AFTER DARK - HARUKI MURAKAMI
If as once described the past is a foreign country where they do things differently, does this mean Japan is a whole other planet where they do things in ways that cannot be understood? With the advent of the Internet and the surfeit of information available these days, as well as the effect of global cross-cultural pollination this should no longer be the case though it could be argued that whilst the benefits are obvious, these advances have also made the world a whole lot weirder.
In the blurring between reality as presented by new technology and illusions of popular imagination, new spaces are opening up that allow strangeness to flourish. Science is looked upon to provide us with all the answers but the world is still rife with ancient memories that flow beneath our civilizations like buried rivers and it's when the new meets, merges or clashes with the old that the world can stop making sense. It is into such areas as these that Japanese author Haruki Murakami treads, writing of the joining of Western and Eastern cultures and the surreal and the unexplainable as though they were all one and the same.
Murakami is Japan's most successful and best known novelist abroad and it's of interest to stop and wonder for a moment why this might be? How many other Japanese writers could you even name? Yokio Mishima? You may well have seen a film based on one of his books or even seen him in a film but have you actually read anything by Mishima? I suspect not. So what is it that Murakami is doing to appeal to readers in both the East and the West on such a massive scale?
Would it be too much of a cliché to suggest that Murakami might actually have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist?
At just 200 pages long, Murakami's After Dark is the relatively simple story concerning a series of events taking place over the course of one night involving a disparate group of people whose lives become irrecoverably entwined. It starts with a lone girl sat reading a book in a restaurant who is interrupted by a boy on his way to his jazz band practice. The boy recognises the girl as being the sister of a girl who had once caught his eye due to her extraordinary beauty. After talking for a short while the boy leaves only for the girl to be interrupted again by a woman entering the restaurant seeking her help. The woman is a friend of the boy and she's been told by him that the girl can speak some Chinese. The woman is the manager of a 'love hotel', where people - mostly young couples - go for short-stays and where prostitutes meet with clients. A Chinese prostitute using one of the rooms has been badly beaten up by a client and the hotel manager needs someone to translate as the prostitute doesn't speak any Japanese.
The girl agrees to help and goes with the manager to talk to the prostitute, who she discovers has not only been beaten up but also stripped of all her clothes and possessions. They contact the gangsters who the prostitute works for and the manager gives them a photo of the client taken from their CCTV, knowing that they will hunt him down and mete out some very special punishment. All the manager asks is for the gangsters to inform her when they have caught him.
The client who has beaten up the prostitute is just an ordinary Japanese office worker and Murakami gives no explanation as to why he might have done it. Among the clothes and possessions he has taken from the prostitute is her mobile phone which he leaves on the shelf of a late night convenience store. By chance, the boy who had first interrupted the girl in the restaurant enters the store and hears the phone ringing on the shelf. He picks it up and answers it, only to hear a gangster's voice on the other end warning him that he'll never get away, no matter how far he runs.
"We're going to get you." the voice says "You might forget what you did, but we will never forget."
The boy puts the phone back on the shelf and hurries from the store, only for it to ring again a short while later, this time being picked up by the store assistant who is told by the same voice that he also can run, but he'll never be able to get away.
Meanwhile, conversations are held throughout the book between the different characters telling of their past and current lives, their dreams, their hopes and their desires. All laced through by Murakami with references to Burt Bacharach, the Pet Shop Boys, Jean-Luc Godard movies, obscure jazz records, and Japanese lady wrestling.
Running concurrent with all this is the story of the girl's beautiful sister who was the link between the girl sitting in the restaurant at the start of the book and the boy interrupting her whilst on his way to band practice. The girl's sister is in a deep sleep and much to the confusion of doctors has been in this state for the last two months. The unplugged television in her room starts up of its own accord and she is being transported to and throe between her bedroom in the outside world to another room inside the television screen, whilst all the time being watched on both sides of the screen by a man with no face.
Murakami presents this as something that is simply happening quite naturally and like the client's violence toward the prostitute, offers no explanation for it. In a similar fashion, at one point the client is depicted looking at himself in a washroom mirror at his office. When the client turns away and exits the washroom, his image in the mirror remains, staring back out and rubbing its cheek with its hand as if checking for the touch of flesh.
Murakami's trick is to juggle all these themes, visions, subjects and ideas with consummate skill and ease, conjuring up a view of the world that is quite unique but which has struck a chord with millions of people. Whether it be by accident or design, he has plugged into a popular psyche and is communicating with readers on a level most other authors can only dream of. Whenever a new book of his is now launched, throughout the UK, Europe and America bookshops open at midnight for the event as people queue to purchase a copy. The last time anything similar happened was for the Harry Potter books.
Murakami is considered to be one of the most important writers of the modern age and if only for this reason - if you've never read anything by him before - he demands your attention.