The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Naked Singularity

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

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Tale of Genji

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
    Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that "you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody." There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innov […]
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

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.

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  1. Translation Panel Write-up Critical Mass has posted my write-up of the translation panel I was on last week at City Lights. In my opinion, it was a very...
  2. Signs of Life from Murakami? Count me among those disappointed by most of Haruki Murakami's efforts post-The Windup Bird Chronicle. Not that he's written anything terrible since his masterpiece,...
  3. Murakami Wins Frank O'Connor Prize Murakami Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman has won the second annual Frank O’Connor prize. This prize received a lot of yoo-ha in the news last year...
  4. Murakami Via the Literary Saloon, the Germans are getting Murakami before us, but reports that we will have to wait until 2010 may be overblown. A...
  5. Murakami Movie Only because I love this guy. Reading a novel or short story by Japanese author Haruki Murakami is like picking at a thread that eventually...

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1 comment to Translation and Murakami

  • l

    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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