Seventeen bills itself as "an investigative thriller in the aftermath of an air disaster". Truly, it isn't.
Instead, Seventeen is a competent and intriguing evocation of the inner workings of a local Japanese newspaper, the North Kanto Times, using the backdrop of an air disaster on the paper's doorstep to allow simmering resentments and rivalries to boil over. We are introduced to Kazumasa Yuuki, who is trying to make an ascent on Tsuitate rock face some seventeen years after making a promise to his colleague, Anzai, to climb the face with him. This leads Yuuki into a spiral of reminiscences of the events seventeen years ago, where the planned ascent of the rock was interrupted by the crash of a Japanese Airlines 747 into a nearby mountain, causing the deaths of 524 people.
Seventeen years ago, Yuuki had been a roving reporter with the North Kanto Times, assigned to lead the Air Crash desk. He was responsible for sending reporters out into the field, editing their stories, deciding the layout and, ultimately, which stories would make the cut and which would not. Yuuki was the most experienced reporter at the paper who had not gone into management, leaving him both respected and shunned.
The paper itself was constantly compromised in its effort to sustain circulation. It could not make political statements, could not ally more with one side than another (a problem in a province where the two main rivals in Japan's ruling political party held their bases), and shunned real news in favour of reporting local school sports fixtures, naming every player in an effort to sell the paper to kids' parents. But politics loomed large in the boardroom where the chairman and managing director were engaged in a bitter power struggle, sucking staff into one faction or the other.
So when the 747 went down in the paper's area - despite not being on a major flight path - the paper entered an existentialist crisis. The natural instinct of a journalist is to go after a scoop, but when the scoop comes, the fear is paralysing. Nobody knows how to play it, and the temptation is to retreat to the familiar comforts of routine basketball games and ceremonial openings of arts festivals. This is the context into which Yuuki is thrust - with all eyes on him. And at the same time, Yuuki has his own personal issues to resolve, not least of which is the sudden collapse of his climbing buddy Anzai from the circulation department...
Seventeen is a very complex novel with many characters and a network of relationships between them. It can be tricky to keep up with exactly who is who, particularly for anglophone readers who are not attuned to Japanese names. Hideo Yokoyama includes little summary lines when reintroducing a character to remind us of their role - this can feel irritating and repetitive, but without it I suspect the reader would be hopelessly lost. A further issue raised by the complexity is the uneasiness the reader will have in discerning what is actually the focus of the novel. Is it the plane crash? Is it the office politics? Is it Yuuki's personal situation? In truth it is all of these and none of them. It is really a slice of drama, a fly on the wall, from a newspaper office at a time of crisis. There is no particular beginning and no end. There is no great narrative arc, no moral, no winners and losers. It just is.
And then there's the present day, climbing Tsuitate. I can see that there was a need to have the odd period of relief from the intensity and claustrophobia of the North Kanto Times - and the open air and focus on small, technical details of the climb provided that. It also offered an opportunity for Yuuki to put some distance between himself and the events of the past. But this came at the expense of elevating one strand of the story - Yuuki's personal life - above the others in significance even though it was perhaps not the most prominent line at the time of the disaster.
Overall this is a complex, thoughtful and thought-provoking novel that has been somewhat cruelly mis-labelled to give a sure-fire guarantee of disappointing many of its readers.
When I nominated this novel as the BGO Group Read, I argued that Murakami wrote magical realist novels even though the term is usually applied to work of Latin-American origin. This was my fifth Murakami book, and I certainly considered some of the previous novels I'd read, particularly "Kafka on the Shore", met the criteria.
In the early stages, I had a horrible feeling that the novel I'd picked wasn't actually a magical realist one; it isn't a consistent feature of Murakami's work. However, the dream sequences, the mark on Toru's cheek, Nutmeg's apparent powers and the later encounters in Room 208 later on made me revise my opinion.
Do others agree?
I'll confess that I nominated this novel without having previously read it. However, Murakami is among my very favourite authors and, critically at least, this is often regarded as one of his very finest novels, so I had high hopes for it.
At over 600 pages, I think this is Murakami's longest book to date. This is a rambling novel, both in terms of the glacial pace at which events unfold and its digressions into the past. My guess is those past events are meant to provide echoes of those in the book's present, but with the ever mysterious Murakami I couldn't be certain.
Describing the plot is difficult; this novel is a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Toru Okada is a typical Murakami narrator - unemployed, apathetic and swept along by the increasingly bizarre happenings around him. Even the goadings of teenage neighbour May Kasahara don't seem to get a rise out of him.
The novel opens with the disappearance of the Okadas' cat, named after Toru's politician brother-in-law Noboru Wataya, a man whom the normally laid back Toru hates with a passion. After initial searches prove fruitless Kumiko, Toru's wife, brings in a clairvoyant, Malta Kano, to help. Then, more seriously, Kumiko also vanishes. At the same time, Toru is receiving anonymous 'phone calls from a woman who claims to know him well.
Throw in the grisly stories about Malta Kano's one time prostitute sister Creta and, war veteran Lieutenant Mamiya's tales of his time on the Mongolia/Manchuria border in the 1930s Sino-Japanese war and subsequent imprisonment, Toru's increasingly explicit dreams and the strangle blue patch on his cheek that appears from nowhere, the silent Cinnamon Akahasa and his wealthy mother Nutmeg, the apparent possessor of spiritual powers and witness of a massacre of zoo animals during the same war and you have a novel full of tangled threads that sort of resolve themselves in a denouement in the mysterious Room 208.
Perhaps the novel's reputation rests on the fact that this is the most Murakami-esque of Murakami novels. The atmosphere of a Murakami story is not quite like those by any other writer I've come across - apparently simple prose describing hauntingly surreal worlds of mystery, unease and tension and full of philosophizing characters - and, of the five books of his I've read, this is the most extreme example I've come across so far.
I can't tell you even a week after finishing it if "The Wind Up Bird Chronicle" is a work of profound genius or self-indulgence. Possibly, it is both.
From the official Murakami website
“Japan’s most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.
In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.
Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.”
This is the first Murakami book that hasn’t worked for me. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters and I didn’t care what happened to any of them. When you read one of his books you have to accept that you may not fully understand it but something in the intricate delicate weaving will touch you. Will shine a light into your own psyche, your own undiscovered well of emotion and let you view the world and your own place in it slightly differently. But this novel left me cold. The main character, Toru Okada, is just plain boring. He meanders through the book encountering strange people and just seems to accept without ever questioning why they have suddenly entered his life. Woven through the book is a secondary tale about a Japanese soldier in WW2. This recurring story seems to have no relevance to the main story except to introduce the well into the story. That’s a dry well that Okada takes to sitting in. A very disappointing novel. The last paragraph in the official blurb up above says it is “gripping, prophetic and suffused with comedy and menace”. I have no idea what future it was trying to foretell but it definitely wasn’t gripping except in that way a boring person is when they won’t stop talking to you. And as for comedy and menace this was about as funny and scary as soggy cornflakes.
Be interested to know if anyone else has read this and what their thoughts on it are.
Occupied City is a short novel, but it's not an easy one. Ostensibly, it is about the poisoning of the staff of a Tokyo bank. Twelve people die.
In reality, the novel is about war and its aftermath; research into chemical weapons, war crimes and what happens when the rules change. Through a series of 12 first person narratives - many of them very fractured - we see different facets of the murder investigation, the weapons research and the world of gangsters. A common theme is the need to adapt or die.
The structure of the novel matches a traditional Japanese ghost story game where narrators sit around a circle of candles. As each concludes a ghost story, he or she extinguishes a candle. The room gets darker, the atmosphere gets heavier, until in the end there is darkness. But in this novel, it is not the stories that are ghosts - it is their narrators.
Some of the stories are lucid and take the narrative forward - although with 12 narrators covering common ground, there is an element of repetition. Other narrators, though, are in the depths of madness and serve to create atmosphere. As with other David Peace novels, the repetition is not confined to the plot; many of the narrators repeat mantra like phrases over and over again. It is intense.
David Peace doesn't provide easy answers. This is not a whodunnit where the culprit is unmasked in the last scene. One man, Sadamichi Hirasawa, an artist, is destined to be convicted of the poisoning despite clear evidence in both the real world and in the Dark Gate of stories that he could not be the killer. We do eventually meet the killer but his identity remains an enigma. In a sense, it doesn't matter. We know what he is, even if we never know the name on his birth certificate.
This is not a novel where things join up. Things touch, they overlap, they diverge, but there is no single answer. We see a city that was secure in its reverence for the Emperor, justified in taking whatever action necessary to protect him, brought to its knees, occupied by foreign powers and those who were most diligent in their support for the Emperor are now those who are held up to be the worst war criminals. Unless, of course, they can remain hidden in the shadows. The powers of the state - and the powers of the occupiers - are focused on creating a mutually acceptable outcome. They manipulate, distort and treat individuals as expendable.
As living people, the twelve victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as ghosts seeking justice, again, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Occupied City is a difficult read but a very satisfying one. It towers over the its predecessor in an apparent trilogy, the somewhat lacklustre Tokyo Year Zero. In fact, it is so radically different in style and content that most readers would probably not place them in the same set at all.