I’ll be honest: Although I enjoyed this running/writing memoir by famous author Murakami, I didn’t love it.
The book is not particularly ambitious or enthusiastic or exciting or monumental. But of course most the handiwork of running itself – especially the daily training – IS neither very exciting nor enthusiasm-enducing, nor monumental; I remember quite well from my recent years as a runner. That is why the book does manage to evoke aspects of the experience of BEING A RUNNER quite well. Running is always in the background of a runner’s everyday life – when will I be able to train today? Does my knee only hurt or is it injured? Do I need to rest more? Can I reach the time I aimed at? Should I train more often? Is this shoe too cushioned? – and in this role it plays in the everyday, running IS a pretty sober, uncinematic affair.
And that’s how running comes across in the book. It deals with running as something that fits the author’s uncompetitive nature and pragmatically fulfills his need for an activity that will keep him physically fit enough to do all the writing (and living). The prose is relaxed and sober, kind of like any regular distance runner’s informal log to himself. It does come across that there are elements in running that Murakami does enjoy, but he does not appear to have too much enthusiasm for the activity itself. But maybe that’s a matter of personality / taste because I personally prefer grander, deeper kinds of joy than the sober relationship he is in with running.
So this book is a well-done piece on a writing runner’s everyday, but I don’t find it very moving or even that insightful. Well, I am a sucker for the extraordinary, after all 🙂
The story narrates the struggles and fates of a handful of characters on and around the Dutch East Indies Company’s trading post Dejima right off the bay of Nagasaki (Japan) starting in 1799. We chiefly follow the Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet as he navigates his way around the foreign culture, corruption, homesickness, blossoming friendships, and rivalries. And in the midst of it all, de Zoet falls in love with Miss Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife studying with a certain Dr Marinus. We follow her fate as she is sent off against her will to the disquieting Lord Abbot Enomoto’s shrine on Mount Shiranui. The shrine holds a dark secret, and within its confines, she tries to forge a place for herself.
What it really is about
This book weaves together clashes at the level of cultures, at the level of groups of people, at the level of individuals, and at the level of values, goals, ambitions, dreams, and personalities – it captures the never-ending task of every human being to negotiate their own way through all of these struggles.
We see clashes of belief systems, of ambition and veracity, of cultural independence and colonial connectedness, of science and traditional beliefs, of systems and principles of sovereignty, of the cruelties of slavery and how frighteningly easy one goes along with what counts as normal; clashes of dreams and realities, of one’s personal goals and one’s loyalties, one’s ideals and the dark sides everyone has, of arrogance and humility, of struggling and of acceptance and of forging a place for oneself.
Mitchell hardly ever suggests any easy answers or solutions for all these clashes and themes and I really appreciate that. What I love most, though, is the novel’s rich down-to-earth melancholia about the way one’s life turns out with time, through all the forces and influences out of one’s control, including incalculable consequences of one’s own actions and inactions. It offers a superb portrayal of the struggles one goes through in making the choices one has to make, or forever regret, to stay true to oneself. And finally, the novel beautifully drives home how we can ultimately only ever ascertain and assess some of these things, and most of them in hindsight.
A little postscript: Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks,” (2014) set in the same universe, should be read before this book as it makes sense of some of the happenings at Mount Shiranui Shrine, at least partly redeeming their otherwise uncomfortably orientalist vibes.
It’s a sort of an end of an era for me recently since I finished the Gormenghast book trilogy and, almost in parallel, the video game Dark Souls 1.
Both works are difficult to navigate, but richly rewarding. Their worlds are uncanny and gothic, but distinct; the eerie characters and their fates as you live through them are intense – that is, if you find within yourself the patience and motivation to finish these difficult masterpieces. I did, and against all odds, I lived to tell you about it.
Dark Souls (videogame)
That’s because Dark Souls is one big incredible suffer fest journey of an action/adventure/roleplay videogame. Hated and loved universally for its incredible but somehow fair difficulty, it demands the utmost in concentration and in willingness to try, die, learn, and try again (the PC version is aptly named “Prepare to Die Edition”). It is so intense that at times, it feels like what you are doing is learning an area and its enemies’ moves by heart, and only when you have really internalised them will you succeed.
Nevertheless, this is for some reason fun; probably not least because of the genius level design and the incredible feeling of accomplishment upon finally mastering previously unthinkably difficult sections or boss fights (the other day, I actually dreamt reading an article online about the Gaping Dragon unanimously being seen as the objectively hardest boss. That was probably my brain justifying my endless fight with it).
Also, I admit I am a competitive person at times, and I don’t accept defeat. So this explains the 1 1/2 painful but intense years I spent with this game!
I absolutely love the dark atmosphere of ever-shifting mystery shrouding the world; I love the feel of the almost Gormenghast-ishly bizarre inhabitants and of your character’s own cryptic story and part to play in the world. You only ever get bits and pieces of stories to be puzzled together from seldom interactions with in-game characters, events, and item descriptions. I am a detective, I like that.
Gormenghast – what an incredible place, and what a wondrous journey of a book trilogy (written 1946, 1950, and 1959).
The books are textbook examples for portraying surreal characters. In time, the vast Gormenghast castle itself comes to feel like a character with a life entirely of its own – its personality consisting of immemorial, weird rituals meticulously observed by its inhabitants; its physical shape consisting of an unending, untraceable net of tracts, buildings, corridors, and rooms, one more ancient than the next; all of it labyrinthine and most of it long forgotten.
The plot of the first two books follows the madness, ambitions, hopes, and dreams of several inhabitants:
The old depressed Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan, whose only escape from the demands of his office is his library. His son, the 77th Earl Titus Groan who is born into Gormenghast and but an infant for the entire length of the first book, and whose yearning for freedom from the life written for him is a major driver for changes; along with the ambition of Steerpike, the kitchen boy of unknown origin; Sepulchrave’s loyal servant Mr Flay whose coming is ever accompanied by the persistent cracking of his joints and who takes marvellous pride in his profession; his nemesis, the horroresque cook Swelter; the hopelessly romantic, touchingly impulsive, artistic melancholy sister of Titus, Lady Fuchsia Groan, whose intense childhood and youth we follow; the uncannily mad but eerily ambitious twin sisters of Sepulchrave, Cora and Clarice; the inquisitive Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor and his annoying, vain sister Irma who is in dire need of love; the ever-fussy Nannie Slag; Sourdust, the ancient master of ritual, and his son Barquentine, the school professor Bellgrove, the Bright Carvers, The Thing, Kedra…
The first two books follow the castle inhabitants over several years through many events and developments: the library is burned, central characters die, others fall in love, and out of love; the castle is flooded, some characters manipulate others, some follow their hopes, others kill, yet others find a new life; some meet tragic ends; and Gormenghast castle is always in the background… many things happen, but the book takes its sweet time for them. I think comparisons with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are not entirely misplaced.
(For me, the third book in the trilogy felt rather odd and off. We leave Gormenghast behind and enter a world that is even stranger and more unpredictable. Maybe that is an accurate depiction of what it feels like to have grown up within the castle and then leave it. Also, the additional layer of Mervyn Peake’s alleged dwindling mental faculties during its writing makes the oddness of the book all the more eerie.)
I loved these first two books for their very own distinctive feel – not always smooth or easy to read, but richly rewarding, and always one-of-a-kind. You do need a lot of patience and time to let the picture these books paint develop, and flow, though. Suffice it to say that Mervyn Peake’s trilogy is a grand piece of olde English literature (and that I have probably learnt more new English words from it than during the whole previous year, although I would hazard a guess that Peake’s favourite word might just be “undulating”).