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

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times