Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

My second Murakami novel after Norwegian Wood. The book is all about love and loneliness is modern times. Written in the first person, the main character tries to capture the love he felt for Sumire and depicts the love that she felt for another woman. Several biting pieces from the novel that I just couldn't resist quoting. It ends in tragedy finally as Sumire disappears mysteriously.

In the spring of her twenty second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains – flattening everything in its path, tossing fields up int eh air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado's intensity doesn't abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean, laying waste to Angkor Wat, incinerating an Indian jungle, tigers and everything, transforming itself into a Persian desert sandstorm, burying an exotic fortress city under a sea of sand. In short, a love of truly monumental proportions. The person she fell in love with happened to be 17 years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a woman. This is where it all began, and where it all ended. Almost.

About the main character with respect to whom the book is written in the first person.

The upshot of all this is that when I was young I began to draw an invisible boundary between myself and other people. No matter who I was dealing with. I maintained a safe distance, carefully monitoring the person's attitude so that they would not get closer. I didn't easily swallow what other people told me. My only passion were books and music. As you may guess, I lived a lonely life.

To some extent, I am able to feel for him. Sometimes, a bibliophile's life is lonely but quite often it is out of choice rather than necessity. You immerse yourself into books of all kinds, imagine yourself in all kinds of roles, and draw parallels between the books you read and your own life. In the end it seems better than the real thing. Why venture out into the world when a book in your hand lets you feel just about everything that mankind has ever felt?

I imagined how wonderful it would be if indeed we could be lovers. I longed for the warmth of her skin on mine. I pictured us married, living together. But I have to face the fact that Sumire had no such romantic feeling for me, let alone sexual interest. Occasionally she'd stay over at my apartment after we'd talked into the small hours, but there was never even the slightest hint of romance. Come to 2 or 3 am and she'd yawn, crawl into bed, sink her face into my pillow, and fall fast asleep. I'd spread out some bedding on the floor and lie down, but I couldn't sleep, my mind full of fantasies, continuous thoughts, self-loathing. Sometimes the inevitable physical reactions would cause me grief, and I'd lie awake in misery until dawn. 
It was hard to accept that she had almost no feelings, maybe none at all for me as a man. This hurt so bad at times it felt like someone was gouging out my guts with a knife. Still, the time I spent with her was more precious than anything. She helped me forget the undertone of loneliness in my life. She expanded the outer edges of my world, helped me draw a deep, soothing breath. Only Sumire could do that for me.


But I couldn't love her. For whatever reason, that unconditional, natural intimacy Sumire and I had just wasn't there. A thin, transparent veil always came between us. Visible or not, a barrier remained. Awkward silences came on us all the time – particularly when we said goodbye. That never happened with me and Sumire. Behind with this woman confirmed one undeniable fact: I needed Sumire more than ever. 
After the woman left, I went for a walk alone, wandered aimlessly for a while, then dropped by a bar near the station and had a Canadian Club on the rocks. As always at times like those, I felt like the most wretched person alive. I quickly drained my first drink and ordered another, closed my eyes and thought of Sumire. Sumire, topless, sunbathing on the white sands of a Greek island. At the table next to mine four college boys and girls were drinking beer, laughing and having a good time. Ann old number by Huey Lewis and the News was playing. I could smell pizza baking. 
When did my youth slip away from me? I suddenly thought. It was over, wasn't it? Seemed just like yesterday I was still only half grown up. Huey Lewis and the News had a couple of hit songs then. Not so many years ago. And now here I was, inside a closed circuit, spinning my wheel. Knowing I wasn't getting anywhere, but spinning just the same. I had to. Had to keep that up or I wouldn't be able to survive.

"When did my youth slip away from me?" How many times have I thought the same? And how many times have I been glad to be rid of it? In the end, if you feel any pain for lost time, continue feeling it so that you make the most of the times ahead. He has a girlfriend who makes him happy. Yet he longs for Sumire. So what if his girlfriend doesn't make him feel the same as Sumire?

But all I felt was an incomparable loneliness. Before I knew, the world around was drained of colour, from the shabby mountaintop, the ruins of those empty feelings, I could see my whole life stretching out into the future. It looked just like an illustration in a science fiction novel I read as a child: the desolate surface of a deserted planet. No sign of life at all. Each day seemed to last for ever, the air either boiling hot or freezing. The spaceship that had brought me there had disappeared, and I was stuck. I'd have to survive on my own. 
All over again I understood how important, how irreplaceable, Sumire was to me. In her own special way she'd kept me tethered to the world. As I talked to her and hear her stories, my mind quietly expanded, and I could see things I had never seen before. Without even trying, we grew close. Like a pair of young lovers undressing in front of each other, Sumire and I had exposed our hearts to one another, an experience I never had with any one else, anywhere. We cherished what we had together, though we never put into words how very precious it was. 
Of course it hurt that we could never love each other in a physical way. We would have been far happier if we had. But that was like the tides, the change of seasons – something immutable, and immovable destiny we could never alter. No matter how cleverly we might shelter it, our delicate friendship wasn't going to last for ever. We were bound to reach a dead end. That was painfully clear. 
I loved Sumire more than anyone else and wanted her more than anything in the world. And I couldn't just shape those feelings, for there was nothing to take their place. 
I dreamed that someday there would be a sudden, major transformation, even if the chances of it coming true were slim, I could dream about it, couldn't I? But I knew it would never come to. 
Like the tide receding, the shoreline washed clean, with Sumire gone I was left in a distorted, empty world. A gloomy, cold world in which what she and I had would never ever take place again. 
We each have a special something we can get only at a special time of our lives. Like a small flame. A careful, fortunate few cherish that flame, nurture it, hold it as a torch to light their way. But once that flame goes out, it is gone for ever. What I had lost was not just Sumire. I had lost that precious flame.

All good and great things come to an end. That is what he means by nurturing a flame. The only way to nurture a flame may be to not let it burn all out. But would that feel the same in that case? Is there no other way to let oneself go and yet let the flame live on forever? Would sure as hell like know the answer to that one.

Tomorrow I'll get on a plane and fly back to Tokyo. The summer holidays are nearly over, and I have to step once more in that endless stream of the everyday. There's a place for me there. My apartment's there, my desk, my classroom, my pupils. Quiet days await me, novels to read. The occasional affair.
 But tomorrow I'll be a different person, never again the person I was. Not that anyone will notice after I am back in Japan. On the outside nothing will be different. But something inside has burnt up and vanished. Blood has been shed, and something inside me is gone. Page turned down, without a word, that something makes its exit. The door opens; the door shuts. The light goes out. This is the last day for the person I am right now. The very last twilight. When dawn come, the person I am won't be here any more. Someone else will occupy this body. 
Why do people have to be this lonely? What's the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the Earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?

I guess this is the usual existential angst. Most of us feel so in these modern times, when all other basic needs are taken for granted. So eventually it is love that burns us out. But can we not look at love as an abstract concept? A concept that can be carried over in another form when one dies out?

So that is how we live our lives. No matter how deep and how fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that is stolen from us – that is snatched right out of our hands – even if we are left completely changed people with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way in silence. We draw ever nearer to our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Repeating, often adroitly, the endless deeds of the everyday. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Another masterpiece by Coetzee. It tells the story of Michael K who escapes the city during a civil war with his ailing mother with aim of taking her back to the house where she grew up as a girl in the countryside. But eventually ends taking her ashes instead when she dies on the journey. The story vividly tells the day to day struggles of a man who survives the harsh countryside, trying to go back to the old ways of tending to a garden and growing his own food. He is eventually captured but has lost all the will to live in the "system".

K closed his eyes and rested his face on his hands. It was clear to him that it was not soldiers who were camping at the dam, who had earlier camped at the house, but men from the mountains, men who blew up railway tracks and mined roads and attacked farmhouses and drove off stock and cut one town off from another, whom the radio reported exterminated in scores and newspapers published pictures in pools of their own blood. That was whom his visitors were. But they seemed to him like nothing so much as a football team: eleven men young men come off the field after a hard game, tired, happy, hungry.
His heart was pounding. When they leave in the morning, he thought to himself, I could come out of hiding and trot along behind them like a child following a brass band. After a while they would notice me and stop to ask what I wanted. And I could say give me a pack to carry; let me chop wood and build the fire at the end of the day. Or I could say: be sure to come back to the dam net time and i will feed you. I will have pumpkins and squashes and melons by then, i will have peaches and figs and prickly pears, you will lack nothing. And they will come next time on the way to the mountains or wherever it is the go by day, and i would feed them and afterwords sit when them around the fire drinking in their words. The stories they tell would be diff from the stories i head at the camp. Because the camp was for those left behind, the women and children, the old men, the blind, the crippled, the idiots, people who have nothing to tell but stories of how they have endured. Whereas these young men have had adventures, victories and defeats and escapes, they will have stories to tell long after the war is over, stories for a lifetime, stories for their grandchildren to listen to open-mouthed.
Yet in the same instant that he reached down to check that his shoe laces were tied, K knew that he would not crawl out and stand up and cross from darkness to the firelight to turn himself in. K knew the reason why: because enough men had gone to war saying that the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once the cord was broken the earth would grow hard and forget her children. That was why.
Between this reason and the truth that he would never announce himself, however, there lay a gap wider than the distance separating him from the firelight. Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness before which understanding baulked, it was useless to pour words. The words were eaten up, the gap remained. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story, always wrong.

Parasite was the word the police captain had used: the camp at Jakkalsdrif, a nest of parasites hanging from the neat sunlit town, eating its substance, giving no nourishment back. Yet to K lying idle in his bed, thinking without passion (What is it to me, after all? he thought), it was no longer obvious which was the host and which parasite, camp or town. If the worm devoured the sheep, why did the sheep not devour the worm? What if there were millions, more millions than anyone knew, living in camps, living on alms, living off the land, living by guile, creeping away in corners to escape the times, to canny to put out flags and draw to ourselves and be counted? What if the hosts were far outnumbered by the parasites, the parasites of idleness and the other secret parasites in the army and the police force and the schools and the factories and offices, the parasites of the heart? Could the parasites still be called parasites? Parasites too had flesh and substance; parasites too could be preyed upon. Perhaps in truth whether the camp was declared a parasite on the town or the town a parasite on the camp depended on no more than on who made his voice heard loudest.

Finally, a letter written by the camp doctor where is taken after being captured by soldiers and accused of helping the rebels.

Dear Michaels,
The answer is: because I want to know your story. I want to know how it happened that you of all people have joined in a war, a war in which you have no place. You are no soldier, Michaels, you are a figure of fun, a clown, a wooden man. What is you business in this camp? There is nothing you can do here to rehabilitate you from the vengeful mother with flaming hair who comes in your dreams. Do I understand that part of the story correctly? That is how I understand it anyhow. What is there for us to rehabilitate into you? Basketwork? Lawn-mowing? You are like a stick insect, Michaels, whose sole defence against universal predators is its bizarre shape. You are like a stick insect that has landed, God knows how, on the middle of a great black bare concrete plain. You raise your slow fragile stick legs one at a time, looking for something to merge with, and there is nothing. Why did you ever leave the bushes, Michaels. That is where you belong. You should have stayed all your life clinging to a nondescript bush in a quiet corner of an obscure garden in a peaceful suburb doing whatever that stick insects do to maintain life, nibbling a leaf here and there, eating the odd aphid, drinking dew. And – if I may be personal – you should have got away at an early age from that mother of your, who sounds like a real killer. You should have found another bush as far as possible from her and embarked on an independent life. You made a great mistake, Michaels, when you tied her on your back and fled the burning city for the safety of the countryside. Because when I think of you carrying her, panting under weight, choking in the smoke, dodging the bullets, performing all the other feats of filial piety, you no doubt performed, I also think of her sitting on your shoulders, eating out your brains, glaring about triumphantly, the very embodiment of Great Mother Death. And now that she is gone you are plotting to follow her. I wonder what it is that you see, Michaels, when you open your eyes so wide – for you certainly do not see me, you certainly do not see the white walls and the empty beds of the infirmary, you do not see Felicity in her snow white turban. What do you see? Is it your mother in her circle of flaming hair grinning and beckoning to you with crooked finger to pass through the curtain of light and join her in the world beyond. Does that explain your indifference to life?
Another thing I would like to know is that what was the food you ate in the wilderness that has made all other food tasteless to you. The only food you have ever mentioned is pumpkin. You even carry pumpkin seeds with you. Is pumpkin the only food they know in the Karoo? Am i to believe that you lived for a year on pumpkin? The human body is not capable of that Michaels. What else did you eat? Did you hunt? Did you make yourself a bow and arrows and hunt? Did you eat roots and berries? Did you eat locusts? Your paper say that your are opgaarder. A storage man. But they do not say what i was that you stored. Was is manna? Did manna fall from the sky for you? And did you store it away in underground bins for your friends to come and eat in the night? Is that why you will not eat camp food – because you have been spoiled forever by the taste of manna.
You should have hidden Michaels. You were too careless of yourself. You should have crept away in the darkest reach of the darkest hole and possessed yourself in patience as the troubles were over. Did you think you were a spirit invisible, a visitor on our planet, a creature beyond the reach of the laws of nations? Well, the laws of nations have you in their grip now: they have pinned you down in a bed beneath the grandstand of the old Kenilworth racecourse, they will grind you in the dirt if necessary. The laws are made of iron, Michaels, I hope you are learning that. No matter how thin you make yourself they will not relax. There is no home left for universal souls except perhaps in Antarctica or the high seas. If you will not compromise, you are going to die, Michaels. And do not think you are simply going to waste away, grow more and more insubstantial till you are all soul and you can fly into the aether. The death you have chosen is full of pain and misery and shame and regret, and there are many days to endure yet before release comes. You are going to die and your story is going to die to forever and ever, unless you come to your senses and listen to me. Listen to me, Michaels. I am the only one who can save you. I am the only one who sees you for the original soul that you are. I am the only one who cares for you. I alone see you neither as a soft case for a soft camp nor a hard case for a hard camp but a human soul above and beneath classification. A soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring with wings within that stiff sarcophagus, murmuring behind that clownish mask. You are precious, Michaels, in your way; you are the last of your kind, a creature left over from an earlier age, like the last man to speak Yaqui. We have all tumbled over the lip into the cauldron of history: only you, following your idiot life, biding your time in an orphanage (who would have thought of that as a hiding place!), evading the peace and the war, skulking in the open to an old dream, have managed to live in the old way, drifting through time, observing the seasons, no more trying to change the course of history that a grain of sand does. We ought to value you and celebrate you, we ought to put your clothes on a Marquette in a museum. Your clothes and your packet pf pumpkin seeds too, with a label; there ought to be a plaque nailed to the racetrack wall commemorating your stay here. But that is not the way it is going to be. The truth is that you are going to perish in obscurity and be buried in a nameless hole in a corner of the racecourse, transport the acres of Woltemonde being out of the question nowadays, and no one is going remember you, unless you yield and at last open your mouth. I appeal to you, Michaels, yield!
A Friend.