The Role of Magical Realism In Murakami

Introduction

Murukami’s work is very important to Japanese literature, which for the large part has been subject to traditionalism, and Murukami’s work has managed to assimilate and adapt postmodern literary practices and overcome cultural frontiers in Japanese literature (Frentiu, 2011, p. 60). Murukami based his literature on common place and banal events in daily life, and he was an “excellent observer of daily life” (Frentiu, 2011). Using his observation of the commonplace events in daily life, Murukami was able to create stories that were relevant to the postmodern period of Japan (Frentiu, 2011). Murukami was especially good at being contemporary in his writings which make his work a reflection of his times (Frentiu, 2011). This essay discusses how Murukami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle is an example of magical realism.

Magic Realism in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Magical realism has been a unique part of Latin American literature, such as the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Latin American literature has been intricately linked to magic realism due to the cultural idea that Latin Americans view their land as a marvellous and incredible and at the same time a realistic place (Strecher, 1999, p. 268). This view about their land may have lent to the Latin American writers an ability to include magic into their works, so as to combine realism with magical and bizarre events. It is also argued that the Latin American writers may have involved magical realism in their writings as a response against realism and positivism of the Europeans and Americans who colonised them for long periods of time (Strecher, 1999). This is a more political explanation of magical realism of Latin American writers, as opposed to the cultural explanations of the Latin American worldview. Another way of viewing magical realism has been explained as follows: “Magical realism cannot be identified either with fantastic literature or with psychological literature, or with the surrealist or hermetic literature that [Julio] Ortega describes.... Magical realism is, more than anything else, an attitude toward reality that can be expressed in popular or cultured forms, in elaborate or rustic styles, in closed or open structures.... In magical realism the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it” (Leal, 1995, p. 121). The above viewpoint shows that it is inappropriate to think of magical realism in cultural or political contexts because it is more than as and it cannot be confined to a specific culture. Magical realism is more a style of writing which allows the writer to consider the reality and then have it disrupted or untangled. Magical realism is defined as a phenomenon that happens “when highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something "too strange believe”” (Strecher, 1999, p. 267). Therefore, the style of writing that is seen in magical realism involves elements of the bizarre and make believe or something that is surreal and not expected in a realistic setting, while it remains a part of realistic setting.

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Murukami’s work includes magic realism because most of his fiction involves the use of the bizzare or magical elements which are used to disrupt the otherwise realistic narrative of the fiction (Strecher, 1999, p. 267). As Murukami’s work involves the use of magical and bizarre elements for disrupting the realistic and everyday lives of the characters in the story, it can be described as magical realism. Murukami’s stories usually include two worlds, one which is conscious, and the other unconscious and the characters in the stories move from one to the world in a seamless manner (Strecher, 1999). Murukami’s work also includes the elements of desire and imagination, which are important characteristics of fantasy literature (Jackson, 2003, p. 1). In particular, fantasy literature does not observe the unities of time and space (Jackson, 2003). (Napier, 2005). In modern Japanese literature, fantasy writing has been seen in the writings of Natsume Soseki who wrote some time before Murukami, who represents the more ‘modern’ and new generation writers of fantasy or magical realism in Japan (Napier, 2005).

The Wind up Bird Chronicles is representative of the kind of fiction that Murukami wrote, in that the story was every day and common place, but there was an element of magic in the story, as well as the stories within the story (as told by Cinnamon), which makes these stories come within the genre of magical realism. These elements include desire, imagination, and the seamless moving between different times and spaces. There is an interesting aspect of the book in which both magic as well as realism can be seen. For instance, in the first story ‘Six Fingers and Four Beasts’, the narrator is interrupted in a task of cooking spaghetti by a phone call from a woman who seems to know his background to some extent, and he asks her to call him back (Murakami, 1997). When she does not, he takes to ironing shirts, describing in detail his process of ironing shirts starting with the collar of the shirts (Murakami, 1997). There is something mundane and everyday about these actions by the narrator, which is where the realism element comes in.

The next few pages go on to detail other mundane happenings, like the narrator’s wife calling him up to see if he will take up poetry writing job. What these parts of the story do it show that the narrator is out of work and he is sitting around in his apartment, waiting for some news about a legal job (Murakami, 1997). An interesting diversion in the story is provided by an angle of the missing cat that has been gone for a week and the phone call from this mystery woman who claims to know the narrator and claims that she has met the narrator a number of times (Murakami, 1997). The rest of the first chapter of the story, progresses in a noneventful manner with the narrator looking for his cat in the alley behind his house. Thus, there are elements of realism in the story, which relate to the lives as lived in the contemporary period Japan, when the narrator lives at home and his wife goes to work. In the second book, his wife Kumiko has gone missing. By the third book, there is clarity in the story but the magic realism is brought by the role played by Nutmeg and her son Cinammon and the stories that they tell, as the narrator himself points out:

“Without doubt, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle #8 was a story told by Cinnamon. He had put sixteen stories into the computer under the title The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it just so happened that I had chosen and read #8. Judging from the length of one story, sixteen such stories would have made a fairly thick book if set in type. What could “#8” signify?.… He inherited from his mother’s stories the fundamental style he used, unaltered, in his own stories: namely, the assumption that a fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual (Murakami, 1997, p. 350).

The last line that fact may not be truth and truth may not be factual, may be confusing because truth and facts are generally considered to be compatible terms, but the author is forcing us to think about truth in a different way. There are other aspects of the story that border on the magical. For instance, the wind-up bird in narrator’s yard and the blue-black cheek mark on the narrator also find mention in the World War II-related stories of Nutmeg’s father. In fact, it is the blue black mark on his cheek that attracts Nutmeg to the narrator. What is interesting is that Cinnamon is a mute and he tells the stories to the narrator through a computer. These stories are about the experiences of his grandfather in Manchuria, but somehow they find a link to the present day life of the narrator, which lends mysticism to the novel as there is an easy transgressing of time, making time itself an important aspect of the novel. Time is portrayed in the wind-up bird and she seems to show the change in time. The interesting angles of this aspect of the novel are noted by Stretcher (1999) as follows: “What permeates the entire novel is the sense of magical connections between various distinct "worlds": the internal and external "worlds" of Toru, the historical "worlds" of 1930s Manchuria and 1980s Tokyo, the physical and spiritual "worlds" of the inner body, assaulted by Wataya Noboru and restored by Okada Toru. And, of course, there is the "wind-up bird" of the novel's title, a creature never seen but heard to be winding the springs that keep the earth turning-and thus keep time/history moving” (p.288). The role played by Cinnamon in telling these stories to the narrator itself is an aspect of magical realism as through these stories, the narrator seems to move back and forth in time and also live in different spaces across time.

Magical realism is also portrayed in the phone call that the narrator received in the first chapter from a woman whose voice he does not recognise, who turns out to be Kumiko, with the phone call being a cry for help as she is devolving due to the influence of her brother Noburo and is losing her mental balance. We come to know later that the phone call where she begs him for 10 minutes of his time so that they could understand each other and turns the talk sexual after that, was actually a way for seeking help. The call itself is from the narrator’s internal mind (Strecher, 1999, p. 288). The call seeks to bring the narrator and his wife together, but not able to do so because she is not herself and he cannot understand her or recognise her voice. However, in the second chapter of the first book, the reader should not be surprised that the narrator was not able to recognise the sound of his wife’s voice over the telephone because there is really a lot that he does not know about her. For instance, he does not know that she hates blue tissue paper and that she cannot stand the smell of beef cooking with vegetables (Murakami, 1997). In a way, Murukami is also giving a realistic portrayal of relationships in the contemporary times where even when people are supposed to be close to each other, they are not really so. Magical realism comes from the portrayal of mind itself as a world in itself, which is inhabited by the individual to the exclusion of all others, as the narrator wonders about his wife’s mind: “This could just be the entrance. Inside there might be a world stretching out that was just Kumiko's. It made me think of an enormous room, pitch dark. I was in that room with nothing but a tiny cigarette lighter. By the light of that flame I could see only the barest fraction of the room” (Murakami, 1997, p. 57). Another incredible and magical aspect of the story is the ability of Noboru to completely suppress the identity of Kumiko, as told in the story by the prostitute Creta, who describes how Noboru was able to reach into her and take out her black box and how the experience left her in torrents of pain and pleasure and she was not even able to see what he took out of her (Murakami, 1997, p. 235).

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Conclusion

Wind-up Bird Chronicle exemplifies magical realism in the writings of Murukami. The essential elements of fantasy literature, these being desire, imagination, disruption of banality by incredible events, and the blurring of the unities of time and space are all seen in the work. The commonplace comes from the description of the narrator’s life in post modern Japan, while mysticism is lent to the story in a number of ways and through a number of characters such as Creta and Cinnamon.

Bibliography

  • Frentiu, R., 2011. Contemporary Japanese Literature in Its Transition Towards the New Postmodern Humanism: Haruki Murakami. Asian Studies , Volume 3, pp. 59-68.
  • Jackson, R., 2003. Fantasy. New York: Routledge . Leal, L., 1995. Magical Realism in Spanish America. In: Zamora & Faris, eds. Magical Realism. Duke University Press. Murakami, H., 1997. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. New York: Knopf.
  • Napier, S., 2005. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity. New York: Routledge. Strecher, M. C., 1999. Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki. Source: The Journal of Japanese Studies, 25(2), pp. 263-298.

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