Postmodernist Views of Two Japanese Writers on Faulkner: Haruki Murakami and Kenji Nakagami
Takako Tanaka, Nagoya City University, Japan
Haruki Murakami and Kenji Nakagami, two contemporary Japanese writers, show the contrastive characteristics of the postmodern novelists in Japan today: Haruki Murakami’s novels are self-reflexive and consciously imitative, and often surrealistic, while Kenji Nakagami’s novels are generally marked for the postcolonialist concerns on patriarchy, discrimination, and corporeality. Haruki Murakami, born in 1949, might now be the most popular Japanese writer, both in Japan and abroad. Many of Murakami’s texts are translated into English, German, Chinese, Russian, Italian, and other languages.1 Kenji Nakagami, born three years earlier than Murakami in 1946, was recognized early in his career as one of the literary masters of postwar Japan, and was expected to succeed Kenzaburo Oe, the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. Nakagami announced William Faulkner’s great influence on his literary imagination just as Kenzaburo Oe did. Sadly, Nakagami died of kidney cancer at the age of 46 in 1992, and only some of his texts are translated into English, French, German and Italian.
Nevertheless, Nakagami has enthusiastic admirers, especially among literary critics, most of whom turn the cold shoulder to Haruki Murakami. Actually, there are some tenacious criticisms against Murakami, such as Masao Miyoshi’s harsh judgment of his compromise to commercialism (Off Center 234-36). Murakami’s emphasis on style and the awareness of language as fictive construct tend to draw negative responses from postcolonialist critics. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to compare Murakami with Nakagami and William Faulkner, because Murakami sometimes makes use of Faulkner in his texts, and an analysis of Murakami’s allusion to Faulkner can shed light on his complicated relation to Nakagami and Faulkner, as well as on the problems and the possibilities of postmodern literature.
I am going to demonstrate, first, how style plays an essential role in Murakami’s texts, by examining his short story “Lederhosen,” which he took the trouble of translating back into Japanese from the English version of his original story.
Next, I will discuss what Murakami aims at with his references to Faulkner, in comparison with Kenji Nakagami. Murakami has been influenced a great deal by American literature, but he is not usually tied to William Faulkner, a Nobel Prize winner and a literary giant of American South in the 20th Century. Faulkner, Oe, and Nakagami are normally categorized as belonging to serious literature, while Haruki Murakami himself refuses any categorization. In Murakami’s response to the writers of “serious literature,” we may be able to detect the common themes and concerns he shares with them, as well as the remarkable contrast.
Murakami’s short story “Lederhosen” was first published in Japan in 1985. The English version of this story was included in his collection of short stories, which was published by Knopf in 1993 with the English title The Elephant Vanishes. The book was then published in Japanese in 2005 in Japan. The stories in the Japanese edition are mostly based on Murakami’s authorized texts already published in Japan, but Murakami translated the story “Lederhosen” anew from the English Knopf version. In the introduction to Japanese readers, Murakami says that he translated the story just for fun. Apparently so. But in choosing this story, Murakami was sensitive enough to recognize what is so essential to his writing.
The English version of “Lederhosen” is a little bit different from the original Japanese version. In the original version, the writer-narrator says in the beginning that what he is going to write about is a sort of sketch based on an episode from actual life. The English version deletes this introduction and starts completely as fiction. As a result, the English version has a better sense of accomplishment as a story than the original version. Murakami says that the minor changes in “Lederhosen” are done by the translator Alfred Birnbaum, at the request of the editor of the magazine which first published the English version of the story.2
“Lederhosen” is a story about the divorce of a middle-aged woman narrated by her daughter, which is again narrated by a writer-narrator. The woman’s mother had a chance to visit Germany, and during her stay, she tried to buy a lederhosen, a pair of hiking pants with the shoulder straps, requested by her husband in Japan. But the two old brothers who ran a famous lederhosen store insisted that everyone try a pair on before they could adjust it perfectly for the customer. So, when the woman saw a German walk by, who was about the same age and who was also about the same size as her husband, she grabbed him, explained the situation, and asked him to be a substitute for her husband. But while the woman watched the man try on the lederhosen and move about in good humor, she began to realize that she hated her husband. She had been a faithful wife, and though her husband had some affairs with other women in the past, these were episodes from the past, and they were supposedly a good, nice couple. The woman, however, discovered that she could not stand him any longer. Back from Germany, she went straight to her sister’s house and submitted a request for divorce. She never saw her husband again.
In “Lederhosen,” the woman realizes her hidden hatred towards her husband through a new pair of pants, the vehicle which tentatively represents her husband. Not the corporeal existence but its incidental sign awakens her repressed emotion. And just as the lederhosen gives the woman a sudden insight, Murakami must have appreciated the point of his story better in the English version. The English version served him as a lederhosen that reaffirmed the importance of the vehicle in the story, and presumably the fact amused Murakami enough to do the translation, which was unusual for him to do.
A lederhosen is what the woman promised to bring back from Germany at her husband’s request. The wife is trying to realize her performative statement with all her efforts. In a sense, their marriage, a perpetual performative act to make each other happy, is represented in a pair of pants. “The whole point is”(129), as the woman’s daughter emphasizes at the end, is the lederhosen which the husband has not even received, nor has put on. A subtle sense of dislocation and emptiness seeps in, and the story affects those who listen to it and narrate it anew. The episode certainly helped the woman to see the real state of her mind, and the woman’s daughter finally gained a better understanding of her mother’s divorce when she heard the story. But the story also proved the unstableness and hollowness of love, as well as of the patriarchal authority. The episode caused the daughter to back out from any commitment to permanent affection. Even the narrator’s relationship to his wife is subtly shaken: the story he hears during his wife’s absence reminds him vaguely of a possibility that his wife might also suddenly leave him.
The image of a pair abounds in “Lederhosen”: a pair of pants, the woman and her husband, her husband and his German substitute, two brothers of the lederhosen shop, the woman and her daughter, the narrator and his wife. At the end of the story, all the positions of the pairs are somewhat changed except for, probably, the German Meisters. The original story and its translation also make a pair, and the translation surely changes the original story, however slightly. Translation is not unlike a performative statement because the fulfillment of the original text is forever deferred through the language barrier. The English version of “Lederhosen,” however, presents a complete fiction, and makes a curious unbalance with the original story, since the original deliberately defers an accomplished fiction. The original story, the English version, and Murakami’s newly translated Japanese version compose a triangle of vehicles, which playfully undermines the authority of the authentic original and emphasizes the effect of alienation and difference.
The importance of vehicle for Murakami can be further proven through his relation to other writers. Haruki Murakami’s favorite authors are F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, Irwin Shaw and others. While Kenji Nakagami names Salman Rushdie as his rival and acknowledges Faulkner’s great influence, Haruki Murakami’s novels show little resemblance to William Faulkner’s. Murakami, however, who secretly parodied Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry (Man’en Gan’nen no Futtoboru), in Pinball, 1973 (1973 nen no Pinboru),3 must be conscious of Faulkner. Faulkner’s influence on Oe’s novels, especially on The Silent Cry, is obvious. Murakami must have been also aware that Kenji Nakagami, who was expected to emulate Oe as a great writer, emphasized Faulkner’s influence on his texts. As we see later, Murakami casually mentions some of Faulkner’s texts in his novels. It is not Murakami’s style to aggressively challenge other writers, but Murakami with his sophisticated style is aware of these “serious” writers.
Kenji Nakagami is obsessed with his local hometown community in Kishu. Kishu is a rather large peninsula located in the southern part of the middle area of the mainland Japan. It is a hilly, backward country facing the sea, marginalized from the mainland, but is rich with mythic legends and ancient history of Japan. As a slow-developing area with complicated history, it is not unlike Faulkner’s Mississippi, where Faulkner established his own microcosmos, Yoknapatawpha county. Nakagami’s fictitious community “Roji,”4 or “Alley” community in Japanese, is tightly knit with kinship and rumors, and it serves as the core of his literary imagination, just like Faulkner’s Jefferson does.
Nakagami once talked about his appreciation of Faulkner with the title “Faulkner: The Luxuriating South.” With an artist’s intuition, Nakagami sensed the importance of the imagery of the South, which means not only the American South but also the South of any country. He saw the common background of blood and communal ties as well as abundant life-energy between his southern hometown Shingu city in Kishu and Faulkner’s Jefferson. Haruki Murakami, on the other hand, prefers Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan to the south. He uses Hokkaido as the background of his story in Wild Sheep Chase and Dances, Dance, Dance. Hokkaido was developed after the beginning of westernization of Japan in the Meiji era starting in 1868. The artificially modernized area without a long history, with a severe, cold weather in winter, suits as the stage of Murakami’s surrealistic, postmodern writing.
Another important difference between Haruki Murakami and Kenji Nakagami is that Nakagami comes from a discriminated class in the old Japan, called “Burakumin,” while Murakami comes from an upper-middle class. The Burakumin people descended from a social, rather than an ethnic outcaste group in Japan.5 You cannot tell the Burakumin from other Japanese from appearances, but the Burakumin lived together in ghettos in the past. Now in the 21st Century, discrimination against the Burakumin does not exist in the open, but Nakagami is always sensitive to the invisible discrimination. Most of his people in Nakagami’s novels are from that Burakumin class, and the discrimination partly explains how the familial and communal ties are very strong in Nakagami’s fictitious community.
Nakagami’s criticism of Japanese society creates a subversive hero. One of Nakagami’s favorite heroes, Akiyuki, is in a desperate conflict with his father, who deserted him and his mother when Akiyuki was a small child. His father has become notoriously rich, and is both despised and feared by the Alley community. Akiyuki commits incest with his half-sister and murders his half-brother in a fight, in defiance of the patriarchal power. Akiyuki’s love-hate relationship with his father strongly reminds one of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, in which Thomas Sutpen’s dynasty is destroyed by Charles Bon, who was deserted by Sutpen because of his presumably black blood.
Haruki Murakami’s novels are generally positioned the furthest from such problems of passion, blood and kinship. Murakami’s protagonists are often bored and depressed with the commonplace and anonymity of their upper-middle class situation. Murakami seldom writes about a father-son relationship, and his characters move away from their hometowns or have little ties with their families. Murakami’s people seem to live in the space of diluted air, while Kenji Nakagami’s characters, as well as Faulkner’s, feel their strong obsession to blood or to the earth.
Nevertheless, Haruki Murakami sometimes shows that he is conscious of William Faulkner. In 1983, he wrote a short story with a title “Naya wo Yaku,” “Barn Burning” in the English translation. The content of the story has nothing to do with Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning,” but the Japanese title can be literally translated as “burn a Barn” or “Barn Burning.” In the story, the first-person narrator in the contemporary Tokyo area casually talks about his girlfriend, whom he had an extra-marital relationship with, but who just disappeared without a trace. He is interested in one of the girl’s boyfriends, who tells him that he sometimes burns a barn for fun. But the narrator cannot find any trace of barn-burning in his neighborhood.
The brief summary of the story shows that there is no similarity to Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” in which the poor-white, teen-aged boy in the South struggles between his sense of social justice and the loyalty to his father, a barn-burner. Still, Murakami’s narrator reads Faulkner’s short stories while he is waiting for his girlfriend to arrive by plane, which is late due to a bad weather. (The mention of Faulkner’s short stories in Murakami’s “Barn Burning” appears only in the original Japanese version. Murakami’s authorized version and the English version state that the narrator read three magazines while waiting, without referring to Faulkner’s short stories at all). In the novel Dance, Dance, Dance, published in 1988, Murakami also has his first-person narrator read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury while he waits at a Hokkaido Airport for his plane to take off, which is behind schedule due to heavy snow.
As for Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” a couple of Japanese critics interpret the barn burning as a metaphor for killing a girl. This interpretation is quite plausible in relation to the novel Dance, Dance, Dance. The first-person narrator’s close friend, Gotan’da-kun in Dance, Dance, Dance, confesses having killed Kiki, the protagonist’s girlfriend, without any particular reason at all. Gotan’da-kun is a handsome, stylish young man, feeling ennui in life, similar to the so-called barn-burner of the short story. Gotan’da-kun then commits suicide before the narrator confirms the truth of the confession. Kiki has just vanished, and nobody knows whether she is dead or alive. So, too, has the narrator’s girlfriend in “Barn Burning.”
Tateo Imamura thinks that the murderer in Dance, Dance, Dance serves as the narrator’s dark double, in the same way that the barn-burner of Murakami’s short story is the narrator’s unconscious double (Imamura 48). And as is mentioned before, both the narrators in “Barn Burning” and Dance, Dance, Dance read Faulkner at an airport. Imamura underscores the helplessness of Murakami’s postmodern situation, where people cannot be even sure of what reality is, in contrast with the intensity of the patricidal situation in Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” Indeed, the grim circumstances of poor whites in the deep South, and the pressure of patriarchal hegemony on the boy’s initiation into manhood, turn out completely insignificant in Murakami’s suicidal and self-referential world of “Barn Burning.” The contrast, however, is not meant as parody or ridicule: rather, the sheer vacancy of the law of the Father and the mild despair of young people in Murakami’s “Barn Burning” become clear through the emphasis of dissociation with Faulkner’s story. The apparent absence of a Father can be a curse.
Faulkner and Murakami are both obsessed with loss, but Faulkner’s people want to believe in the physical pain as the sure sign of the sense of loss, whether the pain is caused by the patriarchal power or whether it represents the loss of patriarchal power. Kenji Nakagami also regards violence and physical suffering important as a way to describe loss in his texts. In both writers, the body is used to testify the palpable mark of loss, in order to remember or question the meaning of loss.
In contrast with Faulkner and Nakagami, Murakami’s protagonists have difficulty in expressing their sense of loss in a concrete form. The narrator’s girlfriends in A Wild Sheep Chase, Dance, Dance, Dance, and “Barn Burning,” just vanish without a trace. The narrator cannot help a threatening foreboding that his existence is as ephemeral as his girlfriend’s. There is a sense of helplessness in front of sheer vacancy.
When Quentin Compson deplores of Caddy’s loss of virginity in The Sound and the Fury, we suspect that he suffers more from the idea of loss of virginity than the physical loss. Still, the shock of his sister’s loss of virginity is strong enough to make him once dream of castration. Furthur, Benjy Compson utters a long, wailing sound whenever he hears the name “Caddy.” Murakami’s protagonist in Dance, Dance, Dance, on the other hand, suggests his sense of loss of his girlfriend only indirectly through reading The Sound and the Fury. In Murakami’s texts, lovers play their assigned parts dexterously and exchange cool dialogues, following model conversations drawn out of American novels or movies. Murakami’s people must keep on playing in a virtual world with gestures or words, just one layer removed from actuality, in order to stay away from the helpless sense of emptiness.
Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” however, suggests the deep exhaustion and the limit of continuing such a game. The patriarchal power, whose existence Murakami’s protagonists refuse to admit, may be absent as ever. But Murakami begins to discern some concrete shape of evil out of an apparent absence or in a surrealistic situation.
Murakami admits that his concern has turned from detachment to commitment through the Hanshin Earthquake and Ohmu Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway in 1995. Nevertheless, Murakami has been aware of the social problems since the beginning of his career, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, published between 1994 and 1995, marks Murakami’s acknowledgment of the share of his responsibility prior to the concrete disasters. In fact, as early as in A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), Murakami hints at the American cultural colonization of Japan and the Japanese military colonization of China in the 1930s and 1940s. This double-bind colonization theme is developed in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.6
In this novel, Murakami presents an alley, which runs adjunct to the first-person narrator’s house in Tokyo. This is a blind alley open to no other roads. It came to existence due to a chaotic boom of housing construction in the economic bubble of the 1980s in Japan. The residents surrounding the alley have no contact with each other. In contrast with Nakagami’s “Alley” community where the characters are constantly watched by neighbors, Murakami’s alley in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a postmodern zone, which represents the indifference of people to society, but in which may lurk the gate to another, evil world.
Presumably, the adoption of an alley image, a possible link to Nakagami’s texts, indicates Murakami’s determination to tackle the problems of Japanese society in his own way. Murakami’s “Roji,” “Alley,” represents the claustrophobic, modern Japan. Toru Okada, the protagonist, must go into a dry well at the end of the alley and thinks about his missing wife as well as about Lieutenant Mamiya’s experience in Mongolia during Japanese invasion into China. At the bottom of the dark well, Okada discerns the impulse for violence in one’s subconscious, and also recognizes his brother-in-law’s desire for power in society. Okada learns to face his subconscious and is determined to take his responsibility against the wicked, not only in his private world but in Japanese society.
Kenji Nakagami has been dead for two years when the first part of the novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published. When Murakami first wrote a short story titled “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women” in 1986 and mentioned the “alley,” he may have intended to make a parody of Nakagami’s alley. But Murakami has come to pay a secret homage to Nakagami, with an alley image established at the core of his development of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Murakami even prints a mysterious birth mark on Toru Okada’s cheek so that he may remember the significance of his experience in the well. Murakami seems gradually to come to terms with the corporeality and the problems of kinship in his cosmos, though he is still reluctant to use a family metaphor too openly.
Murakami’s protagonists now face evil, which they experienced before as surrealistic mystery and were too detached to recognize as social evil. The author still hesitates to connect the problem of kinship directly to society, but even in the former period of his literary career, “Lederhosen,” for instance, refers to the absence of a father in a very clever way. Murakami’s insistence on the sophisticated yet flat style can be defended for his denial of authenticity, but Murakami has come to the end of the road, where he cannot keep on dancing any longer on the surface of his style. Through the exploitation of the so-called serious writers such as Faulkner or Nakagami, Haruki Murakami locates his position in contrast with them, and has begun to form his insight and his own style of responsibility towards society. The patriarchal authority may be absent, as Murakami’s protagonists assume, but the result of such absence is ambiguous, since there might still lurk a strong will for power in society. Murakami has shown the eeriness of the vast vacancy in the postmodern Japan, and he now carefully attempts for signification through his conscious, skilled handling of vehicles. The corporeality and responsibility play a more important role now, though, as his recent novel Kafka on the Shore suggests, he prefers the indirect approach of surrealistic style and fantasy to the direct accusation.
1. An international symposium on Haruki Murakami in Tokyo in 2006 was quite successful, with the novelist Richard Powers giving his keynote lecture, “The Global Distributed Self-Mirroring Subterranean Neurological Soul-Sharing Picture Show.”
2. Murakami, “Amerika de Zo no Shometsu ga Shuppan Sareta Koro,” 24.
3. See Kojin Karatani, “Murakami Haruki no ‘Fukei’: 1973 nen no Pinboru,” Shuen o Megutte, 90.
4. “Roji” is the background of Nakagami’s novels such as Misaki (The Cape), Karekinada (The Sea of Kareki), Chi no Hate, Shijo no Toki (The Ends of the Earth, the Supreme Time).
5. As for the Burakumin people, see George DeVos and H. Wagatsuma, Japan’s Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality.
6. Murakami’s sensitiveness to such double-bind situation suggests that he may appreciate William Faulkner’s awareness of the double-bind situation of the American South. Faulkner’s South exploited the African Americans as slaves and was in turn exploited by the capitalist economy of the North.
DeVos, George, and H. Wagatsuma. Japan’s Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.
Imamura, Tateo. “Fokuna to Murakami Haruki: ‘Naya wo Yaku’ wo Meguru Boken.” Fokuna 6 (April 2004): 42-49.
Karatani, Kojin. “Murakami Haruki no ‘Fukei’: 1973 nen no Pinboru.” Shuen o Megutte. Tokyo: Kodansha Gakujutu-Bunko, 1995. 89-135.
Miyoshi, Masao. Off Center: Power and Culture Relations between Japan and the United States. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
Murakami, Haruki. A Wild Sheep Chase. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum. New York: Vintage, 2002.
---. “Amerika de Zo no Shometsu ga Shuppan Sareta Koro.” Zo no Sh ometsu: Tanpenshu 1980-1991. Tokyo: Shincho Sha, 2005. 12-26.
---. “Barn Burning.” The Elephant Vanishes. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin. New York: Vintage, 1994. 131-49.
---. “Lederhosen.” The Elephant Vanishes. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin. New York: Vintage, 1994. 119-29.
---. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Trans. Jay Rubin. New York: Vintage, 1998.
---. Zo no Shometsu: Tanpenshu 1980-1991. Tokyo: Shincho Sha, 2005.
Nakagami, Kenji. The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Getto. Trans. with a Preface and Afterword by Eve Zimmerman. Berkeley: Stone Bridge P, 1999.
---. Chi no Hate, Shijo no Toki. Tokyo: Shincho-Bunko, 2004.
---. “Faulkner: The Luxuriating South.” Faulkner: After the Nobel Prize. Ed. Michel Gresset & Kenzaburo Ohashi. Kyoto: Yamaguchi Publishing, 1987. 326-36.
---. Karekinada. Tokyo: Kawadeshobo Shinsha, 1985.
Nakagami, Kenji and Haruki Murakami. “Shigoto no Genba Kara.” Kokubungaku: Kaishaku to Kyozai no Kenkyu 30.3 (March 1985): 6-30.
Powers, Richard. “The Global Distributed Self-Mirroring Subterranean Neurological Soul-Sharing Picture Show.” Japanese Book News 48 (Summer 2006): 2-14.