Translation and Murakami

As a sort of act of research, due diligence, and, I admit, masochism, I decided to read all the 1Q84 reviews, now that I’ve made up my own mind about the book. I’d expected Sam Anderson’s NYT Magazine profile to be pretty bad, but I didn’t realize exactly how bad it could become until I read this:

You could even say that translation is the organizing principle of Murakami’s work: that his stories are not only translated but about translation. The signature pleasure of a Murakami plot is watching a very ordinary situation (riding an elevator, boiling spaghetti, ironing a shirt) turn suddenly extraordinary (a mysterious phone call, a trip down a magical well, a conversation with a Sheep Man) — watching a character, in other words, being dropped from a position of existential fluency into something completely foreign and then being forced to mediate, awkwardly, between those two realities. A Murakami character is always, in a sense, translating between radically different worlds: mundane and bizarre, natural and supernatural, country and city, male and female, overground and underground. His entire oeuvre, in other words, is the act of translation dramatized.

If you know anything at all about translation, that simply makes no sense. At its most basic, translation is about producing equivalents in different languages. But the relationship between, say, English and Russian is not one of opposites, like the relationship of ordinary/extraordinary. Quite to the contrary, translation goes entirely beyond dichotomies, which is one reason why I find it so fascinating. Moreover, translation is not about stripping something mundane from one context and forcing it to change so that it may learn to exist in a completely different context. If anything, it is the opposite: taking something mundane and presenting it precisely as such in different context, and asking that context to change so that it might see how this alien reality could be mundane.

But, really, my biggest problem with this commentary is that it’s just so bland. You could say the exact same thing about the work of countless novelists . . . these vague notions about what Murakami does in no way speak to whatever his unique achievement as a novelist might be (and, worse, the piece simply assumes that a unique achievement has been made).

Likewise, Charles Baxter’s review in the New York Review of Books is full of relatively bland and/or misleading statements dressed up as profundities. For instance:

What’s fascinating about 1Q84 is its ambivalence about “the logic of reality” and its wish to plunge the reader into the “far greater power” of Unreality’s unlogic, which has the advantage of revolutionary fervor and reformism. Unrealism rejects what we have, or what the newspapers say we have, as uncongenial and loathsome and unsustainable, and offers up its own alternative. Within the subcultures it creates, almost all questions are answered. Fantasies are enacted. Beauty is reinstalled as a category. Everyday objects take on magical properties and serve as fetishes. Fiction, as Murakami knows perfectly well, can and does serve as a mirror world itself. It can both evoke Unrealism and collaborate with it, or it may deny it entirely. Fiction, then, can serve as both the poison and its antidote, though it is not scrupulously clear in 1Q84 whether Fuka-Eri’s novel Air Chrysalis has functioned as a cultural antitoxin or a hallucinogenic. Are novels good or bad for us? Tengo himself is not sure. Perhaps it is the wrong question.

By this definition, “Unrealism” has existed for decades (and under far better names), and for Murakami to simply create an “Unrealist” world is nothing new. And as with Anderson, Baxter’s description of the novel is hardly a precise statement—it can be applied to all sorts of novels—and it gives no indication of any particular, or particularly interesting, achievement Murakami has made.

More from Conversational Reading:

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I also thought the interview was just bad. For me the low point was the meandering description of getting to the interview. Anyone who has read anything about traveling to Tokyo knows that very few people speak any other languages, the subway signs are solely in Japanese and that the streets are notoriously unmarked. Yet this guy is so clueless that he finally needs to call Murakami to send someone to lead him to the author’s house. The tone of I’m adorably clueless continued throughout the interview, and drove me nuts.

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