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Haruki Murakami and Janacek’s Sinfonietta

November 13, 2011

I’ve been reading the English translation of Haruki Murakami’s “big book” 1Q84 (the one that some critics in Japan think is part of his campaign for a Literature Nobel Prize.  It is a novel set in an alternate universe (a Tokyo with two moons) and is an extended and existential detective novel.  The protagonist, an assassin and physical trainer Aomame is stuck in traffic, and slips out of her cab, only to completely change the universe.

The English translation came out two weeks ago and most of the reviews have been glowing and some have been negative.  Janet Maslin’s review was notably negative, but Maslin tends to dislike highly literary and complex works.  (One review puzzle:  I wonder how the NPR web editors can claim that the book has “been masterfully translated” when they show no evidence of having read the Japanese edition and NPR’s own reviewer does not make that claim.)


I also enjoyed Sam Anderson’s interview with Murakami which began “I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea. Under the influence of Murakami, I arrived in Tokyo expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin — a cosmopolitan world capital whose straight-talking citizens were fluent not only in English but also in all the nooks and crannies of Western culture: jazz, theater, literature, sitcoms, film noir, opera, rock ’n’ roll.”

But the thing I like best about Murakami’s novels is that they come with a soundtrack.  In the case of 1Q84, it is a piece of music that deserves to more widely heard:  Janacek’s Sinfonietta.  Anderson visits Murakami in his office:

Murakami took me upstairs to his office — the voluntary cell in which he wrote most of “1Q84.” This is also, not coincidentally, the home of his vast record collection. (He guesses that he has around 10,000 but says he’s too scared to count.) The office’s two long walls were covered from floor to ceiling with albums, all neatly shelved in plastic sleeves….

I asked if we could listen to a record, and Murakami put on Janacek’s “Sinfonietta,” the song that kicks off, and then periodically haunts, the narrative of “1Q84.” It is, as the book suggests, truly the worst possible music for a traffic jam: busy, upbeat, dramatic — like five normal songs fighting for supremacy inside an empty paint can. This makes it the perfect theme for the frantic, lumpy, violent adventure of “1Q84.” Shouting over the music, Murakami told me that he chose the “Sinfonietta” precisely for its weirdness. “Just once I heard that music in a concert hall,” he said. “There were 15 trumpeters behind the orchestra. Strange. Very strange. . . . And that weirdness fits very well in this book. I cannot imagine what other kind of music is fitting so well in this story.” He said he listened to the song, over and over, as he wrote the opening scene. “I chose the ‘Sinfonietta’ because that is not a popular music at all. But after I published this book, the music became popular in this country. . . . Mr. Seiji Ozawa thanked me. His record has sold well.”

I have not heard Ozawa’s version of the the Sinfonietta, and with the price trending upwards of $80, perhaps I will not hear it soon.  The version I am familiar with is Neeme Järvi’s.  But since most people are not familiar with this “strange, very strange” music that “fits very well” in 1Q84, here is a Youtube rendition (poor audio, but good enough for you to feel the weirdness of this music):



Now it may seem gimmicky for Murakami to tie his book to a piece of music, but if it makes this remarkable music better known, then all the better.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2011 8:00 am

    Thanks for the intro to “1Q84,” Theophrastus. I hope you (or someone else) will say more about this translated three-part work of more than 900 pages. Have critics mostly lost sight of the misogyny there? Stieg Larsson for his trilogy was not spared the ire of readers protesting the strange but awful treatment of women; but Murakami by and large is getting a pass among English readers it seems. (I haven’t taken time to read the Japanese critical reviews of the original Japanese books. Nor, I confess, have I read the novel or its translation. Do I want to?)

    It’s not been difficult to notice how one of the protagonists — 青豆 (or Aomame, as her name is transliterated) — seems to be a “feminist” or perhaps Murakami’s mocking of feminists.
    Here’s some from the translation:

    “Are you a feminist, or a lesbian?” Aomame blushed slightly and shook her head. “I don’t think so. My thoughts on such matters are strictly my own. I’m not a doctrinaire feminist, and I’m not a lesbian.” “That’s good,” the dowager said.

    The character’s name in Japanese is strange, and it draws attention, perhaps to her anatomy (does it masculinize her? Doesn’t 豆 suggest testicles?). The Independent’s Boyd Tonkin sees this:

    Aomame, whose embarrassingly unusual name means “green peas”, is a gym trainer, massage therapist – and a professional assassin. Her employer selects targets with the utmost care. They are violent, abusive men who beat and rape, torture and terrify, their wives and children. An elderly “dowager” gives Aomame her commissions. The refined widow of a tycoon, she runs a refuge for battered women as well as funding this more discreet programme of corrections.

    Aomame herself comes from a strict family of Jehovah’s Witnesses whose stifling embrace she fled. Leggy, toned, ball-kicking feminist avenger: she clearly belongs on the manga and anime planets of Japanese pop culture.

    The novel contains repeated and graphic descriptions of the rape and the physical consquences of the rape of little girls. We don’t need to quote any of this here. Before Maslin’s review in the NYT, there was the article by Kathryn Schultz (who is no stranger to complex novels; see her review of Dana Spiotta’s, Stone Arabia); Schultz concludes:

    “for all the atrocity in this book, there’s never any sense of real wrongdoing, or real pain… I’m no fan of moral absolutism, but I’m troubled by Murakami’s willingness to use the rape of children as mere metaphor, and by the general ethical impassivity pervading this book.”

    Schultz’s comparisons of the novel with Orwell’s 1984 seem to make the right contrasts in this context. The original cover art begs for the comparison, doesn’t it? So how are we readers (of Japanese, and of its English translation) to take this?

  2. November 13, 2011 9:35 am

    Well, if it were a realistic novel, there would be much to complain about, but this book has its roots in the fantastic. Unlike the realistic sadism of much Japanese popular media, this book deals with violence in an indirect and allusive way, and the novel is more about justice than an amoral universe. (I read Schulz’s review as fairly favorable, in contrast to your reading, her concluding sentence is: “It’s a credit to Murakami’s mammoth talent that 1Q84, for all its flaws, got to me more than most decent books I’ve read this year, and lingered with me far longer: a paper moon, yes, but by a real star.”)

    Certainly the violence in the book is less offensive than such contemporary literary standard-bearers as Naked Lunch (or pretty much anything in the Burroughs canon) or Jerzy Kosinsky’s Painted Bird or most of what Nicholson Baker wrote or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or most of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn or Go Ask Alice or André Gide. Indeed, it is less offensive than most Japanese manga.

    What are we to make of violence in literature? Do we decry Shakespeare for what happens to Lavina in Titus Andronicus (who is also a child)? Or his entire poem devoted to a study of rape, The Rape of Lucrece?

    I rank 1Q84‘s treatment of violence as being akin to Adam Levin’s big-Jewish-novel and grand analogy, The Instructions. (Indeed, I note that when looking at Levin’s novel, 1Q84 is recommended.)

    I do not see the name 青豆 as a masculinizing reference to his protagonist, who embraces the difficult Japanese balance between the still social unacceptability of feminism and independent dynamism — Murakami does make a concerted effort to make a female-narrative novel here, and you can conclude how well he succeeds. I do not see the bean-testicle equivalence here, although I read the book in English translation and not Japanese.

  3. November 13, 2011 11:38 am

    What are we to make of violence in literature? Do we decry Shakespeare for what happens to Lavina in Titus Andronicus (who is also a child)? Or his entire poem devoted to a study of rape, The Rape of Lucrece?

    These are fair questions. And yet you yourself are rightly careful here to qualify Murakami’s work as “less offensive than most Japanese manga” and to insist that it is not “a realistic novel”; for indeed “if it were … there would be much to complain about, but this book has its roots in the fantastic.” The genre seems important, the rhetoric, the generally import and commentary and statement. And the audience.

    What is lost in translation? What is lost on male readers? What is allowed?

    Schultz (who probably was not Murakami’s primary or intended reader seems to confess that the novel “got to me more than most decent books I’ve read this year, and lingered with me far longer: a paper moon, yes, but by a real star.” Is she calling the book “indecent”? Isn’t she?

    Let me confess that I’m probably affected by all the news reports of the tragedies at Penn State that are coming out this week. It’s probably affecting how I read the reviews and the snippets of 1Q84. This sort of thing stays with us a long time, and lingers.

  4. November 13, 2011 5:56 pm

    I thought Ron Hogan’s take on the book was fair.

    Besides the truly horrific aspects (and completely inexcusable nature) of the Penn State incidents, there is an element of the classical tragedy in the figure of Paterno as well. Did you see this:

    About thirty-five years ago, Paterno was invited to give a talk at a luncheon at Penn State. The audience was a bunch of English professors, and most of them assumed he was going to talk football. It would be amusing, undoubtedly, to see a coach try to spin football as a metaphor that had anything at all to do with the academy of letters.

    Paterno didn’t talk football. He talked Virgil, offering Aeneid as a model for a whole new kind of hero, one that, around 20 B.C.[E.], the Western civilized world had not yet met.

    In the poem, Virgil proclaims pietas to be man’s highest virtue. The word is usually translated as “duty” or “devotion,” but it’s more than that. It’s the individual understanding himself to exist at the center of overlapping obligations. Through most of the poem, Aeneas isn’t getting it. He wants to be a good old-fashioned hero. Someone more like the stars the Greeks offered up: all this bad stuff coming at you and you fight it off and everyone cheers. A hero!

    Fate steps in. Aeneas is called. Unlike the Greek hero who was fated to succeed, Aeneas has to choose. He can act, or not act, on the demands of the divine calling. It isn’t a onetime choice. He doubts himself continually, and decides, moment by moment, to endure.

    His fuel is his recognition that his first commitment is to others and not to himself. He carries his father, holds his son’s hand, and goes on to found Rome, which is impressive. But what makes him a worthy man is his willingness to subordinate himself to his obligations.

    “Heroism in the Modern World,” Paterno titled his speech.

    A whole new kind of hero.

    One wishes that Paterno had held different obligations forefront in his mind.

  5. November 13, 2011 11:11 pm

    Actually, there is very little classic fictional literature that I can think of that is free of horrific violence; certainly not the greats such as Homer or Chaucer or Shakespeare or Dante or Dostoevsky or the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament or even my favorite children’s literature (Alice).

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 14, 2011 2:17 am

    I, for one, immensely enjoyed Larson’s trilogy as summer reading. I also saw the movies. While I completely see how the movies could be viewed as misogynist, I didn’t let it bother me. I have more difficulty reading some parts of the Bible. I worry about whether certain Bible stories will normalize misogyny for my children.

  7. November 14, 2011 2:47 am

    Kurk and Suzanne — How did you teach your children when they read Judges 19?

    (The KJV rendition is particular effective in conveying the sheer horror of the Hebrew.)

  8. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 14, 2011 8:44 pm

    I didn’t actually.

    I did buy this novel this afternoon.

  9. November 15, 2011 3:58 pm

    I taught my children to read Judges 19 after they could read the original Goldilocks. We mused about the horrors of audience and authorship and where that intersects with and how it might influence the worlds outside the text. But reading your question, I think I get your point, Theophrastus.

  10. Victor Kommerell permalink
    November 17, 2013 7:47 pm

    try listening to Rafael Kubelik´s version with the Vienna Philharmonic! A treasure!

  11. July 25, 2014 4:57 pm

    It is a fantastic love story ! The Sinfionetta I lissend to after having finished reading the book.
    It illustrates in a wonderful way the books interrelations. And you understand how Tengo
    could play his part in the school orchestra.
    I have waited a year before reading the book, so I could read it without break in this
    summer vacation. As the authors other books it must be understood as a long
    dream – here about love – and strangely with a happy ending. Until the last I was
    afraid that Tengo and Aomane would not meet, or would not reach the highway.
    Christian Tscherning


  1. Making books attractive « BLT
  2. Néojaponisme on 1Q84 « BLT

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