Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Introducing: Dead Heat On A Merry-go-round

[What follows is the introduction to Haruki Murakami's Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round, a collection of short stories as yet unpublished in English, released in Japan in 1985, the same year as Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of The World. Daniel Morales, at his website How to Japonese, and at, speaks much more intelligently than I could ever hope to on Murakami, and on this collection of short stories. I merely attempt a translation of what I found to be a fascinating read.]

I have a certain reservation about calling the sentences gathered here stories. That is to say, they are not stories in a technical sense.

When I go about writing a story, I take all the factual material -- I mean, if that stuff can even be said to exist -- and I throw it into a big pot, higgledy-piggledy, and melt it down until I can't even tell what it used to be. Then, later, I take a ladle of whatever grabs my fancy, and I run with it. It's more or less what you might call a story. Reality is, of course, much the same. The reality of a bakery, for example, exists in the bread rather than the flour it's made from.

The sentences collected here, however, have a fundamental correspondence with the facts. I heard a lot of people's stories: I wrote them down. Of course, in order not to receive any complaints, I played with a few of the stories' details, so they're not completely factual, but the important parts are 100% true. I haven't exaggerated any places to make the stories more interesting, and I haven't added anything. I shuffled some sentences around, but only so as not not to break up the atmosphere.

When I started out writing these kind of strung together sentences -- for now, let's just call them sketches -- it was with the intention of warming up before moving on to a bigger project. It also occurred to me that this business of getting down facts as factually as possible might somehow be useful later on. So you see, in the beginning, I had no intention at all of letting these sketches go to print. They were written on a whim, my only resolve to toss them into the desk in my study, where they would meet the same fate as countless other fragmentary writings.

However, while in the process of writing the third or fourth story, it came to be felt by me that each of them held a common trait, which was wanting to be told. That was, for me, a strange experience.

To give an example, when I'm writing, I select the bits of material I use pretty much without thinking, as my writing style or the development of the story requires. However, the words I write and the life I lead in reality do not always have a one to one correspondence (which is to say, my true self and my actual life do not match perfectly) and so however much I try a sediment will always collect up inside me of things I cannot use in my stories. It is from this kind of stuff I make my sketches. This sediment, then, at the very bottom of my consciousness, is just waiting for an opportunity to be given form and spoken.

I think one of the reasons these various residues gather up inside me is that I like to listen to other people's stories. Honestly speaking, I prefer to listen to other people's stories than to tell my own. Plus, I kind of feel like I have an ability to detect the extraordinary at the heart of them. The majority of people's stories are actually much more entertaining than my own; an average Joe's story especially is always much more interesting than some Indiana Jones' adventure.

This kind of skill, the ability to enjoy listening to another's story, doesn't necessarily have any tangible use. In the years I've spent writing, I've not had one experience where it's helped me out. I suppose there's a chance it might have once, but I can't remember it. People talk to me; I pay attention; and the stories gather up inside: that's all.

If this ability has in any way contributed to me as an author, I think it would be that it has made me a master of a certain kind of endurance. With extraordinary things, before they reveal themselves, I think, they have to pass through a filter of this endurance; and the sentences which go into the stories I write, for the most part, arise from this process. After all, extraordinary things are not the kind to turn on the tap, fill up a glass, and offer themselves to you saying, "Please, drink me!" There are times when all you have left is rain dancing. But that's another story. Let's take a step back.

In one of Carson McCullers' novels there is this gentle young character who's also mute. Now, this guy, whoever is speaking to him, whatever they say, he always lends a friendly ear; at times sympathetically, at other times in good camaraderie. Drawn to him almost without knowing why, people gather about him, make all sorts of confessions, and confide in him. However, in the end the young man takes his own life. Of course, it's then that everybody realises; they pushed all their problems onto him and not one person asked how he was feeling.

I mean, of course, my position and the mute guy's don't exactly overlap. With me, people tell me their stories and then I write them down. But, even so, what I want to say is that these sediments are definitely building up inside.

And it's for exactly this reason that, whenever I take a break from writing, this collection of material rises quite naturally to the surface of my consciousness. To me, these sketch-like materials feel like abandoned orphans. Being included in neither story nor phrase, their sleeping just goes on and on. It gives me bad vibes just thinking about it.

The thing is, even if I do write them down, it's not like I'll be able to let off any steam; and this last point especially, for whatever modicum of pride I possess, I have to emphasise: I am not writing and publishing these sketches so I can make myself feel better. It's like I said at the beginning, these sketches wanted to be written, and I sensed it. Whether or not my spirit can even be set free is another problem altogether, but as for the things I've written here, there's not even the slightest hint of salvation.

The notion that self expression can in any way liberate the spirit is a superstition; at best a myth; and as far as self-expression through the written word goes, it won't save anyone. If such a person existed, one who was aiming for freedom through writing, they would do well to stop. All expression is good for is breaking the soul down, and that doesn't get anyone anywhere. If you get the feeling you have got somewhere, well, you must be dreaming. People write because they can't help it. There's neither rhyme nor reason; and no light at the end of the tunnel.

So these sediments as per usual remain in me. Someday I might change them completely and include them in a new book. Then again, maybe not. No doubt if I did include them in something they would disappear to some dark inaccessible part of my soul.

With regard to what I'm doing here, there was no other way to bring together and give form to these things inside me. Whether this really is actual work or not, I don't know. If someone says to me, you should write a real novel, I can only shrug my shoulders and quote the oft-heard murderer's platitude, "All my actions are for the greater good." For me, there was no other way to present these materials than in the style given here.

The reason I call the sentences gathered here "sketches" is because they are neither fiction nor non-fiction. The material is completely factual, and the vehicle, the container, is entirely that of the novel. If, within the stories, you find something strange or unnatural that is because they are from reality; and if, in your turning of pages, you find yourself without need to pause, that is due to it being a novel.

Listening to other people's stories, and through them catching glimpses of people's lives, it becomes apparent that everyone is held prisoner by a certain kind of helplessness. The essense of this helplessness, as with the sediment inside of me, is the inability to go anywhere. The deal we humans get, and what we all become a part of, is the big human clockwork; always moving, but in completely predetermined ways. Kind of like a merry-go-round; always spinning in the same place, at the same speed. There's nowhere to go: No getting off, no transfers; no overtaking, and no falling behind. In spite of all this, however, on top of our merry-go-round, it seems as if we are locked in a fierce dead-heat, pretending as we are that the people we face are our opponents.

That life in certain situations seems strange or unnatural is most likely for this reason: That, in the overwhelming majority of cases, as soon as free will manifests itself, the supposed gift of humankind, it dies; and though we don't see it happening, it is from these dead spaces that the peculiar and unusual distortions in the structure of our lives come about.

Is what I think, kind of.


  1. Very nice translation. Tho I feel in that second to last paragraph it's a bit hard to follow the train of thought, though that might be Murakami's fault And not yours. I should send you my translation of ブールサイド sometime.

    Reminds me of the narrator of Pinball 1973. It opens with him talking about how much he likes to listen to the stories of others (like the guy from Saturn) and how he'd win the award for best listener (a box of matches).

  2. Those last two paragraphs were by far the hardest. I literally sat in front of the computer saying to myself "ok, I know what the Japanese says, I think, but how do I say that in English? Is this good? No. What about this? No. Maybe I should change it around. Ok..." etc etc for hours and hours. I guess I'll have to go back to the drawing board again.
    Would love to read your translation! Send it to my hotmail, yo!