This is my third book by renowned Japanese author Haruki Murakami. It’s an intimate tale of three people. Sumire is a college dropout and aspiring writer whose first love is Miu. It’s “an intense love, a veritable torando sweeping across the plains.” Miu is seventeen years older, disconcertingly close to my own age, and a married woman. The tale is told by narrator K, Sumire’s closest friend who shares a love of reading with her, crushes on her, and has a habit of entanglements with somewhat older women that are not strictly speaking single themselves.
That premise could easily go quite soapy, but that is not Murakami’s way. Instead this is a character study of those three. The otherworldly aspects of this tale are not quick to arrive in a way that might surprise some readers of his other tales. Sumire is the one that stuck with most of us, both in her story and character and the poritons we read of her writing. Yes, this is a book about a writer that suffers from some writer’s block, but not one that bogs down in navel gazing or self-pity. All three characters land for me and the way Sumire grapples with a newfound queer identity and all three manage their role in society and the physical aspects of loves they cannot fully reciprocate proved fertile thematic ground.
At a well-paced 211 pages, I would recommend it to those who find the above appealing, but with three caveats. First, some male gaze is the price of entry. That could be written off to the narrator, but some of my fellow Argo Japan book club members did note that this comes up too when we’re hearing the tale of Sumire in a way that rang untrue. That part might not have bothered me - I’m part of the target audience for much of it - but YMMV and I think it muddies some of the thematic waters. Second, content warning for some sexually related trauma. I think it has a valuable role in the story, but combined with the first point may be off putting. And third, while the core plot resolves as much as one might reasonably expect for weird Japanese fiction, I think I would have been left unsatisfied without someone to talk about it with. To desire such is my default position, but my favorite of his tales I’ve read, Hard Boiled Wonderland, did not require company in chewing over the book to make it a fully satisfying meal for me.
Spoilers after the cut.
Friend of the blog Moti had a rather satisfying theory of the other world and split selves that leads to Sumire's disappearance at the midpoint of the book. She had earlier transformed herself to become closer to Miu, stopping smoking, accepting a glam up, even – horrors - becoming more of morning person, but also is entirely blocked when she tries to write. The tensions in that split and the way it resolves itself brings in the magical realism.
Narrator K is faced with hilltop music of another world seems to echo the choice to travel home for the new school year or to stay with Miu and keep up the search for Sumire (or perhaps even cross over to the other side). This is the least traumatic and K is character with the easiest time fitting in, so no surprise that he clings hard to the a grounded world. However, after accepting that identity he is left to work through an awkward process of realizing that being attentive and aware of one person’s needs might have an unexpected consequence for another. His transformations are smaller, and life choices more conventional, but avoid being pat by confronting the messiness of K’s choices effects on others, leading to a poignant response from someone he’s assured that this is the right thing for everyone:
“What is right? Would you tell me? I don’t really know what’s right. I know what’s wrong. But what is right?”
I didn’t have a good answer.
Miu’s story left me most contemplative. When younger she’d spent several weeks in a European city on tour, enjoying music festivals and testing new life possibilities. Her encounter with the other world comes while being trapped and forgotten atop a ferris wheel. A calamity compounded by watching her abode through binoculars as a different version of herself seemingly consented to a degrading fling with local playboy Fernando, whose interest the Miu in the ferris wheel had come to despise. She comes out of that experience with something that another book club member described as trauma related disassociation, hair shock white and no longer interested in sex or playing music despite being quite talented at the latter. She felt split, though perhaps not permanently:
“Maybe someday, somewhere, we’ll meet again, and merge back into one. A very important question remains unanswered, however. Which me, on which side of the mirror, is the real me? I have no idea. Is the real me the one who held Ferdinando? Or the one who detested him? I don’t have the confidence to figure that one out.”
The book does not give us any definitive answers on that question. My first read was that the scene she watches feels more to me like a fantasy of Miu inside Ferndinando’s mind than some other half of her psyche.
However, I think the lead up to the ferris wheel, as she feels first threatened by Fernando’s attention and then increasingly alienated and out of place in the two, suggests that the split might two extremes facing a transplant. First to be the disconnected observer, trapped a top the ferris wheel and reliant on money from her wallet to try to send out messages. Or second, to surrender yourself entirely to the locale and its depredation, playing a different sort of exoticized visitor from the east, one objectified and submissive. This awful dilemma echoes Miu’s status as a model minority ethnic Korean in Japan, raised to always be better because she has to be. I do not think the book has a clear answer as to what exactly happened to her, but I think it also does hold a warning against objectifying others even in our own mind.
Each of these episodes was brought on by a trauma of some sort and often in the context of unrequited lust. Both K and Sumire have fantastical hopes that their crush can return their affections, hopes that I think the book admirably makes clear may never be fulfilled even if desired by all those involved. The ending of the book suggests that while reconciling mismatches of sex may be impossible, friendship can help bridge gaps between our different selves. Miu is sadly left to find her own path, and K doubts that she will. But romantic that I am, I like to think that part of the role of writers like Sumire is to help the alienated like Miu find ways to reconcile the trauma and terrible choices.