enterprises hire international staff. Crawling out of its shell, the country begins to contemplate itself, frequently appalled at what it sees. Castigating and mocking himself, «a cog in the wheel» starts to realize that all his ideals learnt by heart in school are nothing but hot air, and the main values of life are only those that one had cultivated within himself at the expense of one's own disillusionment, tears and loss.
Does it sound all too familiar to you? Go ahead then: the Murakami's protagonist is your hero, too.
Your hero will find himself in situations with no social formulae. His acts, thoughts, doubts in search of a way out will be that improvisation suggested to the young by Murakami as the only natural form of being.


It has been noticed before that both critics and readers of Murakami in Japan are distinctly separated into two categories: one group lauds his books and is enrapted by them, the other one apparently thinks the author is deranged, without even finishing a novel. The older generation of Japanese writers consider Murakami to be «the dreamer escaping reality» and «the arty escapist». Indeed, if you know the country well, you cannot but doubt that «a Murakami man» could survive in the society described by him in the history of Junitaki with the high-voltage Kafkaesque allegory.
Yet this is the crux of the matter: the town is dying. «An average citizen» has long been ready and willing to flee from it. So long, in fact, that now, before going somewhere else, he «should witness this death with his own eyes by all means».
And, of course, those worlds of Murakami are a utopia. The situations into which the protagonist drives himself are intentionally generalized and refined by the author's will to the extend that the only obstacle for making any decision lies within the protagonist himself, being his own preferences and inner directives. And in making those decisions the hero is stubborn to the point of being absurd and merciless to himself to the point of self-torture.
«What is the point of all that? What is he driving at? That doesn't lead anywhere,» -- those are the indignant voices one sometimes hears from readers. But this is one of the secrets of his growing popularity. Like an haute-couture fashion designer he doesn't offer pret-a-porte but rather suggests a direction of thinking a reader might take. When we deal with «high fashion» creativity it is no use to expect from the author a «ready-made» all-purpose philosophy. This is why it so frequently seems to the protagonist that trees dissolve in the rain before his eyes, that mountains fade, people and things lose their names and familiar stations of the city subway swap places. To look for the path in the constantly changing world without losing one's integral and individual melody is Murakami's jazz, and there's no sense in demanding routine utility from this music. Jazz exists for the sake of jazz, like Zen exists for Zen's sake. Like each of us exists only for himself.


Japanese nouns are practically devoid of plural forms. The title of the book might as well sound in Russian like «The One Sheep Chase». Yet upon translating the Junitaki chapters I decided to keep the plural. And I think I was right.

Niigata, Japan,
June-August, 1998

1. Haruki Murakami. Hear the Wind Sing. Translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1995, p.80.
2. Susan J. Napier. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature. London, 1996.
3. Haruki Murakami. A Wild Sheep Chase. Translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York, London, 1992, p.190.