This is a spoiler-free (or at least spoiler-light) review of this book. If you’ve already read it, perhaps you’ll enjoy a discussion about its ending (look out for my second post of today).
I can’t even remember how long ago I thought ‘I should read some Murakami’ and bought this book. I didn’t read it then. I had heard that Murakami’s book are very depressing and I was a bit too scared to start. Then, a few weeks ago one of my friends suggested that we read this for our book club and I finally picked it up. I am so grateful!
In retrospect, I think my belief that this book would be depressing was wrong. It’s not uplifting, but this stems from its ‘gritty realistic’ atmosphere full of interesting philosophical musings on the concepts of memory, reality and identity rather than any down-right depressiveness. Not unlike your average literary work, I’d argue.
Uneven vs even chapters
The chapters in this book alternate between the ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland’ part of the book (uneven chapters) and ‘The End of the World’ (even chapters). These two parts appear to be entirely separate at first, with only some overlaps in themes and motifs, but come together at the end of the book. The uneven chapters feature a sci-fi-esque Tokyo with human data processors, a gang war going on behind the scenes and a mad professor who works on removing sound. The even chapters take place in a mysterious city where the animals are taken outside of its walls every night and let in again in the morning.
I don’t want to discuss the plot of the book too much in this review, as I believe the less you know when you go into it the better. I will try to persuade you to pick it up by discussing its writing and themes instead:
One of the book’s main strengths is that it manages to evoke a compelling, haunting atmosphere where enough small amounts of mystery are revealed to you to make you want to keep reading, while at the same time feeling like you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly is going on. It reminded me strongly of Calvino’s Forgotten Cities and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, so if you enjoyed those this book may be for you.
None of the characters are named, which adds to the story’s dream-like atmosphere and matches the theme of identity.
Themes: memory, identity and storytelling
An important theme in this book is storytelling, and how our identity is made up of the stories we tell ourselves about ourself. When we lose our memory, we therefore also lose our identity, and this process is made concrete in a fairy tale-like way in the even chapters in the book.
What is Hard-Boiled Fiction?
The title of the book refers to hard-boiled fiction. In case you, like me, had never heard of this before: it is a literary genre similar to crime fiction, but with a detective who is a disillusioned anti-hero who has become almost as corrupt as the organised crime itself. Sounds interesting, no?
Murakami is said to have learned English through reading these books, though I haven’t found a source to back this up.
A note on sexism and fatphobia
Having sung this book’s praises I do want to add a critical note to say that this book contains sexist and fatphobic language. Now, we can have a lengthy debate on whether the book’s publication date of 1985 means that we have to give it some leeway, or how the opinion of the protagonist cannot be equated to the opinion of the author, but the fact remains that many of the descriptions of the women in this book are objectifying and blatantly fatphobic. For example, the first thing the narrator of the uneven chapters considers when he meets the woman in pink for the first time is whether he wants to have sex with her or not, closely followed by a description of her as “young and beautiful and all that went with it, but chubby”. AND man, AND. Beautiful AND chubby! — He then goes into detail about how beautiful fat women confuse him because he may end up sleeping with them and that is weird. Such a charmer, this guy. This is just one example; I could probably write a whole essay on this topic but who’d read that? (*Would you? Let me know!)
I’m not telling you this to make you hate the first narrator (though… maybe a little) but because it made me feel quite uncomfortable and I thought you might appreciate a warning. Whether you can put this aside and enjoy the rest of the book anyway, or choose to toss the book entirely is up to you :).
For me, the rest of the book had me so exited about unravelling its layers of literary meaning that I give it 4,5 out of 5 stars. I’m looking forward to reading more Murakami!