After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami begins After Dark in much the same way that Charles Dickens hints at in the opening of Bleak House; that George Miller uses in the opening sequence of the film version of The Witches of Eastwick based on John Updike’s novel; and like Stephen King (with Peter Straub) opens Black House: a vast view over the land, the city, and then gradually focusing closer and closer until alighting on just one story in a land, city, of countless other stories; but as with King and Straub, but not as menacingly, Murakami personifies the god-like, eagle-eyed narrator who can fly through the air, see through roofs, and into people’s hearts. Here Murakami takes you, the reader along for the ride.
You know this in the opening two sentences.
“Eyes mark the shape of the city.
Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from mid-air.”
That all inclusive, “we” puts the reader in tandem with the narrator, described as nothing but a ‘point of view’.
However Murakami’s third person narrator has limited powers: there is limited knowledge of what is in people’s minds and these rare internal monologues are italicized, as if unusual. What is mainly recorded is what people do and say. This allows for surprises, and you, like a first person narrator, are as surprised as the next character.
It’s Tokyo after dark, beginning at 11.56 to be exact: each chapter is a time, 12.25, 2.43, 4.33 … 6.52 that marks its passing. The cast of characters is small. Takahashi, a lanky law student who plays the trombone and jams with his friends all night; the plain sister of Eri the sleeping beauty, Mari Asai who reads novels in family restaurants all night; Kaoru, the hefty manager of a love hotel, Alphaville; her two homeless assistants, Komugi and Korogi; a nameless Chinese prostitute who is beaten, robbed, and left naked in a love room; her pimp; and her abuser, the mysterious, immaculately dressed businessman, Shirakawa who seems to never sleep much to his wife’s annoyance. There are reasons why these people inhabit the small hours of Tokyo, some we discover, some we do not; but it is the story of the beautiful sleeping sister, Eri Asai, that is the most mysterious and fulfilled my expectations of Murakami. She is sometimes profoundly asleep in her bed in her room, sometimes alarmingly awake in a television set looking out trying to attract someone’s attention. There is a mildly satisfying ending but it is the relationship between Takahashi, the trombone player, and Mari Asai, the plain sister that is the most touching. Their developing attachment is handled deftly mainly through realistic dialogue – oh how effective dialogue can be to advance action and build relationships.
There is indeed mystery, a romance of sorts, and suspense but one thing marred my enjoyment of this work: the translation… I think. All the characters talk like the disaffected youth from New Jersey as they hang out over a McDonalds counter.
“I’m not gonna let the bastard get away with beating up an innocent girl. And it pisses me off that he skipped out on his hotel bill. Plus, look at this pasty-faced salaryman son-of-a-bitch: I can’t stand him.”
Do stray Japanese youth talk in Japanese like stray American youth talk in English? Possibly. Does Murakami use an Americanised Japanese to write his fictions? Possibly. Is the translator being true to Murakami or true to the target audience? I’m not sure. Do we assume that an American translator should translate Japanese into American English? Probably. Should my dissatisfaction be aimed at Murakami or the translator, Jay Rubin? I don’t know.
I have always believed that everything we read in a published book, and everything we see in a released movie is intentional: a decision has been made by someone about every detail. What we read and discern we are meant to read and discern, so I had to try to get over my dissatisfaction with the translation. Besides Jay Rubin is one of the main translators of Murikami’s work, and famous for it.
One of the joys of reading a book born from a different culture is that difference. I’ve delved into Irish, Dutch, South American, and Scandinavian literature over the past decade or so and yes, I could discern, and argue, that an Irish-ness, Dutch-ness, etc is present in each of those works. However, I felt that there is nothing Japanese about After Dark except the names of people and places. It didn’t feel Japanese. Mind you, I haven’t read much Japanese literature, in English of course; I haven’t been to Japan; I have only taught English to a handful of Japanese adults.
Murikami’s voice, in his English translations, is obviously something that I will have to come to terms with if and when I again pick up another book my Haruki Murakami.