After dark

Just read the book “After Dark” by Haruki Murakami. Since I am temporarily living in a town where it is somewhat hard (though not impossible) to buy books in another language than German, I read this in German translation. The original is in Japanese anyway, but what I found rather appalling is that other books of the same author were available in the bookshop I visited as translations from the English translation, whereas the English translation was not available.

The action in this novel is just constricted to one night, like the action in McEwan’s “Saturday” is constricted to one day (well, and perhaps part of the night). But what a difference! Whereas one imagines McEwan sitting at his desk surrounded by books with medical terms, hoping to impress the reader with the solidity of his writing, one has the feeling that the book by Haruki Murakami has been written in one continuous flow of inspiration. One is drawn into it from the first page and, in fact, I could hardly put it down and read the whole novel in one day.

The book has an extraordinary richness of interrelated themes. One of the themes is perhaps “to sleep or not to sleep”. The main characters Mari and Takahashi don’t want to sleep, Mari’s sister Eri on the other hand doesn’t want to do anything else but sleep, also during the day. Although the introduction of the sleeping Eri first seems a bit far-fetched, with a guy with a mask, watching her from “the other side” of an unplugged TV screen, this image is gaining strength during the development of the story, where we realize that Eri’s sleeping is partly metaphorical and that the masked person watching from the TV screen also represents something else (in connection with Eri).

This theme is related to another theme which I would call the tension between subject and object. Mari and Takahashi are very much on the “subject side”, whereas Eri is completely on the “object side”. This may sound as if in this novel ideas replace real action, but that is absolutely not true. In particular the conversations beween Mari and Takahashi are fascinating to read, working up to a climax near the end of the book in a conversation they have in a park.

Then there is the theme of “time”. Takahashi says to the nineteen year old Mari that she is perhaps still in a “preparation phase” and that she may be a person who needs time. The Chinese prostitute (also nineteen years old) who has been “verprügelt” (in my German translation) by the software specialist Shirokawa (again someone who does not want to sleep at night) has had no preparation time. No one will care whether she needs any preparation time; she is just thrown into business by a Chinese company which has guys on motor bikes delivering girls instead of pizzas.

I note in passing that there is an amusing implicit suggestion of a relation between cruelty (and perhaps inhibition) and listening to Bach’s English suites (and baroque music in general) in connection with this thoroughly unsympathetic character Shirokawa who works at the firm “Veritech” (another well-chosen name) and is also “into yoga” (the suggestion is the more amusing because the author apparently told in an interview that he himself often listens to baroque music while writing). The name “Veritech” later turns up again in connection with the sleeping Eri.

There is a very interesting conversation between Mari and a girl (called “Grille”) at the love hotel “Alphaville” (yes, from the Godard movie about a town where it is officially forbidden to show emotion in public) on reincarnation. Grille is someone who has no time. She cannot accept that this is all, she needs to think that she will have more time, even coming back as an animal is a more bearable thought than the thought that “this will be it”. Mari, on the other hand, still has time, and doesn’t need to believe things like that.

Takahashi also still has lots of time. His motto is: “go slowly and drink a lot of water”. He plays in a band and slowly thinks about what to do after that. Water: another theme. Takahashi compares the law system with a monster with many arms (like an octopus), living deep below sea level. It will strangle everything and everyone. For this monster one only exists as a number, there is no “I” or “you”, only formal procedures. He realized this when attending cases in a Court room in a phase of his life where he was planning to become a lawyer (he is still playing with that idea). His father has been grabbed by the monster and put into prison when he was seven.

What is remarkable in the description of his feelings in attending the law cases is that not the questions of guilty or not guilty got to him. No, the feeling of the monster deep down in the sea came when he was watching a case where a man was condemned to “the rope”. This man was guilty as hell, but didn’t care; he showed no remorse. What got Takahashi was the gruesomeness of watching this man, strangled by the deep sea monster of the law system. What also got him was the growing realization that the wall between him and the persons “on the other side of the law” was rather a paper wall than a stone wall.

More water: when Eri wakes up, or perhaps it is still a dream, she also wonders whether she is on the sea or even below the water level. This theme is further developed from the point of view of someone (or rather an eye) that is watching her.

Anyway, I think this book is a masterpiece…

A note on translations: Friends in Zürich pointed me to a bookshop where they sell books in English. So now I bought “After Dark” in the English translation. I was a bit curious. Although it is somewhat embarrassing to say, I must confess that in an impressionable phase of my life I read books like “Phénoménologie de la Perception” by the philosopher Merleau-Ponty. One of the things I remember from “Phénoménologie de la Perception” is that Merleau-Ponty states that each language has its own completely untranslatable atmosphere. I think he was right.

Somehow “After Dark” is much more “unheimisch” (or “unheimlich”) in the German translation than it is in the (American) English translation by the Harvard professor of Japanese literature Jay Rubin, who also wrote a book about the author (“Haruki Murakami and the music of words”). Could it be that there is more formality in the German language which makes it closer to the Japanese? Anyway, I noticed some interesting differences. The girl, called “Grille” in the German translation (by Ursula Gräfe), is called “Korogi” in the English translation. That’s a rather interesting difference! Is there a meaning of “Korogi” which suggests “Grille”? I somehow liked “Grille”.

Then, for example, Mari learned about the Godard movie “Alphaville” from her grandfather, who, in the German translation, is a “Lebemann”. In the English translation he becomes an “uncle” who was also a “playboy”. I don’t know the original Japanese version, but I’m inclined to believe that the German version is the right one. Perhaps there is no English equivalent for “Lebemann”. “Playboy” sounds too strong and too negative. The German translation says: “Er war Universitätsprofessor, aber auch ein Lebemann”. The English translation says: “He was a professor, but he was kind of a playboy, too”. To me this sounds totally different!

And what to think of: “”So you and your uncle were kinda on the same wavelength, huh?”, asks Kaoru” in comparison to: “”Du hast deinen Grossvater sehr gern gehabt, was?”, fragt Kaoru.”?

7 thoughts on “After dark Leave a comment

  1. Piet writes: “Somehow ‘After Dark’ is much more “unheimisch” (or ‘unheimlich’) in the German translation than it is in the (American) English translation”.

    I often have the feeling reading English novels that everything is luke-warm – the sex is lukewarm, the hate is lukewarm, the love is lukewarm. Everything is “nice”. One does have horror novels in English but they are usually quite simply sick. Something in-between is missing. On the other hand, Germans know about pain, evil, suffering. Reading Japanese novels (esp. my favourite The Tale of Genji) I have the same feeling, that this culture knows about the dark side.

    Ruth Rendell is one of the few British crime novelists who in my opinion understands hate, violence, passion, alienation deeply. She is half Danish and was always an outsider and writes compulsively in order to keep sane.

    A journalist wrote that she kept going back to Africa because she loved the people so much, and her analysis of “why” was: “people who are not afraid to die, are not afraid to live”.

    Oh dear, so I am going to have to read Murakami’s novel in German.

  2. Although thoughts like these also occurred to me when reading the translation by Jay Rubin, I want to add that we must of course make a distinction between American English and British English. I do not think a British English translator would produce a sentence like: “”So you and your uncle were kinda on the same wavelength, huh?”, asks Kaoru”.
    There is a certain tenderness in “Du hast deinen Grossvater sehr gern gehabt, was?”, that is missing in “So you and your uncle were kinda on the same wavelength, huh?”. For related reasons I am inclined to believe more in the translation “Grossvater” than in the translation “uncle”. Because I’ve often observed this rather special relation between grandparents and grandchildren which one would not so soon expect with uncles.
    But it’s all speculation and I would have to learn Japanese to see what is right here. It could be that Ursula Gräfe is really aiming for some kind of “re-creation” rather than a very literal translation. The introduction of the name “Grille” for “Korogi” could point in that direction.

  3. Surfing the internet, I found the following information as to the Korogi/Grille translation question:

    “Korogi” is Japanese for “crickets”. Apparently, in Japan, these small animals can be an insect pest “after dark” (see the rather entertaining diary “My Japan” by Brian Young).
    A quote from Young’s diary: “I hate to kill any living creature, and of course, korogi are not dangerous. They don’t sting, bite, chew, or drill into you. They are merely craving warmth, to stave off death. I sympathise with that, but still, I don’t want to be woken by crickets crawling around my face, or jumping across the futon to land in my mouth!”

    As to the German word “Grille”, one of its meanings also appears to be “cricket” (see “grille”). So the translation by Ursula Gräfe seems to be pretty literal after all, at least in this particular case…

  4. Which shows again how thoroughly thought-through this novel is: the connection between the name “Korogi” and “after dark” and the “craving warmth, to stave off death” aspect.
    W.r.t. the way Kaoru speaks and the grandfather versus uncle matter: it seems that the translators Jay Rubin and Ursula Gräfe have rather different views on how to represent the way the women of the “love hotel” speak. Kaoru is running the hotel and she is (on the one hand) a rather tough lady who has in fact been a professional wrestler. So Jay Rubin lets her say things like “Let ’em get a load of me if they wanna see ugly” (in a conversation with Mari).
    In Ursula Gräfe’s translation she is much less tough. The conversations between Mari, Kaoru and Korogi are pretty sophisticated and seem in a certain sense to leave the love hotel “Alphaville” far behind in Ursula Gräfe’s translation. Again I am on Ursula Gräfe’s side here. I think these conversations should be interpreted in the context of the surrealistic character of the novel. There’s no need to make Kaoru extra tough.

  5. “I want to add that we must of course make a distinction between American English and British English” .. naturally! And we must ask the question, in this case, what is the impression which the *American* reader gets from reading it? Obviously the *British* reader gets a very polluted impression, unless he or she is already so “switched over” to US thinking by the time he stumbles on this sentence, that he is already in “US cultural mode”.

    “For related reasons I am inclined to believe more in the translation ‘Grossvater’ than in the translation ‘uncle'”. Here are more big cultural problems in translation. In some cultures “grandfather” is also used to address any very senior male relation, in other cultures “uncle”, and this is even extended of course to “friends of the family”. So we need to know which con-notations are carried by the original Japanese as well as the literal and direct “notation”. And this is where translation can indeed become absolutely impossible since there is no direct way to express “manifest + hidden meaning” without summoning up even more unwanted hidden meanings! (eg by writing a lot of words when it should have only been few). Kind of like Gödel…

  6. After reading my blog, an American woman read the novel and gave me her comments. So I got some insights from this. But well…, about this perhaps another time. The book is clearly thought provoking.
    Secondly, I got some information about the grandfather versus uncle matter from someone (a colleague here in Zürich) who speaks and reads Japanese. The words “uncle” and “grandfather” sound very similar in Japanese, but the characters are different. So I have to get hold of the Japanese version and will then report on this issue again.

  7. Piet–I am forwarding to you an op ed piece from today’s NY Times Japan’s Crisis of the Mind. Reading it immediately brought the book to mind.
    Now what I remember of the book makes more sense–note reference to the “hikikomori”, etc.

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