Japanese Writers

Before living in Japan, the only Japanese literature I had read was Masks by Fumiko Enchi (or Enchi Fumiko, as the Japanese write it) and some haiku. In Japan, I can’t say that I read much Japanese literature, either, limiting myself to some of the shorter works of Mishima Yukio, his novel After the Banquet, Soseki Natsumi’s I Am a Cat, and Soseki’s far superior (and shorter) novel Mon (sometimes translated as The Gate). Oh, and Train Man (電車男), in a translation I wish they had changed from the British version (we don’t put stuff in a boot, we put it in a trunk). And yes, I am writing the author’s names as they would appear in Japanese, with the surname first. In the meantime, Murasaki Shikibu’s novel The Tale of Genji sits on my shelf and waits. Oh, and the name means “Lady Murasaki,” so I have to laugh when it’s filed under the “last name” of “Shikibu” in bookstores.

Now, I just completed Murakami Haruki’s novel Norwegian Wood. This is the book that made him a bestselling author, and apparently drove him into seclusion for a while. I guess if you’re all about you, fame and fortune help feed your ego, but if you care about your art, they can destroy the creative process. Anyway, I decided to read this book first of all of Murakami’s works not because I had heard it was his first bestseller, not because I heard it was the most-read (in Japan) of all of his works, but because a Japanese movie based on the book is in production, and I wanted to read the book before the movie came out. Since it stars Rinko Kikuchi, how can I miss it? And I see she is playing Naoko, which is who I thought she should play. She likes playing difficult roles, doesn’t she? And for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the book at the library, or at least read the back cover.

As for my assessment of the book: the first chapter is one of the best I’ve ever read, even in translation. The rest of the novel…is a little strange. That’s not a criticism, but be warned that it may take a while to get your head wrapped around it. And yet, one thing I must single out for praise is the characters that inhabit the book. If you want a master class in creating believable, three-dimensional characters, here it is. Notice, for example, how he takes a minor character-Hatsumi-and imbues her with possibly the most life of any of the characters in the novel–and she only appears twice! And the second time she appears, where she has the most impact, Murakami makes her unforgettable in less than fifteen pages of prose.

Since I haven’t read any other books by him, I can’t compare this book to his other ones. According to the translator’s note at the end of the book, some of his early fans were disappointed that this novel was so “mainstream.” After all, it’s a love story, albeit not your normal love story. Lots of masturbating, blow jobs, hand jobs, and sex, and lots of talk about masturbating, blow jobs, hand jobs, and sex, though they fit the mold of the story, and the times in which it takes place (1969-1970). And yet, all of that is on the surface. It’s the emotions and the characters’ lives that Murakami cares about.

Some great novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird, you can understand and love after only one reading. Others take more than one reading before you can get at their cores. Norwegian Wood, despite sounding like a simple love story containing lots of sex, falls in the latter category. Or perhaps, I just need a few days to wrap my head around what I read the first time.

P.S. Since I read this book (and all of the books I’ve listed) in English, I would like to address two minor criticisms I have concerning the translation. One is that honorifics aren’t included (-san, -kun,-chan, etc.). I feel that if something can’t be translated from one language to another, they should either be preserved in their original forms with a note explaining them to the reader, or a note describing the translator’s approximation should be included. In the case of honorifics, they go a long way toward explaining the relationships between characters without having to describe how they feel about each other. In this novel, however, I do have to say that I didn’t notice their absence, mainly because most of the characters in the novel are of the same strata. Still, I feel honorifics should have been included.

I also noticed that, on occasion, the translator put the word “the” in front of locations, such as “I’m going to the Ginza.” Since articles like “the” don’t exist in Japanese speech, they should only be included to make the English sound more natural. Therefore, putting “the” in front of place names is bizarre, since it’d be the equivalent of an English person saying “I’m going to the Chinatown.”

Overall, however, the quality of the translation seems high, and since the translation I read is the only one that Murakami, so far, has authorized (and, since he spent some time in the U.S. and Europe, he probably speaks English fairly well), I imagine the translation is close in tone and feel to the original Japanese. Certainly, the writing quality is high.

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