Murakami, Misogyny and Me

Please note for this blog there will be huge spoilers littered through out in relation to the novels ‘1Q84’ and ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage’.

A trigger warning also needs to be issued due to discussion of rape and sexual assault.

Thirdly – usually on this blog we like colour, pictures etc. As you will read, the topics below don’t really lend themselves to fun related images, so please excuse the dense text.

As an avid reader who likes to immerse myself every which way possible in the world of books, I have for some time known of the often revered Haruki Murakami. With his books selling in the millions all over the world, adaptations not just on the big screen but on stage, turned into song and even inspiring video games, his reach is certainly wide. It was around four years ago I decided to make my first literary encounter with him and I chose quite the challenge, for reasons that will make you judge me as either a person with long pockets or very shrewd.

Having been given a token for a free audiobook I began having a look at my options. There were many that took my fancy, usually around the eight to nine hour mark and, if I’d been paying, costing around £10. I then happened upon 1Q84, released that week in its epic proportions, three books making the whole. I’d heard so much buzz around this book I flagged it as a potential option, then, working out with this choice my 1 token would get me around £35 of reading, I jumped straight in. See, tight purse strings, don’t judge me.

Not surprisingly this book took a hell of a lot of listening too, but luckily I had a decent commute either side of work so I thought it would be some escapism from the office (this was before my time as a bookseller). The first two books were read by a single man and woman, then the third section had another man join in to voice a recently introduced character. I hated the way he played him, making him rasp and wheeze his way through every sentence, I found myself wincing every time he spoke. By the time I finished listening to 1Q84 my opinion was, to say the least, not good. I’ll go into my many qualms with it in more detail soon, but I did also acknowledge that maybe the style of reading had effected me and I may have enjoyed it more if I’d read the text instead of listening to it. Wary, I stepped away from his fiction for some time.

Skip to this present week and I was deciding what I wanted to pick off my shelves. My eyes landed upon ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage ‘. Again I remembered this coming out to great fanfare and when a damaged copy had came up for grabs at work I’d taken it, thinking maybe this would be the novel that made me see the Murakami light. It came home with me and then sat there for an age, I never really wanted to open that first page until this week when it somehow ‘clicked’. I often feel like I can’t force reading a book, they seem to have their own magic to me that makes them suddenly want to be read, it’s not me choosing but in their instructing me that now is the time.

Now I wonder if you’ve seen the film Silver Linings Playbook? There is a standout moment in the film where, in total frustration with an author, Bradley Coopers character smashes a window as he hurls a book through it. Good god was I close to doing that as I finished this novel. It now appears apparent I didn’t have simply a 1Q84 problem, I very much have a Murakami problem.

To summarise the plot of 1Q84 is an incredibly difficult task, but this strand of the story is central to the whole and where I had the most problems. We are introduced to a woman, Aomame, who is basically an assassin, working for an older lady who has hired her to kill men who are harming women. She is incredibly skilled at carrying out these murders undetected and using a unique tool that kills quickly and efficiently. So far I could get with this story, we have an interesting antihero to follow here. She is asked to take on a case where her target will be an older man, known as ‘The Leader’, who is running some kind of cult. This cult is basically made up of very young girls (we first find out about its existence from a 10 year old escapee) who are raped and assaulted regularly by The Leader.

When Aomame is about to carry out the killing of the Leader, she ends up in a discussion with him where he explains how he regularly goes into some kind of trance and basically cannot move/control what his body does when these rapes occur e.g. it is not his fault and is (according to him) not really rape. Aomame accepts this and the story goes on from there with this really not being explored or criticised further, we move on from here being expected to accept that other worldly forces make a man rape children and that he really didn’t mean to, so there we go, poor, helpless man.

In ‘Colourless Tsukuru…’ the concept of the novel again begins intriguingly. A man in his mid 30’s, Tsukuru, had been in a tight knit friendship group with four others for many years of his youth. The five had a closeness few ever experience, believing that each part of them provided an essential part to the whole. When the time came for university Tsukuru was the only member of the gang to move away from their home town, and on a return trip finds out that his friends have all cut him off, refusing to speak to him or explain why they’ve made this decision. The story begins when, fifteen or so years later, it is suggested to him he should find out what happened. Through questioning three of the four friends we learn that one of the women in the group reported to the others that Tsukuru had raped her. None of them actually believed her but went along with it as they decided she ‘didn’t seem well’, even though they all admitted she had clearly been raped and left pregnant. Tsukuru thinks he didn’t rape her physically, but he also believes he might have done so in a ‘dream state’ of which he had no control of. This young women was later murdered , strangled to death, and he also thinks he may also have done this, again in his ‘don’t blame me I can’t help it dream-state’. He even goes so far as to suggest that she wanted to be strangled and murdered. Again, this is just kind of accepted by everyone in the book, he visits each of his past friends and their reaction can be summed up, to a fault, as, ‘oh yeah, she was definitely raped and said it was you, but we all knew it couldn’t have been, you’re just such a nice guy!’

Now, you’re going to need to tell me Murakami readers – is the rape of women and children a common theme in the rest of his books? Do they all present a story line of ‘poor man, he just couldn’t help doing that bit of rape, there are greater forces he can’t control’? Obviously this is hugely problematic and the light handed way the topic is dealt with, each rapist given an apparently unarguable defence of their attacks therefore whitewashing them of any guilt, is completely sickening. It’s a very small step from those nausearing comments on line of ‘we have to have prostitution to help poor men. They have to deal with urges so uncontrollable if we didn’t have prostitutes of course it’s only natural they’d end up raping women’. When it comes to sex does Murakami similarly believe men have no agency over their actions? Can anything be excused?

It will perhaps come as no surprise that along with such alarming plot lines, the characterisation of women seems to be extremely limited. I became so incredulous reading ‘Colorless Tsukuru…’ that I actually became slightly hysterical with laughter at one point, as within the space of a page one female characters breasts were described twice. This was not a scene that was in anyway sexual, but it appears to be a woman and appear in a Murakami novel you simply must have your breasts described every time you walk on to the page. I couldn’t tell you a huge amount about this character as she was stocky, not pretty, so didn’t warrant much discussion apart from a brief acknowledgment of being ‘quirky, funny in a dry way’. Of course she was, that’s all the comedy fat girl can ever be right?

This is in stark contrast to the character who was raped. Again I’d like to tell you about her personality but I can’t. Her body was described in great detail, especially her breasts (of course), her slender, porcelain white legs and her long black hair. The repetition of these descriptions clearly signified that body parts equal the whole of a woman, there is no need to describe their character as your body is a signifier that explains the type of person you are anyway. Women, we’re as flat as the conversations to be found on the pages of this book.

Let me not mislead you into thinking that this is an author who cannot write a well rounded, layered protagonist, hell no. Nuanced characters do walk these pages, but to be worthy of writing so they must have a penis. And heavens above does Murakami like to talk about this appendage, they may as well publish the book with a pop up Gherkin tower it is so unsubtle. Take this moment:

And right then…he had an erection. A heroic, perfect, rock hard erection. So massively hard he could barely believe it.

Give. Me. Strength.

I do not believe, as some do, that male authors cannot write authentic female voices, Colm Toibin being a writer who in my option does so beautifully. What I do believe is that Murakami does not think women have a role that warrant a voice or an agenda of their own, they simply exist on the side lines of the main story, a vehicle for a man to use to move through his life when needed. Sexual objectification, belittlement and repeated, sanctioned violence against women is not fiction I want to be reading, and hold my hands up as to being totally lost as to why so many seem so eager to?

In his back catalogue there can be found a book called ‘Men Without Women’, I have a horrible compulsion to discover what he has to say on this one, but in an act of self preservation Murakami has been removed from my shelves as I remind my self of the rule ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me’.

Let me know in the comments below if you’ve read any Murakami and if you’re a fan or not. Are any of his books less morally dubious?! I’m intrigued to hear your thoughts!

It will be back to normal service on the book reviewing front next week I’m sure you’ll be relieved to hear, and thank you for bearing with me through my rant!

Until next time,

Happy Reading!

Murakami, Misogyny and Me

2 thoughts on “Murakami, Misogyny and Me

  1. Goodness gracious! Thanks for the warning. I’ve wondered about Murakami, him being so highly praised in certain circles (and the name recognition alone makes me green with envious thoughts), but if this is Japanese ‘culture,’ they can keep it. I thought life and literature were supposed to be about the connections we make with other humans in our relatively brief time on this planet.

    I’m not a prude (I have three adult children), but actual descriptions of things – like your quote – are not what I want from a page (I have plenty of imagination, thank you). I want relationships, dialogue, a story… and no descriptions of rape or throwing up or… whatever icks you out.

    How could that possibly be part of ‘story’? I can’t read Catcher in the Rye for the same reason – whiny male adolescent is not at all interesting, and never was. Grow up, people.

    Now I’m going to be wondering about the people who praise this writer.


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