In three months I will start my legal traineeship which lasts two years and at the end of which I will become a qualified solicitor. Meanwhile, I will be known as a “trainee solicitor”. Before then, though, I’ve been asked by my new employer to start early with them as a paralegal – an offer which I’ve accepted. I’m due to begin on 12th June.
There is another (former) paralegal whose life I’ve been following these past couple of weeks in the pages of Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which was lent to me by a friend recently. Even in paperback, it’s something of a doorstop of a tome at 600-odd pages.
Not being a Manga man myself, this was the first novel I’d read translated from Japanese. It starts at a slow burn and describes in great detail the quotidian rituals of domestic life in urban 1980s Japan. A lot of beer bottles are got from fridges, a lot of meals are carefully prepared and a lot of records find themselves on turntables.
Things do fairly rachet up though and the novel takes a very literal plunge into darkness about a quarter of the way through when we hear about the wartime escapades of Lieutenant Mamiya, which includes witnessing someone being flayed and spending days on end down an abandoned well.
What seems like pretty near to domestic bliss in the novel’s first 50 or so pages turns out to be nothing of the sort. The protagonist’s (Mr Okada’s) cat has gone missing and then, one night, without any warning, so does his wife.
My year began with the tale of a wife who runs away without explanation leaving a bereft husband behind. Ian McEwan’s Lessons was the best book I’d read in a good while. The main character of that novel, though, also had a newborn baby to contend with and complex childhood trauma to boot. Our hero in WUBC is childless and it seems as though he has no Past to speak of.
Not that he is without preoccupations. He hates his brother-in-law’s guts for no single discernible reason. An irrational antipathy, impossible to ignore. The reasons for this animus are diffuse. It appears that he and his wife, for reasons not completely clear, decided to name the missing cat after this man. It seems odd to the reader that the protagonist would jokingly bestow this epithet on his beloved feline, given that he is deadly serious about his disgust for his brother-in-law.
Two of my female friends, when I mentioned that I’m reading Murakami, have said that his novels are misogynistic. I think that WUBC is trying to say something about women, generally, and how they relate to men. This generality and generalisation doesn’t happen figuratively, but literally. In the world of the novel, there exists a parallel world, which I will term the Well World, as this is our protagonist’s principal means of accessing it.
The Well World allows one to travel great distances and communicate with others in their dreams; it is also a parallel reality. In this reality, the women in Mr Okada’s life merge and combine and present us with archetypes specific to his mental universe.
One of the central ideas that comes up, again and again, is that of “defilement”. This is a concept we feel uncomfortable with in our contemporary society of sex positivity and its shedding of the value of female virginity. To clarify, I believe these are both unequivocally good things. As a reader when I happened upon the word “defilement” I had to take a second to think about what that really means in today’s world. I understand defilement to connotate an act so vile in nature that it corrupts or taints the one to whom it is being done on some moral level. That idea is alien to the current discourse on sex and sexual violence, making its reintroduction disturbing.
What’s also interesting is that it’s the women themselves (through Murakami of course) who talk of being cheapened or diminished by the acts they have had done to them. These “defilements” also take place in the context of sex work, which many would see as of its nature degrading, if not “defiling” per se. There is clearly some boundary being crossed, some unbearably malevolent facet of male sexuality unknown even to experienced sex workers.
Another thing I found interesting regarding the sex work explorations of the novel was the idea that one of the characters, Creta Kano, after having been a physical sex worker, describes herself as a “prostitute of the mind”. To me this evokes our current world of OnlyFans where there is no physical contact between client and “service provider” but some other quantity is being lavished on them – an intangible psychosexual connection that delivers orgasms at a distance. The harsher, blunter language of “prostitute” conveys something that is lost in the sanitised amorality of “sex worker” – that it is the mind itself being prostituted, which is, in many ways, much more disturbing.
If there is one character people might deem problematic in WUBC it would probably be May Kasahara, a 17-year-old girl with whom Mr Okada has a strange friendship. While there are some weird elements like Mr Okada thinking and then saying to her that she looks good in a bikini, and May Kasahara’s thoughts on sex and sexuality given in the form of letters to him which never arrive, I think on the whole she is one of the most vividly realised of all of the books many characters. Her late-book correspondence with Mr Okada is full of energy, naïveté, and curiosity and abounds in the fathomless if clumsily expressed philosophical seriousness that is only bestowed upon teenagers.
Most importantly, it’s funny! Besides, are we, in spite of her deadly seriousness, supposed to take her views on sex seriously? And, furthermore, are we to equate them with the views of the author? I don’t think so.
The reader is, I think, invited to condemn her past frivolity (she is responsible for her boyfriend’s death in a motorbike accident by her foolish actions), which she also regrets in her final few letters. She is clearly not aligned with the patriarchal expectations imposed on and accepted by her peers. I would wholly defend her creation. Mr Okada is a weak and lonely man who fails to understand his wife (not that he is an unsympathetic character). Even so, May Kasahara never merges with the other women in his life in the Well World. She is isolated from that part of his subconscious, even if May Kasahara herself insinuates herself into her own fantasy relationships with him.
One final aspect of WUBC to comment on is the late part of the novel’s tale of Lieutenant Mamiya’s time as a Japanese soldier and POW in Soviet Siberia. I’d never read anything set in WWII from this perspective. The scenes in occupied Manchuria towards the end of the war were especially poignant. They reminded me of the futility with which one is confronted at the end of three gruelling hours of the film Das Boot – brutal orders carried out to the last when everyone involved knows the cause is lost.
A pattern consistent across many of the characters is the theme of trauma, sterility caused thereby and the ultimate inexplicability of why certain events cause one to react in a specific way. If there is a political point to be made here I am not familiar enough with Japanese history or politics to connect the dots. All I know is that WUBC will stay with me as an eerie exposition through paranormal means of spiritual pathologies pervasive in everyone from paralegals to politicians and gurus to geishas.