Presents from the dead

by Kato Koiti
translated by Graham Chave

Kato Koiti published this essay in August 1982 issue of Gunzo, and Mr. Graham Chave volunteered to traslate it in English on March 10 1998.


When reading Murakami Haruki's novels, I sometimes feel as if lost in a fairyland. Within those novels are hotels called 'The Dolphin Hotel,' cats called 'Kipper,' and buses named 'Antelope' and 'Deer.' Having friends from Venus and Saturn is totally normal. Kawamoto Saburo was correct in his comment that within Murakami Haruki's novels, "There's a merry-go-round going around and around."

Nevertheless, although childlike images prevail, it would be unwise to conclude that the protagonist "I" is either unable to grow up, or he is merely childish. It should be the other way round. Emotionally immature people tend towards loneliness, they hold high opinions of themselves, they themselves stand out, and any problems that may occur are inevitably someone else's fault. It is evident that this is not the case with "I." Instead of attributing blame, he suffers in silence, and when introducing himself uses clichés such as 'dull,' 'average,' 'plain,' 'Capricorn, blood type A.' Yet, upon reading the argument with the "Boss'" private secretary, we realise again that life has been very tough on him. Just because he eats, for example animal cookies, doesn't mean he's childish.

Another point. Let us not forget that all through the trilogy of "Hear the Wind Sing," "Pinball 1973" and "A Wild Sheep Chase," "I" is forever the gentleman, always watching over and protecting women. He'd told his ex-wife about "The girl who'd sleep with anyone," but she reminded him that "But not with you, right?" "Basically, you're not that sort of guy. You can always be counted upon." Although whilst taking care of her "I" had slept with "the girl who'd sleep with anyone" every week, as long as he didn't remind his wife of it, she was correct. When he has a girlfriend, instead of relating to them on equal terms, he always appears overbearing. In "Pinball 1973," he supports the twins, teaching them manners, literally taking the place of their parent. Even if Murakami's novels are as if in a fairyland or amusement park, "I" is not so much a child playing there, rather, he's a lonely guardian or parent looking after his children.

This type of moulding of youth is exceptional, when compared to traditional Japanese novels. The protagonists of Japanese novels, from Soseki, Shiga Naoya and Tanizaki Jun'ichiro through to Kojima Nobuo have repeatedly been protective 'mother' figures, trying (often in vain) to guard their lover, or their wife. Jacques Lacan defined the entity which gave pleasure as "The Mother," and that which gave order (ie limits pleasure) as "The Father." However, in order that these protagonists may lead a stable existence, they need to look to their own "mother" figure, who fought against those outside agents (the world, parents) which impeded that stability. Japan's recent literary history is one of rebellious youth, and ostensibly, even one of symbolic patricide.

However, Murakami's protagonists, benevolent protectors that they are, cleverly avoid this historical stereotype, and manage to lead that stable existence. If one assumes that Murakami's novels stand out, it means merely that Japan's novelistic history is rooted in the swagger of rebellious sons. If this idea is appealing, it means that rather than being patricidal, his writing is a substitute for the parent.

Why is this possible?

It is undeniable that Hard-Boiled novels derive from an influential model. Although Philip Marlowe would put it differently, Hard-Boiled detectives come across as being bold yet gentle. "Bold" doesn't really need to be explained. But what sort of 'gentleness' are we talking about? It's definitely not the idea of fawning over women. While it's true that women are very important, excess admiration and over-affection are best avoided. This Hard-Boiled 'gentleness' has to be the even-handedness of a father. It has to depend on the situation.

There is a unique work by Robert B. Parker, "Early Autumn," which explores 'gentleness' in a whole new light. Spenser, a private detective, becomes a pawn in the quarrel between divorced parents, and ends up looking after the son Paul, who is helplessly caught between them. To help sort the boy out, he gets him out of bed early, takes him jogging, shows him how to cook, and even starts to make a hut with him. He's trying to teach him the things his father taught him. Spencer is fulfilling the role of Lacan's "Father," by setting rules and providing order.

Books that so clearly expound a father's mission are exceptional, but it us undeniable that the idea of Father = Detective echoes resoundingly throughout Hard-Boiled fiction in general. While working as an author, Parker teaches at a university as a "hardboiled researcher," but as he deliberately uses elements traditionally left latent, his works sometimes appear a sophisticated parody of hardboiled novels.

However, although hard-boiled detectives may well be the inspiration for "I," there remain many disparities. One is that the detectives always appear paternalistic towards women, whereas Murakami's protagonists do not. They do not feel they have to convey anything. The way in which "I" conveys happiness is very "motherly," so he is never made a fuss over by women. At times, even Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer are taken aback by a brilliant or beautiful partner, and lose their composure.

"I" works on the principle of not bothering anyone. Rather than trample on anyone, he'd rather do without altogether – to the woman, whom he'd later marry and then divorce:

She nodded.
"So that's how you plan to spend the rest of your life?"
"Probably. At least I won't be bothering anybody."
"If you really feel that way," she said, "Why not live in a shoebox?"
A charming idea. (Pinball 1973)

Saddled with such a husband, she felt herself unable to fit into society, her husband also felt the same way. As a woman, especially one in a country known for attentive wives, what did she do to deserve him?

She'd been regularly sleeping with my friend for a long time, but even when she upped and moved in with him, it wasn't such a big deal. That was quite possible, something which often happens, and even after she'd left, I didn't think there was anything special about it. After all, it was her problem. (A Wild Sheep Chase)

Whether they split or not was her decision, and he had nothing to do with it. "I" had no reason to split up with her, and he had no reason to stay with her. As far as he could tell, he didn't have much of a relationship with his wife. There was no tenderness, no jealousy, no ground on which to build a healthy man-woman relationship.

The following exchange makes it clear that this isn't simply a pose, or mere rhetoric.

It was a Sunday in June when she said she wanted a divorce; I was playing with the tab from a beer can.
"So, whichever way is OK with you, then?" she asked, in a slow voice.
"No, it's not." I said. "It's just that it's your decision, not mine."
"To be honest, I don't want to leave you." She said a short while later.
"Well, you don't have to leave." I said. "But, staying with you, I'm not going anywhere." (Ibid)

In all likelihood, as long as he was living with his wife, "I" felt trapped inside the shoebox. His wife wanted him to emerge from it, to put himself out a little, or to carry on like a spoiled child. Even to tell her off, as would a father. But "I," shut up in his box, only exhibited the indeterminate affection (and the boundless capacity for forgiveness) of a mother. This was towards his wife, who had wanted so much to show affection towards her husband. "I" said his wife had left "without even leaving behind a slip," but he didn't really expect anything different. Rather, her leaving in this way was to be expected, and although belated, it was a case of "Maybe I shouldn't have married anyone."

Of course, this isn't said in as many words. The books are written from "I's" viewpoint, that of a lonely parent in a dreamland. Murakami's trademark laid-back writing style is a result of his subjectivity.



"I" has a fanatical dislike of sentimentalism. But in Murakami's novels, this sentimentalism is not repressed, much less removed. Rather, in his novels the passages that shine the most brilliantly are those when he's describing the atmosphere of doting on someone.

He shows this by using such adverbs as "slowly" and "gently".

Leaving the shop, we walked slowly along the road, bordered by storehouses, in the strangely clear twilight. Side by side, I noticed the faint smell of her hair rinse. The wind that gently blew the willow leaves reminded me of late summer. We walked a while, and I took her hand – the one that had 5 fingers – in mine. (Hear the wind sing)

"I want you." I said. "Alright" she said, smiling. We walked slowly to the apartment, with our hands in the coat pocket. (A Wild Sheep Chase)

Laughing, she picked up the cat, and gently put it down. We embraced on the sofa. If you put your face close to the sofa, which I'd bought at a second-hand store, it had that old-fashioned smell. Her soft body melted into the scent. Warm, gentle, like a half forgotten memory. I softly stroked her hair with my finger, and kissed her cheek. The world trembled. The world was small, so small. There, the time flowed like a gentle breeze. (Ibid)

Tranquil words like "slowly," "gently" broaden the serenity, and that serenity awakens old memories. They all melt into a delicious dream. All the world, melted into one.

Roland Barthes, in "The Pleasure of the Text" had this to say:

Apart from sex (merely distant echoes from an imaginary world?), there is another type of embrace. That where you just hold one another, not stirring. When you're enraptured, or entranced, just feeling dozy, when you're dripping with a drowsy sensuality. That is the instant when you can start the fairy tale, the instant when you can say anything. That's when you return to the mother - in the lyrics of the Duparc song: "In the loving calm of your arms." In returning to this 'incest', everything is hanging in space; time, rules, taboos. Nothing runs out, nothing is needed. The cessation of all impulses, because one requires nothing. ("In the loving calm of your arms.")

The influence of imaginary worlds, and even his obsession with this "renewed incest" is what alerts us to Murakami's "slowly" and "gently." It is a minute kingdom, where time, rules, and taboos are left hanging. Murakami's descriptions tend towards a return, even a regression to that kingdom, coupled with wonderland-like imagery.

The phenomenon we know as 'love' probably emerges from the cycle between depending on and being depended on, protecting and being protected, the maelstrom between a mother and child. Lovers' dreams pivot gently upon an axis of "renewed incest," which is a limitless mutual dependency.

However, in Murakami's writings, this pivoting is usually avoided or slowed down, because impurities enter into the cycle. In the first quotation, there suddenly appears the sentence that points out the disfigurement, "her hand that had 5 fingers." A minute crack appears in the "tiny, tiny world" of "I" and "The girl with the ears," and from there, the real world blows in like a "gentle breeze." Two people keeping company may in reality be called "sex" (although Barthes would not approve…), and the rotation of ideas causes conflict, and this cycle of depending and being depended upon has to be avoided. Those rules, time, and taboos that were hanging in space start to clamour, and the pressures of reality open the crack even more. That pivotal point called "renewed incest" is unreliable, because "I" doesn't know how long it will last.

Why is this so?

It's because of the uncertainty of dependence, of being protected. "I" touches on his going to a psychiatrist in his youth, and talks of that uncertainty. His parents were worried about his quietness, and thus made him go, but the psychiatrist started to talk about "Civilisation being communication."

Civilisation IS communication, he said. Whatever can't be expressed might as well not exist. Understand? Zero. Imagine you're hungry. All you need to say is "I'm hungry." I'll give you a cookie. Go ahead. (I took a cookie.) If you don't say anything, you won't get anything. (Unfairly, the psychiatrist hid the plate of cookies beneath the table.) Zilch. Get it? You don't want to talk. But you're hungry. Now, I want you to express that without using words. A game of charades. Let's have a go.
I made a face, while pushing my stomach. The shrink laughed. That's indigestion." (Hear The Wind Sing)

Here, the psychiatrist is using the threat of being laughed at as a tool to educate. Miura Masashi, in 'Murakami and Modern Logic' takes this paragraph in an epistemological context, explaining "Behind this light-hearted dialogue lies the hopelessness of being unable to explain his feelings to the other person, and worse, being unable to deduce what the other person is feeling," but this is a rather intellectual viewpoint. What we must remember is that this is not a conversation between equals, but one taking place between protector and dependant, doctor and patient, adult and child. The game is a spoken contract, "I" is unilaterally begging for food, the psychiatrist is unilaterally laughing, mocking him. As we see in Miura Masashi's micro-politically dynamic discourse on protecting and being protected, depending and being depended upon, this problem of other people's understanding is nothing more than an abstraction comprising points rendering these dynamics abstract. The issue is not whether other people understand or not, but that these words that comprise a civilisation's rules are unavoidable for a child.

The psychiatrist purposely hid the cookies with an evil grin, and intentionally misconstrued his patient's gestures. "I" was forced to confront the uncertainty of being in a situation of dependence and of being protected, and of dealing with someone else's maliciousness. However, running up against this type of maliciousness and unkindness is a rude shock for a child, and thus he won't learn the rules or precepts that govern a society. If children can get by without acquiring language or words, then they haven't progressed. "I" had the idea that words = rules hammered in by the psychiatrist, albeit a little late, and was forced to grow up, away from Barthes "innocent sensuality."

But what did "I" get from all this? He got "rules" complete with language, and the qualification to take part in society. Maybe he got time relentlessly passing, or taboos. Perhaps somebody else's world constructed from rules, time and taboos.

"I" realises that for uncountable dead people, other people's worlds are fragile, uncertain, compared to the sufficiency of that timeless "innocent sensuality." Many people appear, and then die shortly afterwards.

The most significant, and for "I" the first death, is that of his lover Naoko, who committed suicide. It is clear that she is the most important, as she is the only one who has a normal first name, instead of either a functional name (the woman who sleeps with anyone), or a nickname (208, 209) from all of the seven women who appear on the scene throughout the trilogy. Many dates appear through the three novels, but they are all in relation to the starting point of her suicide, in 1969. For 1970, '69 is "last year,' for 1973, '69 is "four years ago," and for 1982, '69 is "thirteen years ago."

They're not just dates. They give us an unusual perspective on both her death and the very sense of time itself.

Talking about the dead is hard, more so talking about those who died young. That's because having died, they are young forever. However those of us left behind grow older, year by year, month by month, day by day. Sometimes I even feel myself getting older by the hour. And what is really scary is that it's actually happening. (Hear The Wind Sing)

The passing of time is not the process of growing up or maturing, it's that of decaying, of degenerating, of marching inexorably towards death. This is very "Fitzgerald-esque" (the Rat used the word "cracked" – "Hey J, everybody's rotting, eh?"). However, to Murakami death is an "internal shock;" it was Naoko's death that made him aware of this, and of the sense of passing time. Other deaths that occur are only commented on in reference to this sense of time.

The autumn Naoko turned 17, a worker was run over by a train and killed. A combination of heavy rain, chilled sake, and being hard of hearing. The body was pulverised, spread all over the adjoining fields, and seven policemen had to keep chasing away packs of hungry wild dogs with pikes while they filled up 5 buckets with the remains. At least a bucket worth ended up in a river, flowed into a pond, and became fish food.

The worker's body passes through "I's" field of vision like a meteor shower. His description of it as a natural phenomenon is cool, calm, but not dispassionate. There is something sacrilegious in "I's" tone. In describing the dead body merely as an object, "I" feels a certain release. Profaning the solemnity of death, regarding both Naoko's and his own death as but trivialities, leads to his regarding it as nothing more than a natural phenomenon.

In addition, "I" minutely divides his day into what needs to be done, as if filling in a day planner. Surely, an everyday routine such as "I get up at 7, brew coffee, make toast, leave for work, in the evening I eat out, have 2 or 3 drinks, return home, and read in bed for an hour…" is a contrivance, necessary in order to divert ones attention from the cracks that silently develop in growing older.

The same thing can be said about mutterings such as "That's it" and "That's all there is." These phrases were clearly inspired by 'so it goes,' the oft-repeated refrain from Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five.' Vonnegut made his narrator mumble this whenever someone in the story was senselessly killed, but according to the preface of Céline's novel "Journey to the End of the Night," this was his own response to shock.

I probably wouldn't have come up with Céline's literary style, although that style would be unavoidable, even if not burdened with a head wound. One can but scream, just as when one is caught right in the middle of a barrage.
It would therefore be wrong to call his works a victory of human imagination. That's because, no matter how much we scream, life goes on, whether we like it or not."

Vonnegut was also caught in the middle of an artillery barrage. However, for him it was an unstoppable tragicomedy, one that only made him grimace to himself. His narrator didn't relentlessly scream abuse, as would Céline. Only an agonised murmur of complaint escaped his mouth. "That's all," "etcetera, etcetera" "same as before."

Murakami's "That's it," "That's all," from "Pinball 1973" are coming from a totally different background.

Things have to have an entrance and an exit. That's the way it is. (Pinball 1973)

My mind, and someone else's are totally different. Well, I said. Well, came the reply. That's all. (ibid)

She doesn't have a name. She's just a poor aunt. That's all. (The tale of a poor aunt.)

Against the idea, however cynical it may sound, that Vonnegut's "So it goes" is ultimately a gesture of protest against an ongoing tragicomedy, Murakami's refrain is rather a gesture of trying to hide from reality. However, in translating from the Japanese, rather than using the words "so it goes," something like "that's the way it is," or "that's all" might be preferable. Murakami's characters try to avoid tragicomedy. What we have here are gestures, which by classifying things, attempt to eliminate hypothesising, and thus are indirect and formulaic.

This is the same as enumerating. For example, "I" said that in the period from the 15th of August 1969 to the 3rd of April the next year, he'd attended three hundred and fifty-eight lectures, had sex fifty-four times, and smoked six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-one cigarettes. Naoko's disappearance, suicide, and the discovery of her body all happened in these two hundred and thirty-two days. He doesn't say how many of these fifty-four times he had sex were with Naoko. Rather, his enumerating trivialises that amount, by including her in with the other girls with whom he'd had sex. Perhaps through his repetition of "that's the way it is" and "that's all," perhaps through his habit of counting and classifying, does he manage to maintain a grasp on this uncertain world of that is slowly crumbling, this world of weakening "rules."



The girl with the ears asked "I," who was reproaching himself for being a boring person, "Isn't it that you're not boring, but that you seek out boring people?"

"Why do I do that?" I asked.
"It's because you're only half living." She replied frankly.

"The other half is lying somewhere, untouched." (A Wild Sheep Chase)

This life half-lived, by arbitrarily protecting avoids needing protection, a lifestyle in which he only reveals to others those aspects of himself that can be enumerated or categorised. By having this precept drilled into him, "I" moved from the world of "innocent sensuality" to someone else's world, but it's one he didn't really accept.

Why not? "Rules," for a start, were something he was forced to learn, because on his own he would not have entered into this world. Somewhere deep inside him, he hadn't yet abandoned the realm of "innocent sensuality." To best describe to what extent other people's worlds are their own, borrowing a quote from a certain short story: "This is where I belong, right from the start."

Previously we saw that his lover's suicide formanted a strong feeling of disquiet and distrust about someone else's world, but this disquiet was not caused by her failure to grasp it. Rather, it was the unease itself that called forth something from deep inside them. The problem lies in another's disappearance, and in the disappearance of half of one.

However, apart from the unease at the death of someone close, another emotion comes to mind. Guilt. As a rule, "I" doesn't talk about it much. He only really expressed guilt to the pinball machine.

All sorts of disconnected ideas floated into my head, and then disappeared. All sorts of people drifted into view across the glass top over the field, then faded away. Like a two-way mirror to my dreams, the glass top reflected my own mind as it flickered in unison with the bumper and bonus lights.
It's not your fault, she said. To which I only kept shaking my head. You're not to blame, you gave it your all, didn't you?
No way, said I. Left flipper, top transfer, ninth target. Not even close. I didn't get a single thing right. I hardly moved a finger. But I could have, if I'd been on the ball. (Pinball 1973)

In reality, there wasn't anything he could have done. In spite of that, reproaching himself with "I can do it if I try," is the same thing as confessing that he'd left her to her fate, or wishing her dead. While he loved her, at the same time he hated her. That is because her uniqueness stole "I's" sense of being one, through stealing his sense of being. So, his remorse for that hatred forces this inconsistent confession.

Freud put it like this.

When their daughter died, a woman said to her husband that the bereaved is racked by doubts that their own uncertainty let their loved one die through negligence. This is called "obsessive self-reproach," and is very common. …To the extent that one should feel reproach, mourners have a responsibility towards the dead, and while there may remain some emotion, it's not really that of neglect, rather that of unconscious desire. This desire is not satisfied with death, and given the will may itself draw one towards death. There is the idea that self-reproach appears after a loved one's death, as a reaction to this unconscious desire. (Totem and Taboo)

One day in 1970, "I" grumbled "To really come to grips with the fact that something has happened could take 10 years," but for the 13 years from '69 to '82 it is safe to assume that he fights that self-remorse. As a result of her suicide, he begins to be aware of a sense of unease as regards other people's worlds, but at the same time, he becomes unable to acknowledge that those worlds were their own. Put differently, it's because "I" made advances towards another woman, as a result of his psychological complicity in his girlfriend's death. "I" is no longer pure. By the time that "I" asserts that he has nothing to do with anyone else's world, full of weakness, pain and suffering, he is already involved in it.

So how can he disassociate himself from it?

The conclusion is a result of the Rat's suicide. In order to kill the sheep (that on one hand gave its hosts limitless power, while on the other sucking them dry), the Rat sacrificed his own life. "I" asks him why.

"I guess I feel attached to my weakness. My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas – if I like these things, why should I apologise? The same with having a beer with you…" The Rat swallowed his words. "I don't know why." (A Wild Sheep Chase)

It is clear that The Rat's fleeting, ephemeral "summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas," point to another world, one governed by rules. He denies that of the Sheepman, which was "A Kingdom of Conceptual Anarchy." Therefore, by continuing on by himself, "I" supports the Rat's decision.

Lacan has this to say.

Following this train of thought, why didn't Freud (who after all, founded these rules), recognise this relationship when he made the connection between the appearance of the father, and death, even patricide? Accordingly, if this death is when the debt is repaid, (the death being that of he who had enforced those rules for a lifetime.) then it shows that inasmuch where he stands for the rules, the symbolic father IS the dead father. (On a Question Preliminary to any Possible Treatment of Psychosis.)

Through his part in the Rat's death, because of the "rules", "I" is again bound by duty. His connection with the land of "innocent sensuality," a kingdom wholly within his grasp, is dead and buried. Rules are what we receive from the dead.

For "I", accepting those rules is one step towards someone else's world.

(August 1982 Gunzo)

Copyright 1996 Kato Koiti
Copyright 1998 Graham Chave

This page was created on May 10 1998.


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