Thursday, September 10, 2015

Murakami Haruki: The Strange Library

As of this writing, this is the most recent English translation of Murakami.  The story has a slightly complicated history.  It was published, as a short story, in 1982, under the title "Toshokan kitan 図書館奇譚" (Strange tale of a library).  In 2005 he published it as a stand-alone picture book, with illustrations by Sasaki Maki;  at this point he rewrote the story somewhat and changed the title, to "Fushigi na toshokan 不思議な図書館."  The latter version is what has been translated into English as The Strange Library, and published as a stand-alone picture book;  the illustrations for the English version are by Chip Kidd.  In my last post I linked to a blog by some of Murakami's European translators that mentions the Euro edition of this work, which has illustrations by Kat Menschik, like Pan'ya o osou;  her version of the library story has also been published in Japanese, and as the blog makes clear, in that edition the earlier title was used.  I don't know if that means that (a) the German (and non-English Euro) version of this picture book used the older version of the story or the newer, or (b) if the Japanese edition of the Menschik-illustrated volume (which I haven't seen yet) uses the older or newer version of the story.  But it is clear that the English version, translated by Ted Goossen, uses the 2005 revision of the story, the one made for publication as a picture book.

I suspect that what is happening is that, America always being a little insular, xenophobic, and therefore late to the party, this translation of The Strange Library represents Murakami's English publishers finally deciding to invest in the Murakami picture-book boom that has been taking place on the continent for several years, but also deciding that Menschik's illustrations are less saleable in the US than Kidd's, since Kidd has done Murakami work in the past.  I also suspect that a Japanese edition using Kidd's illustrations is going to appear.  And won't that be interesting?

There are two issues I want to briefly talk about in the rest of this post.

First, the differences between the two versions of the story.  I can't think offhand of a way to render the titles that makes the difference clearer in English, but the original title feels old-fashioned, Sinified, and above all grown-up, while the 2005 version's title sounds like the title of a child's picture book.  Kitan 奇譚 doesn't actually mean horror, but something approaching the effect might be achieved if you imaged the original title as being "The Library Horror" and the the revised title as being "The Scary Library." 

That pretty well indicates the direction of Murakami's revisions.  The revised version is at least masquerading as a picture book for kids, and so he rewrites the story so that it feels like one.  Not completely - I doubt anybody would read this to kids, and I'm sure he doubts it too, so instead it's more like a normal Murakami story cosplaying as a kid's story, for normal Murakami readers who want to cosplay as children.  But still, he simplifies the language slightly, cuts out a few of the more ornate descriptions, and adds a few more references to the child-narrator's mother in such a way as to make it clear that the narrator is a child.  In the original it's not quite so clear - he may be an adult still living with his mother. 

Interestingly, however, the revised version contains more of a sense of loss at the end than the original - in the original, the narrator's pet starling is restored to him at the end.  But there's still a palpable sense of loss at the end of the original version, because (splr alrt) the final paragraph, where the narrator says his mother has just died, is already there.  That is the original ending of the story, not something added in revision.  And, while we're on the subject, I'm disappointed that the English translation prints this final paragraph in a smaller type size, suggesting (with no basis in the original) that it's to be taken as by a different voice, or as referring to a different narrative level, than the rest of the story.  I.e., the translation sets this paragraph off in such a way as to imply that it's by an older version of the narrator, or a different version, or by the author himself (as opposed to the narrator);  this may be the case, but it's not something indicated in the original.  It's an artifact of the translation's book design.

Which brings us to the second point, the illustrations.  I don't see why they didn't just use Sasaki Maki's original illustrations.  Murakami and Sasaki go way back, with Sasaki's illustrations appearing on the covers of many of his early works.  If you read Murakami in the '80s, Sasaki's vaguely Keith Haring-esque illustrations probably influenced your understanding of Murakami's work.  They help to situate him in the realm of pop art, a la Haring.  Sasaki's work for the library book is in the same style, cartoony, childlike, fun.  Murakami's revisions to the story are obviously made to fit just this kind of illustration.

They don't fit Chip Kidd's style of illustration.  Now, I like Kidd's work, as a rule.  His irony-laced appropriative graphic style is great for certain things.  I've never thought it very appropriate for Murakami, however;  Kidd favors a kind of triple-lutz Orientalism that puts the East Asian subject in so many quotation marks that you can't quite parse it (is it ironic? is it ironizing irony? is it ironizing the ironization of irony?).  The problem with this kind of thing is that irony is a fugitive pigment, and can evaporate over time, so that what might have been meant as a daring, meaning-laden appropration of an Orientalist image ends up being just another Orientalist image...  The problem with this kind of thing for a Murakami cover is something different:  it's that Murakami himself doesn't engage in this kind of thing.  He famously, obviously has little time for thinking about "Japaneseness."  The issues that Kidd's covers think about have nothing to do with what Murakami writes about - all they relate to is an American reader's cramped inability to forget that this is a Japanese writer, a member of the Other. 

And that's what's going on here.  There's nothing in The Strange Library that relates in any way to the found-image arch-ironical Orientalism of the images Kidd provides for the American edition of the story.  On their own, they're quite attractive images, and Kidd treats them, crops them, manipulates them, and transforms them in beautiful ways, and then juxtaposes them with the text in intelligent ways.  But they strike notes wholly dissonant with the story, unlike Sasaki's wholly consonant original illustrations.  And fairly frequently the irony just fails - when you read about an old man and turn the page and see a photo of a noh mask, all the careful photoshopping in the world can't distract from the fundamental equation being made.  Japanese old man = noh mask.  Reductive, essentialist, bad.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Murakami Haruki: Pan'ya o osou

I've been on a Murakami Haruki kick last couple of weeks.  Catching up with a couple of recent things I hadn't read yet, and delving into some of his older stuff that I hadn't yet touched.

One of these was a curious publication from 2013 called Pan'ya o osou パン屋を襲う (To Raid a Bakery).  Murakami fans reading English will know of his short story "The Second Bakery Attack" (Pan'ya saishūgeki パン屋再襲撃), translated in The Elephant Vanishes.  They may also know, because it's mentioned in Rubin's book, that there actually was an earlier story called "The Bakery Attack" (Pan'ya shūgeki パン屋襲撃), which hasn't been translated into English.  As Rubin notes, the second story summarizes the first story as part of its plot, so if you've read the later one you more or less know the earlier one - but still, I'd like to see it translated someday, for reasons that will become clear below.

In German, both stories have been published together as a book entitled Die bäckerieūberfälle, with illustrations by Kat Menschik.  Since the Japanese Murakami industry loves to keep track of his international reception, this book was recreated in Japanese in 2013.  That is, the two stories were published as a single book with Menschik's illustrations.  At the same time Murakami decided to revise the two stories slightly, changing the titles (thus "To Raid a Bakery" instead of "The Bakery Attack").  (Menschik has illustrated other Murakami, which you can read about here.)

The illustrations are nice.  Beautiful, even, all in forest green, gold, and white.  Not necessarily the way I imagine the stories, but they add a real stylishness that complements the stories' inventiveness without disrupting them with a contradictory aesthetic (which is the problem with the English version of The Strange Library, which I'll get around to discussing soon, hopefully).

Murakami's revisions are fairly minor, to the point that if I hadn't been going back and forth between the new versions and the originals I only would have noticed a couple.  He adds a descriptive phrase here and subtracts one there, but not really the kind of thing that makes much difference.  The substantive changes I noticed seemed to be geared toward (a) making the two stories work together as if the second one was a sequel to the first, and (b) making the second one feel as if it's taking place in the present, rather than in the early '80s. 

The latter is accomplished by changing a few cultural references.  The famous Betamax ad at the end of the second story is now an ad for Blu-Ray - a canny change.  A Bluebird in the original is now an Accord.  Did he have to make the second story take place in the present?  Well, sort of.  Given that it's supposed to be taking place over a decade after the first bakery attack, and that the first bakery attack is taking place at a moment when "God, Karl Marx, and John Lennon are all dead," the second bakery attack couldn't be taking place in the early '80s.

Which leads us to the former goal, making the two stories work together as if the second one was a sequel to the first.  Because, when you read the originals, you realize that this is not the relationship between them.  The time scheme doesn't work, but there are other inconsistent details.  In the first bakery attack story we're very specifically told that the baker is listening to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" on a radio cassette player, while in the second story we're told that he had been listening to Wagner overtures (including Tannhauser) on lp.  A small inconsistency, but one that tells us that the second story, as originally written, was less a sequel to the first than a rewriting of it, one that moved the events of the first into the past and thereby recontextualized them against the end of the '60s counterculture rather than early '80s malaise.

Murakami resolves that inconsistency in the new versions of the stories.  In both references the baker is listening to "Tristan and Isolde."  Which means that this book gets to read like a book, a kind of double coming of age story, the imposition of a curse and its resolution, a comparison of friendship to marriage, and a whole lot of other things.  But it also means that the critique of the boomer generation that had been implicit in the original "Second Bakery Attack" ('60s radical compromises his ideals, goes straight, tries to recover some of his outlaw essence with his new wife) is gone, or at least muted, here.  An interesting change.