Thursday, September 17, 2009

Murukami & the Nights

A friend gave me a copy of Haruki Murukami's book Kafka on the Shore which is a great read if you haven't read it or any Murukami. It was a gift because the friend enjoys Murukami (not because of the references below).

The main character (Kafka Tamura) is a teenaged boy in contemporary Japan who, among many other bizarre events, runs away from home and spends time reading all day in a small private library in the suburbs.

Sometimes when you study something you see it everywhere just because you are reading things into things or are trying to fit everything into your thesis (when you study psychology you swear you have all of the mental illnesses you read about or when you read Marx you see everything as a class conflict...! for example).

But what if it really is everywhere?

In Murukami, Kafka begins browsing the library's collection, reflecting in a sense the larger literary points that the narrative weaves:

"When I open them, most of books have the smell of an earlier time leaking out between the pages - a special odor of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers. Breathing it in, I glance through a few pages before returning each book to its shelf.

Finally I decide on a multivolume set, with beautiful covers, of the Burton translation of The Arabian Nights, pick out one volume, and take it back to the reading room. I've been meaning to read this book" (36).

- Kafka then engages with a character named Oshima and they talk about hermaphrodites (something Burton also brings up several times throughout his Nights) before Kafka returns to his book.

"Back in the reading room I return to 'The Tale of Abu-l-Hasan, the Wag,' but my mind wanders away from the book. Male/male, male/female, and female/female?" (37).

This means that Kafka is reading Burton's volume one of his Supplemental Nights, and no, I'm not that nerdy, I just happen to have read this story yesterday, and yes, it is all strange coincidence.

What is interesting (among many other things) here is that the narrator refers to the story title that is not the Burton title. Burton's title of this story is "The Sleeper and the Waker." In a footnote in his main Nights Burton does mention the story by this exact title but it is in reference to Lane:

"Lane (ii. 352) here introduces, between Nights cclxxi. and ccxc., a tale entitled in the Bresl. Edit. (iv. 134) “The Sleeper and the Waker,” i.e. the sleeper awakened; and he calls it: The Story of Abu-l-Hasan the Wag. It is interesting and founded upon historical-fact; but it can hardly be introduced here without breaking the sequence of The Nights. I regret this the more as Mr. Alexander J. Cotheal-of New York has most obligingly sent me an addition to the Breslau text (iv. 137) from his Ms. But I hope eventually to make use of it."

(this footnote comes in Burton's 271st Night)

I wonder what the case is here, is Murukami being clever by putting the Lane title in the Burton book? Or is it a mistake? If anyone has the original Japanese and can tell me if the title of this story is "The Story of Abu-l-Hasan the Wag" in Murukami's book please let me know, though I can't really see the English translator of Murukami choosing this title if Murukami wrote "The Sleeper and the Waker."

Later, after a few episodes in his own adventure, Kafka returns to the book:

"I head off to the reading room and back to Arabian Nights. Like always, once I settle down and start flipping pages, I can't stop. The Burton edition has all the stories I remember reading as a child, but they're longer, with more episodes and plot twists, and so much more absorbing that it's hard to believe they're the same. They're full of obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes. Like the genie in the bottle they have this sort of vital, living sense of play, of freedom, that common sense can't keep bottled up. I love it and can't let go. Compared to those faceless hordes of people rushing through the train station, these crazy, preposterous stories of a thousand years ago are, at least to me, much more real. How that's possible, I don't know. It's pretty weird" (53).

This is a nice passage and one can't help but imagine the author's voice seeping in through his teenaged character giving voice to, on some level, what reading and stories are all about, let alone in the frame of Burton's Nights, especially reading as a teen and/or young adult, moving away from the childish and yet still dragging it with you (or it dragging you) into adulthood and more serious concerns.

There are a few more references (though the whole book is on many levels Murukami's rewrite of what he says Burton's Nights are above):

"I go back to the reading room, where I sink down in the sofa and into the world of The Arabian Nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I'm alone, inside the world of the story. My favorite feeling in the world" (54).

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