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

Marvel
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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia