Sunday, October 19, 2014

Haruki Murakami's evasive fiction

Haruki Murakami, perhaps the contemporary Japanese novelist best-known to Western readers, has a short story, "Scheherazade," in the October 13, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. It begins (in Ted Goossen's translation), "Each time they had sex, she told Habara a strange and gripping story afterward."

Habara, 31, seems to be under house arrest or internal exile in a provincial Japanese city. The woman with whom he has sex is 35, "a full-time housewife with two children in elementary school (though she was also a registered nurse and was apparently called in for the occasional job)." It's not clear whether bringing Habara groceries twice a week and servicing him sexually is part of the job. Nor do we learn her name. Habara calls her Scheherazade because she tells him stories that always break off before the end, as does Murakami's own story here (another reason for my frustration).

We don't know why Habara is stuck in the house. He watches DVDs and reads all day—no newspapers, no internet, no television, and presumably no radio. We know nothing about his earlier life, his family, even his feelings for the woman. "Scheherazade" takes place entirely within the house, giving a claustrophobic feeling.

On The New Yorker's website, Deborah Treisman says, "If Scheherazade is a lamprey eel, dependent on other creatures for her survival, Habara refers to himself as a desert island, isolated and self-sufficient. Do you see him that way? Could he survive with no human contact?"

Murakami responds, "Habara is a man who has experienced an irrevocable turning point in his life. Was the turning point moral, or legal, or was it a metaphorical, symbolic, psychological kind of thing? Did he turn the corner voluntarily, or did someone force him? Is he satisfied with the results or not? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The instant he turned that corner, though, he became a 'desert island.' Things can’t go back to the way they were, no matter what he does. I think that is the most important aspect of this story."

The reaction of this reader however is a feeling of being cheated. It seems to me that an irrevocable turning point in a life is a story and to evade it is to evade the artist's responsibility to say something meaningful about the world. Treisman asks, "These two characters’ lives intersect seemingly at random—or at the whim of some unnamed person. What made you think of throwing them together in this situation?"

Murakimi responds, "I occasionally think that, in our heart of hearts, we all may be seeking situations like this one—where our free will doesn’t apply and (almost) everything is determined by someone else, where each day must be lived according to the conditions that someone else has laid down. There are people who may already be living that sort of life, to a greater or lesser extent, without even knowing it." In fact, as a volunteer teacher in prisons, I've met hundreds of people who must live each day according to conditions that someone else has laid down. For most of them, it's not a lot of fun or very interesting.

I did not believe for a moment that Habara or his "Scheherazade" embodied anything "real." I thought the situation was interesting (I thought it was a writer's wet dream: be alone to read, watch DVDs, write, and have a complaint woman provide the groceries and regular sex without any responsibility), and I thought the story Scheherazade tells about a youthful infatuation interesting, but (and this may well be my lack of imagination and bias) I found the story irritating and ultimately meaningless.

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