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Posts tagged “japanese

TBTW: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I have to be honest – I’ve been reading more than I may have let on last week. Specifically, I’ve been reading novels written by Haruki Murakami. For a class. So they didn’t always feel like novels, because they didn’t always feel like fun.

We started at the beginning, with the very first novel(la) he published – Hear the Wind Sing. We then continued, with Pinball, 1973, A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, four stories from the collection The Elephant Vanishes, and finally The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. All told, I read 2,049 pages of Haruki Murakami this semester. And I never wrote a single review.

But we’re going to change that, right now with this review of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’m sure many a piece has been written on it, but I will do my best to both review this novel and explain my Murakami obsession.

think the first Murakami book I read was Kafka on the Shore, but I can’t be certain. Partly because it was so long ago, partly because I spent an entire summer basically on a Haruki Murakami binge, and partly because after a while, it seemed like all his books were melding into one. In some ways, this issue has become more pronounced, now that I’ve read about 50% of his published fiction. (For those who are curious, Murakami has thus far written 19 fiction novels and short story collections, translated dozens of books into Japanese, and written over 40 non-fiction works. Needless to say, I can read him forever and I’ll probably never catch up.) For those of you who have never read one of his books, they are typically collections of at least a handful of characters’ stories, interwoven sometimes through plot, sometimes through language, and sometimes not at all. They often converge but just as often stray even further apart. Whichever book you pick up, there will probably be at least one character of significance who remains nameless. There will probably be a second, parallel world accessed by only a handful of characters. This world will have significance, but that significance will be obscured. (It may seem strange, even absurd, to be able to summarize an author’s entire canon into a series of statements such as this, but I give you the rules I was taught in sixth grade to define all Shakespearean comedies: 1. mistaken identities/cross dressing, 2. a fool and his wordplay, 3. everything ends with a big, happy wedding.)

This semester, our class was guided through Murakami’s works from the beginning – I watched his language mature and his characters deepen; I watched as the worlds he created became more realistic and simultaneously more abstract. With each book, I became more and more absorbed, until we got to the books that have made him famous. Interestingly, one of his best selling novels internationally was Norwegian Wood, his only “normal” love story and a book which he has gone on record saying was his worst. Now, when I think about the seven books I’ve read this semester, as well as the others I’d read before (Kafka on the Shore1Q84, and South of the Border, West of the Sun), I realize I kinda want to read them all again. And for that, I blame this book:


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The last book of the semester, the last assignment of the semester, and one thing that will probably stick with me forever. It was originally published in Japanese as three volumes, and was significantly edited to become the single, 607 page novel it is in English. I have mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed it, although it oftentimes simultaneously fascinated and terrified me. I appreciate it as both a standalone work and as a part of the larger Murakami world. But I also know that I didn’t understand it. In some way, I can feel that the novel has connections that I haven’t made, that certain aspects of the plot and individual details have significance I didn’t catch. More than perhaps any book I’ve ever read, I feel like Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a book that would reveal more and more of itself to me each time I read it. And in some strange way, even though I’ve got millions of things to do this week and at least a dozen unread books on my shelf just waiting for me, I had the nearly incontrollable urge to flip immediately back to page 1 and start the book all over again. I don’t know what precisely was different about this ending, but it certainly hit me differently and I consequently think I want to read more of Murakami’s newest works, even though I honestly expected to be sick and tired of Murakami forever (or at least a few months) by the end of this class.

On the surface, this is a book about a man. His cat disappears, his wife’s brother introduces them to a medium who says the cat won’t ever come back. His wife disappears, and he climbs into a well at another medium’s suggestion to think about his life. He meets a woman named Nutmeg, and her son, Cinnamon. He receives mysterious phone calls from another woman – his wife? – and eventually thinks he meets her at the bottom of the well. Throughout the novel, other characters tell us stories, usually in the form of letters or interviews, about living through the end of WWII in Manchukuo (Manchuria). A few people die, at least one is born, and two characters (are they the same person?) lose their voice. Under the surface, this is a very, very confusing book. Maybe that is why I want to go read it again?

One thing that really struck me about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was the insertion of details of importance from other novels. Really, it was that details from other novels became important here. As I’ve been reading Murakami’s works throughout the semester, I’ve noticed this more and more: Murakami intentionally puts details of significance in other works. It is a little bit like the hints Pixar gives us in the movies, except for that sometimes the hints are finally brought to light three, four, even five books later. Ever since I first started reading Murakami, I’ve suspected all his books somehow connect to each other, and I kind of feel that this book solidified that assumption for me. Even though I don’t have any certain indication that these books all happen in a single reality (yet – The Strange Library seems like it might be the book that pulls all the books together), the connections seem too similar to not be connected. As we’ve been told, coincidences are rarely mere coincidences.

Believe in coincidences if you want, for doing so will probably help you understand this book. Or don’t believe in them, and be prepared to ask lots (lots!) of questions. Either way, this is a book filled with eloquent prose that effortlessly brings you from the depths of a dark, muddy well to the bright sunlight of the Chinese desert and then to the despair of a Siberian mine before taking you back again to the swirling dust of a cat-less living room. The story rises and falls, forcing you to stay in your chair for a hundred pages at a time while the short chapters also permit quick escapes. For anyone with who truly enjoys fantasy novels (although this might be more fantastical, less fantasy), I would recommend it. But I would also warn that it is a big book. It is long and it can be heavy, even frightening. It is not the Murakami novel I would suggest to a friend who had never read him before.

If you are looking for a first Murakami novel, I’d recommend Kafka on the Shore. (Note, however, that this one is also not for the faint of heart. Or for those with a strong cat affection.) If you want a Murakami to say you’ve read something of his, but don’t necessarily want the crazy worlds, try Norwegian Wood. But my strongest recommendation for a first-time Murakami connoisseur would be his short story collection – The Elephant Vanishes. Short stories always make for good exposure, and these are fully fleshed out (some of them…). They certainly give a taste of the fantasy and multiple worlds Murakami has become so well known for, while doing so in bite-sized pieces.


I Swear I’m Not Dead.

Although my recent radio silence would indicate otherwise, I am alive and kicking. Specifically, fighting maniacally at the stresses and pressures that being a Senior implies. I spent the first two weeks of school in a rapid rotation between classes, homework, the shower, and my bed, with a little time in the kitchen to cook, eat, and clean up meals. Basically, my life was do work, finish just in time to go to class, go to class, come home, cook, eat, clean up, do homework, shower, sleep, do work, go to class… You get the picture.

By Tuesday of Week 2, I was up doing work until 3 in the morning, and I decided things needed to change. My advisor told me last year that Senior year needed to be as much about your transition into the real world (hence living off campus and having a job (ish?) as it is about the actual work. Then the Career Center had this wonderful event in which they basically informed us that the job hunt for post-graduation is essentially your fifth class. But I was already taking 5.5 classes…

Now I’m not.

My life is still crazy busy, but now I’ve got time for things I want to do but otherwise wouldn’t be able to. My weeks are still front-loaded; my chemistry class’ problem sets are due every Monday and my physics class’ problem sets are due every Tuesday, and then there’s the small detail of my literature class that meets once a week on Mondays that assigns anywhere from 150-300 pages (so far). I’ve still got lots of homework to work on all week long, but now I also have time for things like reading the newspaper and baking cookies and all the other things one needs to do to remain sane without feeling bad that I’m not working on my homework.

Don’t get me wrong – the decision to drop Japanese was a hard one for me to make. It took me almost a week after I told my teacher I was dropping to actually log into our course system and formally drop it. But I also know that it was the right decision to make. I don’t have time for the ~12 hours of homework it was taking in addition to the 5 hours in class. I don’t have the mental capacity to struggle through a class and feel like I’m not learning anything tangible for my struggle.

Because that’s what Japanese felt like for me. Even in my sophomore year, I felt like I was learning vocab and grammar and facts, remembering them for the test, and then letting them go. Which is exactly how most classes work (although I keep very very strange facts in the back of my head and retrieve them at the most inopportune moments…), but languages are supposed to grow on themselves, like math. The next topic you learn should make more sense as a result of the things you’ve just finished learning; if you’ve forgotten all of that, then you just end up falling further and further behind.

Add to that a year of studying a different language, and you’ve got my situation. I was in a class that I absolutely wanted to be taking, where I could be learning a language that I absolutely want to be learning, but I lost my foundation. And without the foundation, the class was just a forum for frustration, not for furthering my language skills.

For that reason, I’ve decided to go at it on my own. Instead of spending the almost 20 hours a week doing classwork for Japanese, I’ve decided to spend ~5 hours a week maintaining my Japanese, and ~5 hours a week maintaining my Czech. I need to figure out exactly what I want to get out of my language studies going forward, and I’m still working on what that will look like, but hopefully it will include a bit of writing, a bit of reading, and a bit of listening and speaking in both languages.

I dropped Japanese about a week ago and I am more well-rested, less stressed, and more fun. I have time and energy to think about and actually write blog posts again. (Yay!) I auditioned for and made the tap team, and our first rehearsal is tonight. (Yay!) I have time for things like going apple picking, making applesauce and baking apple pie. By the way, its apple season. That post is coming up next!

Japanese in Czech.

This may have been the most linguistically confusing morning I’ve ever had, and its only 9:20 in the morning… here we go:

I’m texting my [Czech – okay actually, she’s Slovak, but we speak Czech with each other (thank God!)] friend, Martina, about meeting at the library to work on our papers. We are texting half in Czech, half in English. Primarily in Czech, but in English every so often to make sure I am actually properly comprehending what we are planning.

I get on the bus to meet her at Dejvicka, along with about a dozen other people. The four women that got on and sat down across the aisle for me look a little out of place in this country – I mean, everyone here is white and these women are definitely Asian. I assume they’re Vietnamese (there is a huge – though mostly invisible – Vietnamese minority here, after all). And then they start speaking Japanese.

And the part of me that understands them freaks out in excitement. Just yesterday I was lamenting the amount of Japanese I’m not remembering, as my brain replaces it with Czech. Just yesterday, I was thinking about researching places where I could take a Japanese class next semester. Literally, just yesterday.

And then there was the part of me thinking about how much of what they were talking about I didn’t understand. And how much of it I would have understood just a few short months ago. And that part of me was very, very sad.

So I spent a few minutes thinking – formulating in my head what I wanted to say, remembering words and grammar points and things like that. And I told myself if we got off at the same stop, I was going to ask them about somewhere to study Japanese here in Prague. And then I spent the next ten minutes on the bus absentmindedly listening to their conversation and kind of, not really, understanding what they were talking about. And trying to ignore the butterflies steadily strengthening in my stomach.

(Can we talk about that for a minute? I have been studying Japanese for basically 8 years. I know a lot of Japanese, and just a few months ago, I wrote this post about how I felt basically fluent. And here I am, tummy tingling like it did when I was in eighth grade and in Japan for the first time. I don’t get this nervous when I speak Czech, even when I speak Czech with complete strangers. If anyone has an explanation for why I am totally fine trying out my Czech, even when it sucks in comparison to my Japanese, but I get nervous about using my Japanese, please enlighten me.)

Anyways, long story short, we got off at the same stop, so I did what I told myself I would do, in spite of my butterflies. The four ladies were very nice, seemed impressed that I spoke Japanese (perhaps a little confused too; who expects a white girl in the Czech Republic to speak Japanese?), and more than willing to help me. We stood in the cold for a few minutes and they asked me where I went to school and why I was in Prague and what I was studying. They told me the name of a place, which I’ve never heard of, where they thought I could take Japanese classes. Since I clearly had no idea where that was, two of them gave me their email addresses and told me to email them and they’d send me the address. Maybe I’ll meet them again – maybe I’ll even pursue a tandem-esque experience where I meet one or more of them for coffee and try to practice my Japanese. That would serve the purpose, I suppose.

There were a few things about or conversation, though, that really struck me as surprising and worth mentioning.

1. I have not succeeded in keeping the Japanese language and Czech language really and truly separated in my mind. I was constantly trying to think of a word and thinking of it in Czech instead of Japanese, just as I’ve often come up with words in Japanese when I want them in Czech. Over and over again, I said “yes” or “no” in Czech instead of Japanese.

2. This didn’t hinder our conversation in the least. At least two or three times, I realized that I’d spoken in Czech instead of Japanese and corrected myself, but it was a delayed and unnecessary correction. Clearly, all four of them spoke not only Japanese but also Czech. (Or at least, a bit of Czech.) When we parted ways, one of them said さよなら, and another said Na shledanou. Speaking “Japanglish,” as my friends and I call it (a combination of Japanese and English) is never a problem when everyone involved speaks both Japanese and English. Similarly, I speak “Czechglish” with some of the Czech buddies – like Martina, mentioned above – because they speak both Czech and English. So why shouldn’t “Czechanese” work for people who speak both Czech and Japanese?

3. As far as I can tell, they didn’t speak a lick of English. If I was having trouble coming up with a word in Japanese and said it in English instead, there was absolutely no glimmer of recognition in any of their eyes. I’m used to Japanese speakers with a bit of English abilities, one of whom in a group will inevitably recognize a word and translate it into Japanese, but that did not happen this time. This surprised me the most – why would someone know Japanese and Czech but not English? But then again, why should they know English? They’re from Japan and they live here, and they know the two languages they need to know.

So. Japanese in Czech. I do think it is interesting that there are Japanese people living near where I live, and I did enjoy the opportunity to try to use my Japanese again. Even if all it did is really cement for me the fact that I need to figure out a way to keep practicing my Japanese for the remainder of my time in this country. Perhaps I’ll have another experience along these lines in the future, and perhaps I won’t.







One Language

If you asked me yesterday, I would have said I speak one. One language. One measly little language of the approximately 6,500 languages spoken in this world. One world. 196 countries, give or take.*

But if you ask me today, I have a different answer.

Tokiwagi Gakuen Summer 2010I speak two languages. Yesterday I was studying Japanese, and today, I speak it. Obviously, this isn’t something that actually occurred overnight. In fact, I know no more Japanese today than I did yesterday. But I had an experience today that changed what I think it means to speak a language.

Yesterday, I thought that it meant fluency. That to speak a language, one must feel comfortable in every situation. That one’s vocabulary includes every imaginable word, that one’s understanding of grammar is impeccable, that one never makes mistakes.

Today, I realized the failings of that definition. Does a ten-year old not speak his own language? If a woman stumbles over her words, does she not speak? Of course not. Speaking a language requires an ability to communicate. Nothing more, nothing less. It requires the vocabulary to talk about whatever you want to talk about, or the vocabulary to talk around whatever word you don’t know.

It requires a grammatical understanding to express more complexity than “this is …” or “I am doing …” Truly being able to speak a language requires the ability to express the innate nuances of thought through speech, which is impossible when the level of mastery is limited to a few basic sentence structures. Grammatical nuances include the ability to relate one thing to another; to indicate capability, causality, and conditionality; to express past, present, and future events; to differentiate between objects and subjects, between quotes and implications.

But speech doesn’t require grammatical perfection. Or fluency. Today’s new definition of speech is the ability to get your point across.

I just walked out of my Japanese conversation midterm, where I sat in an office, and was tested on my ability to hold a coherent conversation one on one with my Japanese professor for 20 minutes. We talked about Japanese religion, American religion, my opinions on religion. We talked about the Northern Lights, and traveling to Thailand, why bicycles are a good form of transportation, and what I had for lunch. I’m not really sure what else we talked about, but there was a lot of it, with a few stutters and incorrect grammar usages, but nothing major. She even ended our conversation by telling me I consistently make one mistake, but that its not a big one and that it doesn’t even hinder comprehension.

I left that test feeling like it was shorter than any other conversation test I’ve taken, even though the others have all been 5 to 15 minutes long. So I guess I speak Japanese.

*I find the inability to know with certainty the number of countries in the world a bit disconcerting. Pretty much everyone agrees that there are 195 countries in the world. That doesn’t count Taiwan, which pretty much everyone agrees ought to be a country (hence, 196). The CIA World Factbook includes entries for 267 “localities,” which includes places like Puerto Rico, and the Gaza Strip. I’m pretty sure the number 196 doesn’t include South Sudan, Mongolia, or Palestine. Why it counts Taiwan, but not Mongolia is beyond me, and a topic for another day.