Thursday, April 18, 2019

the last book I read

Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami.

Our un-named narrator is a writer, though seemingly unburdened by the need to find regular work to pay the rent, buy food etc., which is nice. Living in Tokyo, he is haunted by memories of a mysterious and seedy hotel called The Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo that he once stayed in with an ex-lover (also un-named, for the moment at least).

Eventually, during one of his lengthy hiatuses between writing jobs, he finds himself compelled to return to Sapporo and seek out the hotel. He finds that it still exists, in its former location and under its former name, but bearing no physical resemblance to its former self, being a shiny modern well-appointed establishment. Nonetheless he books himself in and almost immediately strikes up a friendly relationship with one of the hotel staff. Her name is Yumiyoshi, which I think we're meant to reel backwards at the unusualness of, but as someone relatively unfamiliar with Japanese language, culture, and naming conventions unless it had been an obvious outlier like Godzilla or Kendo Nagasaki this distinction was always going to be lost on me, and probably on most other Western readers too.

Anyway, during a conversation with Yumiyoshi she reveals that she has had an odd experience while travelling in the hotel lift, wherein she was seemingly transported to an old, undocumented, dark, dank-smelling floor of the hotel. Sure enough the narrator mooches around for a while and eventually has a similar experience, though he is curious enough to explore the mysterious netherworld a little and end up in a room with a man in a sheep costume (who calls himself, reasonably enough, The Sheep Man). The Sheep Man explains (in rather vague terms) that the whole purpose of this murky parallel universe is to allow him (the narrator) to resolve some matters in his own life, find that which had previously been lost, and so on and so forth.

The narrator decides to return to Tokyo, but as he is about to leave acquires a travelling companion: Yuki, a thirteen-year-old girl abandoned in the hotel by her feckless mother and entrusted to the narrator's care for the return flight to Tokyo. Yuki turns out not only to be your typical surly and uncommunicative teenager but also to be your slightly more atypical borderline clairvoyant, with an ability to sense bad stuff in the future (or, in some cases, the past) by physical proximity to objects.

On his return to Tokyo the narrator continues to keep an avuncular eye on Yuki, who is staying alone in her mother's apartment, but also rekindles a friendship with his old schoolfriend Gotanda, who is now an established TV and film actor and whom the narrator had seen in a film also featuring his old girlfriend from the (old) Dolphin Hotel, who turns out to be called Kiki, and who furthermore seems to have disappeared.

The narrator and Gotanda become regular drinking buddies, and even share a wild night with a couple of high-class prostitutes. All good fun until one of them turns up murdered carrying one of the narrator's business cards, and he gets hauled in by the police for questioning. Eventually they have to release him, and he returns to his directionless routine of hanging out with Yuki, drinking with Gotanda and trying to track down Kiki, interspersed with some strange waking dreams/visions whose meaning is unclear but seem to portend death. But whose?

Eventually he takes Yuki out for the day in a swanky Maserati that Gotanda has lent him and she has a clairvoyant moment at the end of which she announces that Gotanda is Kiki's murderer. The narrator confronts Gotanda with this accusation and he confesses in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way, and shortly after kills himself by driving his Maserati off a pier into Tokyo Bay.

This strand of the mystery resolved, the narrator returns to Sapporo and the Dolphin Hotel, renews his acquaintance with Yumiyoshi in a more satisfyingly penetrative way, and then almost immediately finds himself and her wandering the dank corridor's of the Sheep Man's mysterious netherworld. The Sheep Man is nowhere to be found, though. So does this mean his work is done? Both Yumiyoshi and the narrator have to pass through some mysterious wibbly-wobbly portal to emerge back in the hotel bedroom. So does this mean the loose ends are tied up and the narrator and his lady friend are free to live happily ever after?

I mean, who knows, frankly. A slavish devotion to, or insistence on, linearity of plot and definitive resolution of loose ends is probably incompatible with reading a Murakami novel anyway. For instance the whole business around who killed Mei, the prostitute from the narrator's wild foursome with Gotanda, is pretty much forgotten about, unless we're meant to assume that Gotanda offed her as well as Kiki. Maybe we are. This book, as most of them do, bimbles along in its own slightly dream-like way without it ever being very clear where it's going, nor even, at the end, whether we've got there or not. Which isn't to say the journey hasn't been an enjoyable one - all Murakami's usual tropes are here: sheep, women's ears, death, the main protagonist having to choose between one mysterious, unattainable and possibly dead woman and one more down-to-earth alive one. That last one can also be found in Norwegian Wood; the previous ones can be found in A Wild Sheep Chase to which Dance Dance Dance is apparently a sort of sequel. Whether it makes sense as a sequel I really couldn't say, as I remember very little about A Wild Sheep Chase other than that it featured sheep.

The books just mentioned are the only three Murakami's I've ever read. I'd be hard-pressed to choose a favourite, partly because the plots, such as they are, are so wispy and dream-like and relatively inconsequential (I mean, people die, but they seem so unlike "real" people that it doesn't seem to matter) that they slip through your fingers like smoke as soon as you've put the book down. As enjoyable and readable and idiosyncratic as they are I have some sympathy for the view expressed in this article, which dares to suggest that the received wisdom that Murakami is a Great Novelist and long overdue for a Nobel prize may be a bit overblown.

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