A local train in Japan: Murakami's new novel concerns a malaise-filled Japanese railway engineer. Photo: Getty
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Strange, stark and sentimental: Haruki Murakami’s winning fictional formula

Although it won’t finally rank among his most accomplished works Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, will be happily consumed by his fervent readers.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 
Haruki Murakami
Harvill Secker, 304pp, £20

I like reading Haruki Murakami novels in public. I like the approving looks that come my way at downtown cafés, from people in skinny jeans and severe glasses working on their leather- and wood-clad iPhones. They know that Murakami is an infallible marker of bookish cool, of literary sophistication and intellectual irony so advanced, you’re capable of enjoying stories and situations from him which you would otherwise dismiss as the stuff of drugstore paperback cliché, high-dork fantasy fiction, daytime TV melodrama. Indeed, across 13 novels – with the original Japanese publication of each, in recent years, causing a nationwide hysteria of book buying – Murakami has made a brilliant, Nobel-pending career out of effortless-seeming combinations of the strange, stark and sentimental.

Although it won’t finally rank among his most accomplished works – namely Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 – Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will be happily consumed by his fervent readers. It comes three years after his most ambitious novel, 1Q84 – a 1,000-page effort set in parallel and intersecting worlds, about a paid assassin, a writing teacher and the malevolent miniature people and sex-and-violence-filled religious cult they get mixed up with while trying for a romance that first sparked when they were schoolchildren – and it suffers by comparison in terms of its scale and originality. But then what recent novel doesn’t?

The premise of this new book is far more straightforward, at least by Murakami’s standards. The title character is a malaise-filled Japanese railway engineer in his mid-thirties. “Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in colour,” we learn early on. The most notable thing that has happened to Tsukuru is his failure to commit suicide while in college, after an inexplicable falling-out with his closest friends, two men and two women.

Since then, he’s lived a life of indifferent desperation, working a good enough day job and dating now and then, mostly wondering why he didn’t kill himself years ago and what went wrong with his friends – though he never wonders enough to do anything about either problem. Taking up much of the book’s early sections, this is classic Murakami: few authors are so intent on ostensibly dissuading us from expecting much of great interest in their work.

And yet we know that at any given moment shocking revelations, outlandish events and exchanges full of fine and fraught feeling are liable to break through the placid world, unfolded in clear and simple prose. Which is just what happens at the end of an early chapter exploring the protagonist’s life in his early twenties: “As Tsukuru lay in bed in his pyjamas, he heard water rushing by in a mountain stream. But that was impossible, of course. They were in the middle of Tokyo. He soon fell into a deep sleep. That night, several strange things happened.”

These strange things take the form of an extended four-person sexual encounter involving Tsukuru, the two women he was close to until they suddenly dropped him a few years earlier, and an affable young man he subsequently befriended while at college, who is supposed to be sleeping in the next room. The encounter – silent, precise, bizarre, erotic – warps all sense of time and space and logic in terms of who and what’s involved, but, in Murakami’s handling, it is far more than a mere strange dream. Instead, it sends Tsukuru into “a different sphere of reality, where – at a special time and place – imagination had been set free”.

He emerges on the far side greatly troubled by the experience because he senses that it was somehow more than just a very intense dream, but then he decides it’s inexplicable and best forgotten for a return to his muted daily life.

Unsurprisingly, even years later Tsukuru can’t entirely efface the lingering effects of this episode, or of the strange rupture in his youthful friendships, and a woman he is dating in the present senses as much. She tells him they cannot become more serious until he finds some kind of resolution for whatever went wrong with his four college friends, and encourages him to seek them out.

The remainder of the novel follows Tsu­kuru as he visits the three who are still alive. They now lead comfortable middle-class lives, the two men in Japan and one of the women in Finland. The second woman, who was the least stable in the group, has been murdered in mysterious circumstances, in keeping with a murky rape allegation she made against Tsukuru when they were at college, the allegation that led to his immediate ousting from the group.

Tsukuru is stunned to learn about this and calmly outraged that he was never given a chance to prove his certain innocence. His friends are contrite and apologetic, and also hopeful of making amends by resuming their connections as adults, especially Eri, the woman living in Finland, who once had a crush on Tsukuru but had to abandon that feeling because of her friend Yuzu’s accusations. Open enough to reconciliation, and glad to listen to Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage while sharing long and tender embraces with Eri in her wintry Finnish home, Tsukuru nevertheless finds himself newly troubled about Yuzu’s life and death. He “couldn’t escape the feeling that, in some indefinable way, he was responsible. And not just for her rape, but for her murder. On that rainy May night something inside of him, unknown to him, may have slipped away . . . and strangled that thin, lovely, fragile neck.”

Murakami then stages this very event in vivid detail, and it is neither a guilty memory nor a conscience-addled imagining, but some combination that is never fully clarified, just as the author never substantially explores or explicates the novel’s governing ideas about the dangerous traffic that can pass between our interior and exterior lives, and all the many collisions to which this leads. Instead, he tacitly justifies the novel’s baseline opacities with one of Tsukuru’s closing thoughts: “Our lives are like a complex musical score . . . Filled with all sorts of cryptic writing.”

So, too, Murakami’s latest novel, which may prove a little too colourless for readers who are new to his work, if exactly the right kind of vibrancy, as ever, for his millions of devotees. 

Randy Boyagoda’s novel “Beggar’s Feast” is published by Penguin (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.