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Murakami’s compelling mix of magic, eccentricity and surreality

  • Published at 04:57 pm July 28th, 2021
First Person Singular

Book review

Haruki Murakami, a well-known Japanese novelist, is known for his peculiar yet compelling stories. His works have a linguistic beauty that his global audience appreciates, primarily due to his straightforward sentences. 

Murakami listens to a talking monkey in a steam bath, experiences an epiphany with the Beatles, recollects nostalgic memories of youth, and traces moments that reveal their true meaning only in retrospect. First Person Singular, at first glance, promises stories that are largely autobiographical but as the reader goes deeper into them, they discover that traces of the self are blended superbly in this characteristic magical realist world.

After seven long years of his last short story collection, Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami presents his fans with a new collection of stories titled First Person Singular. 

With elegant linguistic simplicity, this collection of eight stories roams through worlds that underlie immense metaphoric as well as philosophical significance. By creating a new identity or denying incidents that occur almost below the memory threshold, the stories always leave the narrators perplexed with ontological questions. Murakami's short stories, especially those in this collection, show each of their narrators in a familiar yet delightfully strange and distinct way.

The story “Creame” deals with an invitation that leads first to nothingness and then to a prophetic old man. Murakami comes up with the beautiful image of “circle with many centres but no circumference,” and the narrator finds out about the concept of the “most important essence of life,” which is reflected upon and labelled as the French expression of “crème de la crème.”

In “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” a novice writer deceitfully constructs a fake review of a Charlie Parker record that could not exist in reality since Parker had died before Bossa Nova became famous. Therefore, this fake review initiates a fan’s daydream into reality. The study of a fictional record becomes a boomerang in a New York store years later, though it whizzes by so fast that no one but the narrator can see it. A wonderful blurring of lines between imagination and this writer’s core competence, which is also Murakami’s own aptitude that makes him such a wonderful storyteller.

“Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey”, a captivating surreal story about a mythomaniac monkey, transcends the seemingly autobiographical framework of the other stories. Instead of putting psychoanalytical aphorisms about desire into the mouth of the mythomaniac ape, Murakami has him speak of heart-warming calendar-wisdom like “love is the fuel that keeps us alive.” 

‘Gosoler Pukurshomuho’: From our fantasies to everyone’s reality

In the story “Carnaval,” the male narrator finds himself attracted to a woman he calls “the ugliest” of all women he’s met. The relationship they form reaches a new height as they come to know that both of them love the piano solos composed by Robert Schumann. As the story progresses, we find them conversing about what they like so much about Schumann. It turns out that the male narrator, who is an author, is reflecting on his own writing through his analysis of Schumann’s music. Any perceptive reader will soon realise that through this story Murakami is actually talking about his own fiction, providing readers and critics with an explanation for why his stories are what they are: eccentric, whimsical, rambling, lacking a solid foundation but giving birth to something new.

The titular story is the most intriguing one in this collection and it will remind the reader of Kafka. This story can also be seen as the most relevant in today’s world. The narrator who always dresses in casual outfits, decides to put on an expensive suit and while looking at himself in the mirror, he feels an unexplainable sense of guilt and shame. Later, in a bar, the narrator meets a woman he cannot remember having ever been acquainted with, and the “horrible, awful things” he did to her friend did not revive any of his past memories as well. He leaves the bar only to avoid an argument; however, he cannot shake off the sense of guilt emerging from his core and engulfing him from within. 

Here, Murakami again juxtaposes reality with the uncanny. This story reflects upon a world full of abusive behaviour towards women. Even after being accused publicly, he is not held accountable, whereas the victim is constantly vilified at the end.

The stories in this collection have been translated by Philip Gabriel, who previously translated many of Murakami’s notable works including 1Q84, Kafka on the Shore and Killing Commendatore. Philip Gabriel should be praised for his apt translation that catches the reader’s attention. Moreover, immaculate imagery, combined with a beautiful play of words, makes this translation flowing and an easy-read for readers.

In this dreamlike fictional space, all the stories, despite their enigmatic and magical qualities, projects the idea that a very simple event, or coincidence, can become meaningful in retrospect in the labyrinth of our everyday life. Hardly anyone traces the trivialities in which everything that follows can be laid out as masterfully as Haruki Murakami does with his stories. 

All of Murakami's trademarks can be found in First Person Singular. Surrealistic and mystical elements frame the interplay between reality and fiction. Another component of Murakami's signature style is the allusion to pop culture and literature. 

Thanks to his forthright narrative style and great sensitivity to the human psyche, First Person Singular is impressively profound and spellbinding at the same time.

Afsana Rahman is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.

First Person Singular

Haruki Murakami

Published by Knopf (April 6, 2021)

ISBN: ‎ 978-0593318072

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