Saturday, June 21, 2014

Review: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

I started reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991) because I really loved Murakami's Norwegian Wood (2000). Honestly, that book devastated me it was so sad. Very Japanese. It was Murakami's only "realism" novel. I became a Murakami fan right away. Not sure if there is a term for us - perhaps minikami, or kamikaze. I read the free Kindle sample a few years ago and loved the opening, my first taste of Murakami in his element. So about a month ago, I started Hard-Boiled. (I read several books at the same time because I get bored, or maybe it's some mild version of ADD.) Here's my review - of course, there are spoilers.

First, some background on Murakami and the novel. The book was originally published in Japanese in 1985. It is Murakami's fourth published novel. It was translated into English in 1991 by Alfred Birnbaum, whose fluid translations I tend to favor over the more logical ones of Jay Rubin, translator of Norwegian Wood, for instance.

There are really, appropriately, two stories here. The first, Hardboiled Wonderland, is about a hardboiled data analyst who gets sucked into this strange and, at times, incredible infowar, involving weird fish-insect-things called INKlings; Semiotics; Calcutecs; an disinterested, genius old scientist; and his chubby granddaughter. The other is set in a timeless landscape called the End of the World, filled with unicorns, a giant enclosing wall, a Gatekeeper, and a talking shadow. The two represent not only the duality of death and perpetual life but also the conscious mind and mindless existence.

The stories are beautiful, but, of course, the sum is greater than the parts. By the end of both, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of appreciation for life, which was nice because for most of the book I was horrified by the idea of the protagonist being trapped in a mindless eternity. It made me think a lot about death. I mean, at some point we're all gonna die. Sorry. It sucks. But it seems remote, distant. However, for the protagonist, it's very real: he finds out he's going to die in about two days. Most people would freak out, I think. But he doesn't really seem to care too much. At least, that's how it comes across. But when we read his final day, I, at least, am struck by his appreciation for the little things. He eats popcorn, feeds the pigeons, listens to Bob Dylan, and lies back in his car in the sun. Of course, there's one other thing he does: he makes a real human connection with the librarian. Call it love or whatever, it was real emotion, human to human. And that's what makes eternity livable for him, that he has a piece of her mind with him always. They are memories. No one can take them away from us. No one can take away how someone else makes us feel and the connections we've made with people - because, really, that's the only thing that matters. Everything else collects dust and withers, forever lost, to be washed away by rain.

It also made me think about the possibility of living forever. That's the nature of the End of the World, an artificial place created in the protagonist's mind. Having lost his mind, the protagonist is essentially stuck there without death, without life - only existence. What could make something like that livable? There are plenty of people predicting immortality for humans in the future. In fact, at the very end, the Old Man's granddaughter says she's going to freeze the protagonist's body after he dies - hopefully, so he can live forever in the future. This element is not simply made up. Cryogenics is a real field of science, and there have already been plenty of people who have signed up and who have been frozen with the hope of being resurrected in the future. I've wondered myself if that is a good thing, or would I just prefer to die. Here's the dilemma: I'm afraid to die and I'm afraid of living forever. But one of these is going to happen for sure no matter what - there's no escape. But reading this book, it made me realize that both are OK. They're only unpleasant if you make them. No one will force you to live forever. And if you're a believer, or if you plan on freezing yourself, or if you follow Raymond Kurzweil's ideas, then you might not necessarily die. If life is pleasant, then live in the moment. Don't think about a thousand years from now. A thousand years from now doesn't exist. Live one day at a time. And as far as dying goes, it's your escape, or your final act, if you wish. If you feel like you lived a good life and you're satisfied, than why not end? It seems like the natural thing to do.

Overall, yes, I would recommend this book to the kamikaze out there. It's highly entertaining and hilarious. I didn't know Murakami was this funny. If you love science fiction or fantasy, each story has one of these elements, then you're very likely to love this book. If you like Japanese literature, you'll like this, too. (Murakami has been known to be more "Western" in his writing style than traditionally Japanese, but I always find him to be a balanced blend, maintaining a Japanese identity with his Japanese themes of suffering and compassion while appealing to Westerners with his humor, taste for speculative adventure, and focus on individualism.)

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