When I picked this book up, I don’t quite know what to expect. I happened to know that his books are hot in the recent bestseller list. Murakami seems to have a horde of cult-like followers. His books are written in the 80’s, and not until recent years they are translated for the English language readers.
This is my first book of Murakami, so I will steer away from the sweeping perception that all his books are the same as this one. You only get what surrealism means until you read this book. It started with someone who holds the job as a Calcultec shuffling data for a professor who lives underground in Tokyo, to reach the laboratory you have to pass through odd numbering rooms and lift that seems to be still but moving, and danger of eaten alive by underground creatures called INKlings, and a waterfall. When the main character (there doesn’t seem to be a name for this guy!), came out of the task, he was left with a Unicorn skull and then pursued by a hulk and a midget who wreck all valuables in his apartment and slashes his navel, and then subsequently checked by a team of despatch from the System.
The story then alternate between what happens with this guy who is a Calcultec to another guy who arrive at a surreal Town and was given a new pair of eyes (that cannot withstand the ray of sunlight) to be a dreamreader. This dreamreader is separated from his shadow and soon his shadow is going to die off come winter and he will remain trapped in the fortress of the Town where Gatekeeper kept shadows away from its body, burned dead beasts (which are Unicorns) and warned town folks to stay away from the Woods and the perils of escaping the Town. The shadow of the dreamreader was a toughie who refuse to succumb to his ultimate fate of death, hence had persuaded its body, the dreamreader, to map the whole town to seek out an escape route.
At the meantime, the Calcultec with the help of the professor’s granddaughter overcome the challenges to see the professor again, to find out the truth. Now the book transitioned itself to the Indiana Jones’ or The Alien movie experience of surpassing the INKlings, the leeches, the risk of drowning to get to the professor where he revealed the truth of what is going to happen to the Calcutec.
At three quarters of the book, I still do not know where this story is leading to. The book made a lot of reference to Western pop cultures. It is then revealed that the professor (en-ex central researcher of the System) and the System had created a sample of 26 human beings (with IQ over 120) to test out the functions of their brains. All of them had died 6 months apart from each other, only the Calcultec had stayed alive. Apparently the end of the world means the end of the world for a human mind. As a person loses his mind, he loses his ability to recall his past and his life and goes off into the proverbial La-la land such as the one of the Town. He will live without a mind, with no ability to experience joy or sadness. The two unrelated stories converge and Calcultec began to have flashes of his past and both characters in two different worlds are smitten with a librarian in their own respective world.
The strong willed shadow advised the weak-minded body, an appeal for not losing yourself:
You are not lost. It’s just that your own thoughts are being kept away from you, or hidden away. But the mind is strong. It survives, even without thought. Even with everything taken away, it holds a seed – your self. You must believe in your own powers.
And then the Colonel advising the dreamreader the appeal of losing yourself:
“You are fearful of losing your mind, as I feared myself. Let me say, however, that to relinquish yourself carries no shame. Lay down your mind and peace will come. A peace deeper than anything you have known.”
At the eve of the 24 hours mandate, the Calcutec ponders:
So what would I lost? I’d lost many things. Maybe a whole college crapbook full, all noted down in tiny script. Things that hadn’t seemed so important when I let go of them. Things that brought me sorrow later, although the opposite was also true. People and places and feelings kept slipping away from me.
Even if I had my life to live over again, I couldn’t imagine not doing things the same. After all, everything – this life I was losing – was me. And I couldn’t be any other self but my self. Could I?
Once when I was younger, I thought I could be someone else. But like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.
Was that so depressing?
Who knows? Maybe that was “despair”. What Turgenev called “disillusionment”. Or Dostoyevsky, “hell”. Or Somerset Maugham, “reality”. Whatever the label, I figured it was me.
A world of immortality? I might actually create a new self. I could become happy, or at least less miserable. And dare I say it, I could be come a better person. But that had nothing to do with me now. That would be another self. For now, I was an immutable, historical fact.
Now, how awesome is that?
This is when it hit me. Despite the bits about Sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, Murakami is concocting a story which is so surreal, sci-fi, poetic and metaphorically about what happens when you lose your mind. When you know you only have 24 hours to live (or exist in your own state of mind), when you weigh the pros and cons between living in the present world and the La-la land, when you not sure if you wanted to get out from the realm of the world that you have created and vice versa, i.e. when you wanted to get out of the rotten world it has become ……..
The book reads like Sci-fi, Romance, New age, supernatural, Indiana Jones movie tie-in etc. not one to easily pin down the genre. Murakami is one of a kind. What appeals to his reader is his ability to transport his readers to another world and still stay grounded in some of the most contentious issues we as a human being struggles with on a daily basis. I can’t speak for all his work, apparently Hard boiled Wonderland and the end of the world is one of his earlier work, and not his best. A big thanks goes to Alfred Birnbaum for the beautiful translation, I haven’t read a translation so good, almost as if he had written the book himself ( I have worked as a translator before, and it is not as simple as it looked!). I can’t wait to read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood or the Winded-up bird Chronicle. I still don’t know what to expect, except that I am sure I will be in for a surprise.