Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

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

Two interwoven quests in very different alternate universes strangely like our own.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Vintage International, 1993, 400 pages

Information is everything in Hard-boiled Wonderland. A specialist encrypter is attacked by thugs with orders from an unknown source, is chased by invisible predators, and dates an insatiably hungry librarian who never puts on weight. In the End of the World a new arrival is learning his role as dream-reader. But there is something eerily disquieting about the changeless nature of the town and its fable-like inhabitants. Told in alternate chapters, the two stories converge and combine to create a novel that is surreal, beautiful, thrilling and extraordinary.

It's only my impression, but I generally get the feeling that Japanese fiction suffers more than most in translation. It's evident in everything from the way sentences are constructed to the way thoughts flow together and the details an author focuses on that the impression a Japanese reader is getting is probably very different from what we're getting in English. Certainly there is something lost in any translation, but Japanese literature gives me that "Something got lost there" feeling more than most.

“There are people who drive luxury cars, but have only second- or third-rate sofas in their homes. I put little trust in such people. An expensive automobile may be well worth its price, but it's only an expensive automobile. If you have the money, you can buy it, anyone can buy it. Procuring a good sofa, on the other hand, requires style and experience and philosophy. It takes money, yes, but you also need a vision of the superior sofa. That sofa among sofas.”

I'd really like to see an in-depth review of Haruki Murakami's writing style and themes in Japanese by a Japanese critic. Of course that review would have to be translated into English, and something would be lost in the translation, and so the arrow will never reach the wall.

Oh yes, that was a Zeno's Paradox reference. Here's Murakami's version, in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World:

"The encyclopedia wand's a theoretical puzzle, like Zeno's paradox. The idea is t'engrave the entire encyclopedia onto a single toothpick. Know how you do it?"

"You tell me."

"You take your information, your encyclopedia text, and you transpose it into numerics. You assign everything a two-digit number, periods and commas included. 00 is a blank, A is 01, B is 02, and so on. Then after you've lined them all up, you put a decimal point before the whole lot. So now you've got a very long sub-decimal fraction. 0.173000631... Next, you engrave a mark at exactly that point along the toothpick. If 0.50000's your exact middle on the toothpick, then 0.3333's got t'be a third of the way from the tip. You follow?"


"That's how you can fit data of any length in a single point on a toothpick. Only theoretically, of course. No existin' technology can actually engrave so fine a point. But this should give you a perspective on what tautologies are like. Say time's the length of your toothpick. The amount of information you can pack into it doesn't have anything t'do with the length. Make the fraction as long as you want. It'll be finite, but pretty near eternal. Though if you make it a repeatin' decimal, why, then it is eternal. You understand what that means? The problem's the software, no relation to the hardware. It could be a toothpick or a two-hundred-meter timber or the equator - doesn't matter. Your body dies, your consciousness passes away, but your thought is caught in the one tautological point an instant before, subdividin' for an eternity. Think about the koan: An arrow is stopped in flight. Well, the death of the body is the flight of the arrow. It's makin' a straight line for the brain. No dodgin' it, not for anyone. People have t'die, the body has t'fall. Time is hurlin' that arrow forward. And yet, like I was sayin', thought goes on subdividin' that time for ever and ever. The paradox becomes real. The arrow never hits."

"In other words," I said, "immortality."

"There you are. Humans are immortal in their thought. Though strictly speakin', not immortal, but endlessly, asymptotically close to immortal. That's eternal life."

That annoyingly dialectal speech pattern used by the dotty professor giving our nameless protagonist a lecture on information theory, by the way, is an example of where something gets lost in the translation. I am guessing that Murakami wrote that character using a roughly equivalent sort of informal slang in Japanese, and that's how the translator rendered it in English.

Notwithstanding the above passage, and there are a lot more such esoteric and philosophical discussions in this book, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is actually not as bizarre as some of the other Murakami novels I've read. It's still bizarre, but it's bizarre in a way that almost resembles a conventional science fiction/fantasy novel. If someone who's a regular SF&F reader wanted to try Murakami, I would probably recommend this book as a good starter, since while most of Murakami's books have a fantastic element in them, it's often a lot harder to see the sense or purpose in them.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is actually two stories, told in alternating chapters.

In the first, our nameless protagonist is asked to do a job for a scientist who lives in an underground complex. He has a spunky teenage granddaughter who is repeatedly (like, every single time) described as chubby but pretty, and apparently she has a fetish for wearing pink. If you're thinking this is the usual Murakami nebbish who will go through the book experiencing one bizarre and often life-threatening thing after another with a sort of resigned imperturbability, and the usual Murakami manic pixie dream girl who will constantly exude sex in her actions, dress, and random conversational topics like "Do you like having your semen swallowed?" (yes, that's one of her actual random conversation starters), but whom the protagonist will never actually have sex with, you're right.

The protagonist is a "Calcutec." He works for "the System." The System is some sort of big bureaucratic quasi-governmental organization that sends Calcutecs out to do things. What things? "Shuffling." Some sort of mental process whereby the Calcutec sits down with a nice glass of wine and a homecooked Italian meal (immacutely-described pasta dishes are as inevitable in a Murakami novel as conversations about semen) and "Shuffles" numbers in his head.

The System has a rival organization: the Semiotecs. Soon, our nameless Murakami protagonist finds that this last job has brought him to the attention of the Semiotecs. They break into his apartment, rough him up, and threaten him.

It's all vaguely alt-universe and never completely explained, but it reminded me, for some reason, of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. This half of the book is more science fiction than fantasy. There is a lot of "theory of the mind" stuff, especially at the very end.

There are also my favorite Murakami creations yet, all the more interesting because they never actually show up, leading me to wonder whether we're supposed to question whether this entire adventure isn't all their heads:

"Oh, I see," I said. "How about telling me something about the INKlings then?"

"INKlings? A sharp guy like you don't know about INKlings? A.k.a. Infra-Nocturnal Kappa. You thought kappa were folktales? They live underground. They hole up in the subways and sewers, eat the city's garbage, and drink graywater. They don't bother with humans beings. Except for a few subway workmen who disappear that is, heh heh."

"Doesn't the government know about them?"

"Sure, the government knows. The state's not that dumb."

"Then why don't they warn people? Or else drive the INKlings away?"

"First of all," he said, "it'd upset too many people. Wouldn't want that to happen, would you? INKlings swarming right under their feet, people wouldn't like that. Second, forget about exterminating them. What are you gonna do? Send the whole Japanese Self-Defense Force down into the sewers of Tokyo? The swamp down there in the dark is their stomping grounds. It wouldn't be a pretty picture.

"Another thing, the INKlings have set up shop not too far from the Imperial Palace. It's a strategic move, you understand."

Kappas, living under Tokyo. That's just so awesome and so ridiculous. I wasn't sure if Murakami was paying tribute to C.H.U.D. or J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I was very disappointed to find out that "INKlings" was something the English translator coined, not what Murakami used in the original Japanese. Murakami is a voracious reader and he constantly references Western literary works in his own books (his characters are always reading Thomas Mann or Balzac or Dostoevsky), so that kind of pun is totally something he would come up with.

The other half of the book takes place in a town called the End of the World. Here, too, the protagonist is nameless, passive, and drifts through an odd, dreamlike world in which things are described but never explained. The town is peaceful, and people do odd, undefined jobs for no particular reason. The protagonist learns upon arrival that no one is allowed to keep their shadow. Your shadow stays outside the forbidding Wall, and only after your shadow dies are you fully a resident of the Town.

The main character plays an alternate-universe version of chess with a friendly Colonel, and performs the job he was given upon arrival of being the town's Dreamreader. The town library has hundreds of skulls on its shelves, skulls of the furry, docile Beasts who surround the town. The Dreamreader's job is to read dreams contained in the skulls. Eventually he decides he wants to leave the Town, and try to save his shadow.

Like the first story, the second one takes a while to start making any kind of sense. You just have to accept everything on its own terms. If the first story was vaguely sci-fi, the second one is a sort of pastoral fantasy with only the slightest ripple of creepiness pervading it.

As you read through Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, reading first a chapter in the first story, then the next chapter in the second, it feels like reading two books in one until about midway when you start seeing connections that can't be coincidental, and then, gradually, more of the truth is unveiled. You may or may not guess where Murakami is going, but it's definitely a trip.

“You're wrong. The mind is not like raindrops. It does not fall from the skies, it does not lose itself among other things. If you believe in me at all, then believe this: I promise you I will find it. Everything depends on this."

"I believe you," she whispers after a moment. "Please find my mind.”

There are definitely some common themes (I might even say, fetishes) in Murakami's works, and after having read several of his novels, I can start checking off all the boxes as I go along. Yet each one is still original and interesting in its own way, so now and then I keep feeling the mood to try another one.

Poll #1910721 Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Have you read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, but now I want to.
No, and I don't want to.

Have you read any other books by Haruki Murakami?

Yes, I'm a fan.
Yes, but I didn't like them,
No, but now I want to.
No, and I'm not interested.

Verdict: You have certain expectations from a Murakami novel, certain tropes he uses over and over, yet he's never just copying himself. If you're a Murakami fan, then Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World should be on your to-read list, but I also think it's one of his more "readable" novels, at least for people who don't shy away from fantasy. It's odd and goes in weird places, like all his books, but the quest is one part mindfuck, two parts fantasy adventure, and much of it reads like Murakami is winking at you, tongue in cheek. It's pretty accessible even to readers not familiar with Murakami's style.

Also by Haruki Murakami: My reviews of Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, haruki murakami, reviews

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