Book Review: Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami – Books – Blogcritics

Book Review: Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami – Books – Blogcritics

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Blindness and Seeing

In Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s novel Seeing there are two political parties. Both have a set rhetoric. Rhetoric that makes vacuous promises within the parameters defined by the ideology of their respective parties; parties similar to the conservatives and liberals of every democratic nation in the world.

On election day, in Seeing, no one shows up to vote, election officials at first believe it had something to do with the incessant rain. People are encouraged to come in and exercise their franchise and finally toward the end of the day they start trickling in and casting their ballots.

One assumes all is well at this point and the reader of the novel could never imagine what the author would have in store for them next. When the votes are counted, however, it turns out that about 83% of the ballots are blank. Everyone, with the exception of 17% of the people, cast a blank ballot!

There are no winners, no losers. It is rejection en masse of all politicians, a deep disenchantment with either side, an unprecedented case of extreme electoral disillusionment.

This transpires in the first few pages of the book and for those who haven’t read it yet, or intend to read it (something I highly recommend) I am not about to insert spoilers.

Seeing is the sequel to his novel Blindness which has been made into a movie, set to release in a few weeks. In Blindness we see a contagion of blindness. One after another, people start succumbing to a strange form of white blindness apparently spreading through contact.

The government responds with classic inaction, reacting by forcing an evacuation and setting up a quarantine facility somewhere at the outskirts of the city and then forgetting about those afflicted.

In the sequel, Seeing, sight has been restored, clearer than it had ever been before.

I read these novels a few years ago. Our wonderful rainbow colored economic bubble, in the United States, was inflating at a nice pace. it was even sprouting little bubbles that were drifting and swirling all around us in the forms of innovative derivations from traditional financial instruments.

The ideas presented in these novels didn’t appear oracular then. Even the associations between the first novel and the sequel seemed distant.

Now the bubbles have burst.

Two words crossed my line of vision today, “virally connected”. They brought forth an immediate association with Saramago’s two novels.

The contagion here is spreading and it isn’t restricted to the boundaries of the United States of America. Tainted milk isn’t just a Chinese problem and leveraged futures not just an American one.

The solution? Once again, hopelessly deadlocked politicians with a nebulous solution loosely termed a “bailout”. Who or what exactly is being bailed out is quite the mystery. We know there is a document that has grown from two pages to a whopping one hundred pages. No one knows what’s in the document. They aren’t familiar with the “letter of the document”. The POTUS himself is sending panic through the system, suggesting that if the “document” isn’t signed then it would cause widespread panic!

Strangely enough, it is an election year in the US. We have our conservatives suggesting they would conserve something no one cares about anymore and liberals promising to liberate us from the shackles of conservatism while the voters wonder what they’re doing in the middle with clowns to the left of them and jokers to the right. The candidates have admitted to being unfamiliar with what lurks within the “document”.

Blank ballots anyone?

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace just committed suicide. I had been meaning to read him. I had passed his books by so many times at the stores – Infinite Jest – is one that comes to mind. I picked it up and put it back so many times after reading the back cover. I wanted to read it but at 2.6 pounds and 1,088 pages it seemed really daunting to someone who only reads during the daily commute to work and is usually overloaded with other heavy things, tangible and intangible.

But I read about him constantly. This is a speech he gave at Kenyon College, Ohio. I wish I was in the audience there listening to him give this speech. It has made the most sense of all things I have come across recently.

Whenever I’ve been stuck in traffic or in long checkout lines or when I find that people are just in my way I’ve tried to take a step back and think about how much of a downward spiral that line of thought really is. Such thoughts often lead to others, as thoughts often do, and after a long chain of summoning, rejecting, whittling and chiseling only one idea or notion remains: doing something for someone else, living outside of oneself. For me these are idle thoughts. Reality usually intrudes in many discordant overtones and I go right back to being a self-centered and self-absorbed person. I know someday I’ll be a better human being; where there’s a will there’s a way and still a lot of years ahead of me.

But this is why the speech struck such a chord. Especially this:

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

Next stop is the bookstore. Now I am really hungry for more. RIP – David Foster Wallace.


It has been a few days since I acquired Haruki Murakami‘s – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I have been craving a richer taste of it ever since an extract was published in the New Yorker.

I hadn’t flipped it open until last night because I am still in the middle of Michael Cox’s very engaging novel – The Meaning of Night: A Confession, Jodi Picoult’s – Nineteen Minutes and Kiran Desai’s – The Inheritance of Loss. But I couldn’t resist the pull of Murakami’s memoir and caved, adding to the collection of books I am reading simultaneously; one in the bus, one in the bathroom, one in the gym while I exercise on the elliptical machine and one when I’m just sitting around in the living room (don’t ask me why I do this…I’ve never been known for my razor sharp focus and dedication to the singular).

For days now I’ve been trying to grasp at stray thoughts that tease and titillate. They beg to be captured and tethered but when they appear I am either in the last stages of wakefulness… just before I drift into sleep, or showering, or walking to work.

The thought that keeps coming back during my thirty minute walk to work is more like a picture, a moving tableau accompanied by a sense of the city as a gigantic living and breathing beast with veins and arteries, of people being inhaled and exhaled out of it each day. I see hundreds of people flowing out of Penn Station or the PABT and in my mind’s eye I see a time lapsed scene where people wrinkle and age and slowly shed their skins until they’re nothing but bones and then the bones scatter to the winds and a cycle is complete. (I haven’t done an adequate job of describing this thought and might refine it and see if I can touch it with some eloquence in future edits).

This morning I was thinking about us moving through life and of vinyasa (motion that rides the breath) and of flowing through life. Lividity signals death; blood pools when it stops flowing. I imagine for an instant that I am nothing but mass and energy moving rapidly through the universe until the time that I wear away the mass through the friction generated by the motion…pure energy now. I picture an Olympic runner on camera, how his facial skin appears to be flowing away from the skull, stretched…it sometimes appears as though in his fight to the finish he’s leaving everything behind, even his skin.

But this is how life must be, this is how it is. The illusion we feed ourselves is the one about laying down roots. I was in one place for twenty one years and have been in another for twenty, I’ve been in the same house now for six years, I may be here another ten, but in the grand scheme of things, in the reality of eternal motion, twenty or ten years are about as meaningless as six. Especially when as one grows older a year appears to materialize and dissipate within the blink of an eye.

So Murakami’s book about running fascinates me. He runs religiously, he runs to stay fit but that is a very minor reason for his running. His books of fiction have enthralled me, I’ve wanted to say something about them but I haven’t found the words to do it. For instance in his book – The Wind-up Bird Chronicles his protagonist, Toru Okada, who is advised by a wiser, older person to take the stairs and climb to the highest heights when it’s time to do that and to descend to the deepest wells when that’s what the occasion demands. Isn’t this how life is? Sometimes you scale great heights and at other times you sink to the depths, always riding the same breath, always moving, always like driftwood…flailing and resisting never helps much.

In his book – After Dark – the characters are in constant motion throughout the night, in a city that doesn’t sleep, never sleeps, and where reason gives way to blurry surreality. It throbs and moves through the night just as people within it move, change, grow a little bit older as an omniscient narrator in the form of a ‘viewpoint’ tracks their motion. The viewpoint reminds me of a device engaged in time lapse photography just as my mind’s eye is when watching people being inhaled and exhaled into the city.

His memoir reflects the motion that foreshadows all his writing and reading his work certainly lends a new perspective to how I view my own life.


A very good friend of mine, who reads this blog frequently, will be horrified, mortified and possibly petrified by the graphic pictures below. I need to apologize to him in advance for this assault on his sensibilities. I have observed the reverence with which he handles these precious possessions of his, how he tries his very best to maintain them in their pristine condition…something I just can’t do!

Here’s what I do instead:

I should be less shameless and apologize to all the book lovers who abhor this practice…but I can’t bring myself to do it, I can rationalize and justify it: this is the effect books have on me.

I can remember where I stop reading a book. For some odd reason, I remember the numbers of the pages where my reading was interrupted and it isn’t important for me to use dog-ears in lieu of bookmarks.

My dog-ears are used as notes on the margin.

Sometimes I don’t want to forget what I’ve read. Some of what I read sends me off on odd tangents and I feel as though I am leaping from one thought plane to the next. When this happens I want to mark that page, I want to be able to get back to the same place, to relive that experience.

I usually fold the page from the bottom corner. This is what you see in the first image. But then, chances are I’d find something equally memorable on the next page. When this happens you see something like the second image: the backwards dog-earing of a dog-ear.

As I am doing this I often wonder if I would remember the passage that made me stop and think but I’ve tested that and I find I can almost always get back to it.

In the introduction to his book – Cultural Amnesia – Clive James says:

“The book I wanted to write had its origins in the book I was reading. Several times, in my early days, I had to sell my best books to buy food, so I never underlined anything. When conditions improved I became less fastidious. Not long after I began marking passages for future consideration, I also began keeping notes in the margin beside the markings, and then longer notes on the endpapers. Those were the very means by which Montaigne invented the modern essay, and at first I must have had an essay of my own in mind: a long essay, but one with the usual shape, a single line of argument moving through selected perceptions to a neat conclusion.”

I haven’t had to sell books to buy food, not yet, but I’m often in a moving bus or car when I am reading and I find it quite difficult to write in the margins with a steady hand.

However, I do love buying second hand books where passages have been marked and lines underscored. I love establishing that mental communion with a reader who handled the book before me; I love sensing that connexion with a stranger I never knew.

Perhaps my curious multiple dog ears will make someone wonder about me, they may say (if they’re like my friend), “What a slob this person was!”

Or if they’re even a little bit like me they’ll pay closer attention to that page and find the sentence that had captivated me years ago, before my book ended up in their hands.

In the meantime, I keep my books close to me, on an overflowing nightstand, making mental notes to myself to open them up to disfigured pages, in an attempt to further explore the tangents on which I had been led…just as an aspiring aspiring essayist should.


If we think about mirrors, occasionally, we aren’t alone. Mirrors often find a metaphorical place in literature, in philosophy, lyrics. Mirrors are always good for introducing an element of surreality into everything.

In a recent post I said this about mirrors:

We’re always searching for an un-laterally inverted mirror image of ourselves, someone who
thinks, feels, acts the same as us. The idea being that such a person will
really understand us. But mirror images are trapped behind glass, you see them,
but do they see you? They cease to exist as soon as you walk away from the
mirror, don’t they?

I am amazed now that an answer to the question I invented emerged rather eerily and fictitiously in Haruki Murakami’s novel – After Dark. In this book where Murakami, as always, expertly isolates the threads of surreality woven through our subconscious, mirror images trapped behind glass do appear to see you and do NOT cease to exist as soon as you walk away from the mirror. They linger after you’ve left, watching, scanning the empty room with their eyes.

Just one of those strange coincidences where a month or so after I append a rhetorical question to a ruminative piece of writing, I pick up a book of fiction where a writer has already invented an imaginative answer to my question. Almost as eerily strange as the novel itself.

Just finished reading another book which dealt in doubles and parallel universes. The book was called The Man Who Turned into Himself – a stunning 1994 debut novel from David Ambrose. Mirrors are a part of this story as well, a story that fictionalizes certain aspects of theoretical physics. We deal with many worlds and parallel universes here in a plot that engages us till the very end.

How many more mirrors are coming my way?

The word for love does not exist….

Love is probably the most abstract notion of them all, such an elusive concept. Nevertheless most languages have a word for it. Perhaps it is more like a rainbow of emotions like tenderness, need, pity, dependence…all bleeding into each other, emotions with various different, nuanced frequencies attached to them. Or maybe like sight and sound…simply a perception, a construct of the mind. Even so, we do assign a word to it and it means something to most of us.

So imagine my surprise when I read the following lines in Colin Thubron’s bestselling and extremely engrossing book – Shadow of the Silk Road:

It has been said that the Chinese do not love. Observers of their family hierarchies have written that the only true tenderness exists between mother and son. Others have insisted that even the word for love in Chinese does not exist. And it is true that neither the blanket ai nor the benevolent ren translates into any unconditional passion.

I didn’t turn the page for several minutes after I read that. I kept thinking about it and wondering about the absence of the word “love” from a language. What did it mean, if anything? Are people incapable of feeling love if they don’t have a word for it? Or is it possible that more than a billion people consider or perceive the blend of emotions known as love as something else?

What of the “only true tenderness” existing only between mother and son? What about mother and daughter or father and son or father and daughter, no signs of tenderness there?

This wasn’t the only passage in the book that stopped me in my tracks. There was one preceding this one that stunned me. In this passage Colin Thubron is talking to a father and daughter – Hu Ji and Mingzhao, both historians, specializing in the Tang and the Sung dynasties, respectively. Hu Ji talks about questioning history, rewriting it, replacing dogma with doubt. He relates a Tang dynasty story to Thubron:

…a garrison commander, besieged by rebels, found his six-hundred-strong force close to starvation. Instead of surrendering, he first killed his wife and fed her to his soldiers, then one by one killed the weaker men and fed them to the stronger. Finally his troops were reduced to a hundred. They were overwhelmed three days before relief came.

Hu Ji then says to Thubron:

And this has always been held up as glorious in our history – an example of perfect service to the state! So I’ve rewritten it in another spirit. How should it be judged?…You know in China we have no tradition of respect for human life. It’s simply not in our past…That is our problem: inhumanity.”

I can’t even begin to put in words the thoughts that the above passage and these lines inspired: “That is our problem: inhumanity.”

Leading up to the Beijing Olympics, China is constantly in the news. A prosperous China, a formidable market, a China that took the Olympic torch up to Mt Everest…China-Darfur…China-Tibet…China-Tiananmen massacre…all this and more doing rounds in the media, on the web, sweeping generalizations, accusations, diplomacy battles on one side and an ancient culture responsible for giving the world – paper, silk, the saddle and so much more – on the other…what is one to make of it all?

The world can only watch!

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