Book review: Absolutely on Music by Murakami & Ozawa


Published on 7 January on Scroll.in

A series of conversations with a renowned conductor reveals a new facet of Murakami’s writing technique.

m

Publishers will publish, bookshops will stockpile, and fans will comply. This is perhaps just one of the pluses of being Haruki Murakami. An idea is all he needs, and in no time there’s a brand new book ready to fly off the shelves.

So, when Murakami decided to record and transcribe his conversations on and about music – a total of six interviews during 2010 and 2011 – with acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa into a book, the success of the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Absolutely on Music is a gorgeous volume, detailing a significant facet of what inspires and rules Murakami’s very being – his relationship with music.

Like Murakami in global literature, Ozawa is renowned in the world of classical music. He served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 long years, and was music director for the symphony orchestras of Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago.

After decades of practising music, a sudden and unfortunate episode of esophageal cancer, followed by major surgery, compelled Ozawa to take a rehabilitation break. This is when Murakami caught his attention. Until then, the writer was just an “anonymous fan” whom Ozawa had heard of from his daughter. And it was only after they spent an afternoon listening to recordings by Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida that Ozawa realised that Murakami “doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

Not an amateur

That Haruki Murakami owned a jazz club named Peter Cat in Tokyo before he became a phenomenon in the literary world is well-known. But despite being an avid listener and collector of records, and someone who frequents classical concerts and operas, why he almost always identifies himself as a “musical layman” is unexplained. He says he took decades to understand the nuances of the compositions, and still insists that his “technical knowledge of music is limited.”

The truth is that Murakami’s affair with music has been dedicated and disciplined, definitive glimpses of which can be seen in almost all his works. For instance, not only is one of his earlier novels named for The Beatles song Norwegian Wood, Leoš Janáček’s composition Sinfonietta plays a critical role in the epic 1Q84. As Scott Meslow writes, reading Murakami is often like negotiating a playlist.

But Absolutely on Music isn’t just about music – it’s also about comparisons between different recordings and performances from two different perspectives, the expert’s and the outsider’s. Obviously, a firm grasp on the subject is imperative to appreciate the depths of the music being discussed in the book.

Fan moment

In Absolutely on Music, Murakami confesses to being self-conscious in the company of Ozawa. He recalls his visits to Ozawa’s concerts, where he shared a moment or two with the maestro he hugely admired. He avoided talking about musical, because he knew that “Ozawa is the type of person who focuses all his energy on his work, so that when he steps away from it, he needs to take a breather.” This formality gradually faded when Ozawa had time to spare during his rehabilitation, the period when he and Murakami became friends.

As in his fictions, Murakami doesn’t impose his love or understanding of music on the reader – and certainly not on Ozawa – through this book. But it’s certainly interesting to observe how he interprets a certain composition. While Ozawa reminiscences about his early career and narrates anecdotes from his days in 1960s New York, Murakami prompts and prods like a practised interviewer. In fact, his interpretation of Ozawa’s musical lifespan is fascinating to the subject too. At one point Ozawa exclaims, “I’m enjoying talking to you about music like this because your perspective is so different from mine. It’s that difference that has been making it a learning experience for me, something fresh and unexpected.”

Rhyme and reason

Like all musical compositions, Absolutely on Music too pauses for an interlude after every conversation. These are brief, self-aware breaks, interjected deliberately to maintain a rhythm in the narrative.

One such interlude is when Murakami deliberates on the effect of music on the craft of writing. Very lucidly, he explains to Ozawa how rhythm controls the flow of words:

“No one ever taught me to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.”

More than their shared passion for music, Murakami also aspires to draw out similarities between himself and Ozawa. In the Introduction he points out that both he and Ozawa are early risers, who spend those first hours of the day creating art – music and stories respectively. Both are happiest when they’re immersed in their work. And they both share the trait of stubbornness. Murakami’s original motive behind putting this book together is to bring out the ways in which each of them is dedicated to music.

But one can safely say that Murakami’s fans love his trademark eccentric worlds of possibilities rather than certainties, which seem to resemble theirs too. So, it’s hard to imagine Absolutely on Music hitting the same grey zone as his other books, for it digs deep into the technicalities of classical Western music, something that not every reader has their sentiments attached to. Still, because it’s Murakami, there’s still the unexpectedness of magic in this book.

Fifteen ways to tell if you’re living in a Haruki Murakami novel


Published on 16 August, 2015 in Scroll.in

Disappearing cats, empty wells and mysterious women, Murakami’s world is yours if any of these feels like your life.

aaYou don’t have to read all of his novels or short stories to know that Haruki Murakami, a self-confessed recluse, comes up with characters, plots and ideas that border on the absurd almost naturally, and yet is able to make it all seem believable.

Whether it is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84, Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, or any of his other successful works, Murakami’s understanding of mildly magically realistic phenomena does leav you squirming in a combination of delight and discomfort, doesn’t it?

These instances and events may seem unreal to Murakami muggles, but a true fan will see nothing but absolute normalcy. And with his latest work in English translation, Wind/Pinball (his first novellas, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973), now out, the temptation to relate to the situations and characteristics of Murakami’s people is hard to contain.

Here are fifteen ways to know whether you’re actually living in a Haruki Murakami novel. (Try to identify the novels too.)

# 1: You happen to come across a dry well and suddenly have the urge to climb down into the darkness. The bottom of the well seems to be the most ideal place to sit and ponder about what’s happening in your life. To give you company is a baseball bat that you clutch with all your strength

# 2: Your best friends suddenly stop being friends with you. They begin to avoid you and eventually, cut off all ties with you. You continue to live with the misery and confusion of not knowing what went wrong. All you can do is blame yourself.

# 3: You are uncomfortable around most humans and have acquired this extraordinary ability to speak to stray cats. They speak back to you and it’s perfectly normal for you sit by their side and strike a conversation

# 4: Your wife has left you and so has your cat. And now you have the company of a strange woman who keeps calling you with unusual requests

# 5: Just when you think things are going well with your girlfriend, she decides to part with you suddenly to go live in a sanatorium. And to make things worse, she kills herself; she takes with her the reason why she left you in the first place, making you live in great misery for life.

# 6: You find solace in ironing clothes. It takes your mind off a lot of things and calms you in a way nothing else does.

# 7: A strange man visits your bar every day. He never talks to anyone and is forever engrossed in his book. He’s not your friend or acquaintance, but decides to help you escape during impending trouble. And you, instead of trusting your instincts, believe him and go away.

# 8: You love cooking spaghetti to perfection, in al dente form, but you’re not a gourmet. You can make do with a simple sandwich and a can of beer. Wasting time on deciding what to eat isn’t your thing – you’d rather sit on a bench and mull over what is and what used to be.

# 9: If you’re a man, sex for you is a mere physical need and you’re usually found in the company of older or married women who’re neither too clingy nor too demanding. They let you be and never interfere in your stream of thoughts. Love, of course, is a different ball game altogether, something that has always eluded you.

# 10: If you’re a woman, you’re mysterious. You express your emotions in bits and pieces and ensure that your lover/husband/admirer is perplexed to the point of being driven crazy.

# 11: You dig old jazz records and classical music.

# 12: Your belief in a parallel universe is rock solid. You know you’ll meet your childhood sweetheart in a world where the sky has two moons. Your actions are driven by your instincts and intuitions.

# 13: You’re a great listener and can spend hours listening to people’s stories. Also, you’re never in a hurry and usually have all the time in the world – to take a spontaneous trip to Greece, to take up an assassination assignment, and so on.

# 14: An ordinary birthday becomes extraordinary when you accidentally meet a person who makes your deepest wish come true.

# 15: A library feels like home. Always. You could practically live inside it.

The cheat-sheet:
1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

3. Kafka on the Shore
4. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
5. Norwegian Wood
6. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
7. Kino (short story)
8. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
9. 1Q84
10. Sputnik Sweetheart
11. All novels
12. 1Q84
13. Sputnik Sweetheart / 1Q84
14. Birthday Girl (short story)
15. Kafka on the Shore

Short stories: why you can love Murakami even without reading his novels


Published on 28 February in Scroll.in

Haruki Murakami’s stories are like soft shadows – the fainter of the footprints he has left behind.

In his introduction to the English edition of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, an anthology of 26 of his short stories, Haruki Murakami writes, “If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.” He doesn’t compare the two forms. In fact, he goes on to say that he enjoys writing both every now and then, and as readers, the least we can do for an author whom we like as much as we do him, is to gracefully accept the strange stories, both long and short, he loves to bewilder us with.

It’s no secret that his books are insanely popular worldwide. They sell more than a million copies at home and are translated into over 40 foreign languages from Japanese. They’re reviewed and mentioned in the most renowned publications of our time, and it’s not for nothing that he is expected to win the Nobel Prize in Literature every year.

But what about his short stories?

So, if one truly reveres Murakami’s works, one must find it next to impossible to ignore the other works of fiction he experiments with. For the best example of these, turn to his three short story collections: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, The Elephant Vanishes, and After the Quake.

1

The New Yorker, which has been carrying Murakami’s essays, excerpts, and short stories for years now, as it does of several other acclaimed authors, published his latest story, Kino, recently. It is the story of a man named Kino who, after encountering his wife in bed with his friend, chooses to lead a solitary life by running a humble bar in a quiet neighbourhood. A strange man named Kamita becomes a regular customer, and both Kino and he begin to feel comfortable in each other’s silent company. Things develop and Kamita, amazingly aware that the place is no longer safe for Kino and that something fatal is going to happen, suggests that he go away:

“Here’s what you do. Go far away, and don’t stay in one place for long. And every Monday and Thursday make sure to send a postcard. Then I’ll know you’re O.K.”

Kino is uncertain, but he takes Kamita’s advice and agrees to his terms. He doesn’t challenge the impending catastrophe and is somehow certain of Kamita’s concern (even though he doesn’t know him well) and that he must obey it, lest something bad befalls him. We never get to know the practical details like why the bar wasn’t safe, or who Kamita was after all, but the very nature of intuition is dark and mysterious, and as humans, we’d do anything to escape the fear of the unknown.

First draft novels?

A significant aspect of Murakami’s short stories that any of his fans must be familiar with is that many of them are amplified into his novels. That is to say, there are apparent allusions to the short stories and their characters in his books. In Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, for example, the protagonist’s trip to a hospital with his cousin is starkly similar to a section in one of Murakami’s earlier novels, Norwegian Wood, where Toru Watanabe recalls a similar trip he took with his friend some years ago.

It isn’t just these references that make Murakami’s short stories worth remembering. Each of them works around a single concept to achieve a level of profundity. The Year of Spaghetti is an utterly frank, to the point of being banal, story of a man obsessed with cooking spaghetti to counter loneliness. The Second Bakery Attack is about redemption and in a way, a tale of coming to terms with prickly guilt.

Samsa in Love is a stunning interpretation in reverse of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis; here the ‘monstrous verminous bug’ wakes up to find himself in the human form of Gregor Samsa, and not the other way round. He is attracted to a hunchbacked woman locksmith who visits his house, the reference to the woman being a hunchback being a deliberate contrast to the animal instinct taking root in Samsa, the bug’s heart. It feels like an imaginary prequel to Kafka’s novella. Scheherazade is a modern rendition of the legendary Arabic queen’s story by the same name; besides being a storyteller, she’s a sensuous caretaker in Murakami’s version.

His short stories are as extraordinary as his novels. Of course, it’d be incorrect to say that all his stories are equally incredible, but there are several that stay with you for a long time. Almost involuntarily, on a dull summer afternoon, you may find yourself drawn to a story you had read a long time ago. And at times, while re-reading a story, you’d discover connotations that you overlooked in the first read. But if you need a definitive conclusion or specific closure, sadly, you’ll be waiting forever. As so many of Murakami’s people also seem to do.