Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Murakami takes a trip

There’s a joke about two-thirds of the way through Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. At least I think it’s a joke. Tsukuru is in southern Finland, sitting on a bench, eating cherries, when he is accosted by two local girls who ask where he’s come from. He explains that he’s come from Japan and the flight took 11 hours.
“During that time I ate two meals and watched one movie.”
“What movie?”

“Die Hard 12.”
This seemed to satisfy them.
Now, it could be that Tsukuru is just making a facetious, smartarse remark that sails over the girls’ heads, but that doesn’t seem likely. In common with most of Murakami’s central characters (neither “hero” nor even “protagonist” sufficiently addresses their essential passivity), he’s not a smartarse. Instead, because the exchange is so deadpan, so matter-of-fact, the reader could reasonably infer that in the fictional universe that Tsukuru inhabits, there really is a 12th instalment of the John McClane franchise.

Or is it something deeper? The set-up of the story is that Tsukuru finds himself ostracised from his tight-knit group of high-school friends, for reasons they won’t explain. Many years later, when he finally plucks up courage to ask what provoked this expulsion he finds himself retrospectively accused of a heinous crime and once he’s recovered from the shock, he starts to wonder whether there’s some alternative plane of reality in which he might actually have been capable of committing it, even though he has no memory of the act.

This notion of parallel existences harks back to Murakami’s previous book, the behemoth 1Q84, in which the heroine accidentally enters another version of the world without at first realising it. Only when she starts noticing random incongruities both small (Tokyo policemen suddenly appear to be carrying a different model of revolver) and substantial (there are two moons) does it sink in that something’s different. So maybe Tsukuru has entered another realm, one in which everything is as we know it in our own world, except that Bruce Willis got divorced again and really needed the money. Incidentally, the reference to a non-existent film did make me think of a book by Kazuo Ishiguro, an author who is sometimes lazily bracketed with Murakami simply because they were born in the same country. In The Unconsoled, the narrator, Ryder, visits a cinema where 2001: A Space Odyssey is playing and notes without surprise the performances of Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. This lurch from reality is one of the first suggestions (it’s never explicitly confirmed) that Ryder is dreaming: and Murakami’s penchant for vivid, often erotic dreams that may or may not be real is maintained in Colorless Tsukuru.

Of course, in the new book Murakami gives rein to many of his other habitual tropes, without which his fans would feel short-changed: music, enigmatic women, telephones and – very tangentially and only towards the end – religious cults. The cats, one suspects, are merely resting. Ultimately, though, his theme is the state of his central characters, the state of being slightly apart from the rest of the world. This is especially resonant for Tsukuru because, unlike most of Murakami’s characters, he leaves Japan, if only for a few days. (As far as I recall, the only time this has happened before was in what I regard as his weakest effort, Sputnik Sweetheart, which involves a sojourn in Greece.) When Tsukuru reaches Finland, the author hammers home his otherness in uncharacteristically explicit terms, heavy-handed, even:
It finally struck him: he was far from Japan, in another country. No matter where he was, he almost always ate alone, so that didn’t particularly bother him. But here he wasn’t simply alone. He was alone in two senses of the word. He was also a foreigner, the people speaking a language he couldn’t understand. It was a different sense of isolation from what he normally felt in Japan.
But, possibly coincidentally, there’s another aspect of the novel that makes the reader empathise with this sense of isolation. To a degree that doesn’t happen in Murakami’s other books, the specific peculiarities of the Japanese language are mentioned several times. The other members of the high-school gang that rejected Tsukuru all have names that refer in some way to colours, whereas his doesn’t, hence the first word of the title. However, it is significant that his own name refers to construction, as he gets an engineering job, building train stations. Later, it is remarked that a character uses high-flown honorifics to address Tsukuru; whereas another character uses informal, even rough pronouns. Later still, a Finnish character finds himself searching for the right word in Japanese. The translator, Philip Gabriel, deals with these potential pitfalls elegantly but each time they occur you are inescapably reminded that you are reading a translation, that you are not Japanese, that you are somehow isolated, apart, other from the absolute essence of what’s going on. Just as Tsukuru can safely eat his pizza in Helsinki but will probably never feel entirely part of the action, we as gaijin are always on the outside of Murakami’s world of outsiders, looking in. If you’ve never before fully identified with the archetypal Murakami not-quite-hero, here’s your chance.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Alfred Hitchcock as a middle-class pleasure

I spent a few hours yesterday watching a couple of silent movies made by a young whippersnapper called Alfred Hitchcock. It was part of Bangkok’s first ever festival devoted to the cinema before sound and it was gratifying to see a good turnout. Well, it was good in terms of numbers, but the bulk of punters seemed to fall into one of two groups, namely young, faintly beatniky Thais of both genders; and farang gentlemen d’un certain âge. It was essentially a middle-class event. Which is sad, because both the films (The Pleasure Garden and The Ring) were intended to be commercial crowd-pleasers aimed at all strata of society in their day; they each took as their milieu a form of popular entertainment (music hall and boxing respectively); and since they were silent movies, shown here with bilingual intertitles, the language barrier that can often discourage locals from enjoying a wider range of entertainment was considerably lowered. But no, it was all skinny-jeaned hipsters and old farts who are starting to look more than a little like Hitch himself. The lady selling little packets of tissues outside the ladies wasn’t interested, nor were the people offering all manner of stuff in the foyer. (Is Bangkok the only place where a legitimate cinema can host a stall flogging bootleg DVDs?)

Of course, things are much healthier in the relatively classless West, aren’t they? Aren’t they? I came home to a Facebook post by my (virtual) chum the arts editor of a mid-market tabloid, wondering why people who make much noise about the need to have art that reaches out to the masses can’t be arsed to talk to her paper. And then there was this article by Mark Cousins in The Observer, complaining about the way that so many British arts venues — presumably inadvertently — conspire to make working-class people feel unwelcome. As he puts it: “But so often, their sleek lines, or facades that look like office buildings, their malbecs and chorizo-studded menus are too culturally thin.” Against this, of course, is what happens when art becomes too popular for its own good, as expressed in Rachel Donadio’s piece in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago: “People now swarm the paintings, step on anyone to get to them, push, shove, snap a photo, and move quickly on without looking at the painting,” says a Florence-based travel guide. When I first moved to London it was genuinely exciting to go to the Streatham Odeon and watch something like What’s Love Got To Do With It in the midst of an audience that was for the most part young, working-class and African-Caribbean as they bellowed abuse at Laurence Fishburne in the guise of Ike Turner. Would I have been so delighted if they’d followed me up the hill to the Ritzy and given the same treatment to a Peter Greenaway double bill? Cousins argues for fish finger sarnies alongside the chorizo but it’s not quite that straightforward, is it?

(Class is tied up with money, of course, but they aren’t the same thing. People with unlimited funds can also make the oddest cultural choices — like the Brazilian plutocrat who set about buying up pretty much every record ever released, although he isn’t quite sure why.)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Literally ironic, uniquely iconic

So, language changes. I get that. I use words differently from the way my parents did and they use them differently from their parents before them. They probably wouldn’t have begun a blog post with “so” for a start. And once upon a time “awful” meant inspiring reverential fear (so it’s weaker now, as well as more derogatory) and “decimated” meant losing a tenth of your forces (so it’s stronger now, if less precise) and if you used them like that today (which used to be hypenated – to-day) it wouldn’t simply be archaic, it would be downright wrong.

But – and I suspect that my grandparents, if not my parents, were taught never to begin a sentence with “but” – some changes grate. Loud and mighty was the outrage when dictionaries began to acknowledge that “literally” was frequently used to mean, well, “not literally”. It was unfair that the opprobrium was directed against the dictionaries, which rightly describe the way of the word rather than prescribe or proscribe but I did and do share the annoyance. For a start, there’s already a word meaning “not literally” and that’s “figuratively”. It’s different from “literally” because they mean different, opposite things. When I use a phrase and want to clarify that I don’t mean it to be taken literally, I’ll say “figuratively” and people will understand. But what if I want to ensure that what I say is to be taken at face value? If I say “literally” how many of the people will think I’m using the newer meaning and understand the precise opposite of what I intended? The shift has effectively made “literally” useless as a word because it ceases to have anything like a fixed meaning. Until things have settled down (probably at a point when the original meaning is relegated by the dictionaries to being a quaint archaism) it’s pretty much unusable. And if and when that does happen, we still don’t have a good word to mean that someone didn’t just make a social gaffe, he really did physically insert his foot into his mouth.

The change affecting “unique” is less of a problem as it’s more of a weakening than a complete reversal of meaning. I regularly see it being used to suggest “unusual” or “different” or “special” or “rare” and if this happens often enough, that’s what it will come to mean. But “unique” means something specific: there is only one of these things in existence. And again, if it’s diluted to mean that there aren’t very many of these things in existence, but maybe a bit more than one, what word do we use when we want to indicate that, no, there’s only one, and that’s your lot? The same goes for “ironic”, which now apparently means anything from “coincidental” to “a bit unusual”; and “iconic”, which means “something from a few years back that with the aid of a massive marketing budget and a bit of false consciousness we hope will acquire a historic resonance that it really doesn’t deserve”.

Change in language is good. It can expand our vocabularies, offering us ways to discuss concepts and things that we would previously have had difficulty addressing. But these particular changes, where a word’s meaning becomes blurred from something to pretty much anything, actually constrict language because when a word means anything, it means nothing. And for the time being, while we’re in this state of flux, I’ll refrain from using these four words. They’ve become meaningless.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Wikifibs, Jarvis cakes and the memorial scarecrows of Nagoro

Way back when blogging was still A Thing, I’d actually worry if I hadn’t posted in the past two or three days. Now it can slide to a week or more before I get an itch of guilt. Of course, in those olden days, if I couldn’t think of anything compelling enough to use as raw material I’d just put up a few links to stuff that had recently interested or amused me and then maybe top it off with an equally random YouTube clip and I’d feel a bit better.

Well, I haven’t posted anything for nearly a week and I feel not so much worry as a vague sense that if I don’t make use of this thing once in a while that it will atrophy and die like an inactive limb, or I’ll forget the password, whichever is the worse. So, without indulging in any further self-analysis, I offer up: an excoriating review of a project with which I was involved several lifetimes ago, which generously describes my own modest contribution as “entertainingly prissy”; musing on what it feels like to be the original for a fictional character (and I point once again to my own form in this area); the tale of a Wikipedia fib that took on a life of its own; Jarvis Cocker in cake form; a debate on whether the highbrow/lowbrow divide has any particular meaning any more; which leads in a roundabout way to the fact that the new Murakami novel will hit the shelves—digital or otherwise—in a matter of days; and from there, it seems to be a short hop to the Japanese woman who found a new way to replace absent friends.

Seems almost like old times.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A 21st-century desert island

The format of the radio programme Desert Island Discs has remained pretty much unchanged since it started over 70 years ago. The guest is asked to imagine that s/he will be stranded for an indeterminate period on a desert island and is allowed to take eight records, a book and a luxury item of no practical use. The only real element to have changed is that for most of its duration, it was assumed that the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare would already be there; now one can have an alternative religious text in place of the former.

That’s about it, though. Castaways are no longer told they would be provided with an unlimited supply of needles for the island’s (presumably wind-up) gramophone but the arrival of LPs and then CDs has barely been acknowledged: the selections are usually individual songs rather than whole albums, so one wonders how someone might physically be able to take, say, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band without bringing the rest of the record. Oddly, this didn’t apply to classical works, so a guest would be able to select Beethoven’s Ninth, not just the hummable bit at the end.

The whole idea now seems even more anachronistic as the very concept of records — as the show’s originator, Roy Plomley might have thought of them — is in danger. Nick Hornby subtly pointed out the daftness of the situation as long ago as 2003, when, in addition to his eight discs, he picked an iPod as his luxury, and Sue Lawley, the presenter at the time, had to explain to listeners what it was. I don’t know whether guests are discouraged from such smartarsery these days, but I can’t remember anyone pulling a similar stunt since.

Until today, that is, when the web scientist Wendy Hall made her choice of book: Wikipedia, loaded onto a (wi-fi disabled, for the sake of propriety) Kindle. In a desperate attempt to maintain the privileged sanctity of the codex, Kirsty Young said that such a thing could only be allowed if it were printed on paper. Hall sensibly pointed out that this would make negotiating the links between articles a chore, but ultimately accepted that DID is bigger than any one castaway. I suspect she’s raised a few uncomfortable questions in the production office, though. Sure, the format is based on a fantasy; but there’s a generation coming up for whom the rules and restrictions of the programme are genuinely unimaginable.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

So, Jeremy, which Tory are you today?

I know it’s late in the day but I only watched The Iron Lady for the first time last night. The delay was down to a number of factors, not least that the film was written by a university contemporary of mine. (She was perfectly nice as far as I recall, but why let that get in the way of a bout of childish, self-pitying jealousy?) It was also one of those films that I sort of assumed I’d already actually seen, partly because of the way the various Thatcher-related productions released over the past decade or so seem to blend into each other. One reason for this is so many actors seem to pop up in more than one film, albeit in different roles. The honours in this regard would seem to go to Michael Cochrane, whose small role in The Iron Lady follows his efforts as Alan Clark in Margaret, Waldron Smithers in Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley and Nicholas Ridley in The Falklands Play. Nicholas Jones takes on Admiral Lewin in the Iron Lady, Tim Renton in Margaret and Peter Morrison in The Alan Clark Diaries); while Jeremy Child is Francis Pym in The Falklands Play, with minor roles in The Iron Lady and The Long Walk; John Sessions plays Edward Heath in The Iron Lady and Geoffrey Howe in Margaret; Roger Allam is the image consultant Gordon Reece in The Iron Lady and John Wakeham in Margaret; and Jeremy Clyde, Julian Firth, James Fox, Robert Hardy, Philip Jackson, Rupert Vansittart and Julian Wadham each crops up in at least two of the five productions. Thatcherism seems to have spawned its own Carry On gang.

Two thoughts on all these Jeremies and Julians. First, that it reminds me of a student production of Ubu Roi that I once saw, when in an effort to give all the actors a chance to show off their versatility, everyone had a crack at playing Ubu himself during the show, with the other roles also being swapped around to accommodate the effort. This is of course an imperfect analogy as the role of the former PM herself is always played by a different performer but the notion of the Blessed Margaret as a bulbous, self-obsessed, foul-mouthed psychopath has a certain piquancy.

The other is that despite all the glory, laud and honour bestowed upon Thatcher for supposedly changing the shape of British society, there do seem to be certain jobs reserved for a very small pool of middle-class, middle-aged white men who look plausible in grey suits; and that doesn’t just apply to politics.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tracey and Guy and puffballs and me

When I first dipped a digit into social media (as I’m sure we didn’t call it at the time), it was in the form of Friends Reunited, a site designed to help you get in touch with friends and enemies from your past schools, colleges and similar places of incarceration. Each entry had a space to list personal interests and I couldn’t help noticing how many of my contemporaries, asked to identify their favourite music, put “Eighties”.

Well, what the hell does that mean? I can understand someone who wasn’t born at the time investigating the music of the decade as a sort of semiotic archaeologist, just as I bought so-called Sixties compilations as a means of getting my head round the Standells and the Shangri-Las and the Swingle Singers. But these were people who’d lived through the whole 10 years as sentient beings, from post-punk and 2-Tone to acid house and Madchester with all manner of ghastly wrong turns in between. How could they have simply packaged up all the various musics that soundtracked their — damn it, our — growing up into a neat, one-word manifestation of decaditis?

Of course, as Tracey Thorn argues in her recent article in the New Statesman, “Eighties” doesn’t actually mean everything recorded during those 10 years:
Now, personally I wouldn’t mind going to an Eighties disco, all Smiths records and “Coal Not Dole” badges, Go-Betweens B-sides and Red Wedge banners. What’s that you say? You don’t think that’s what it would be like? No, you’re probably right. That was my Eighties, maybe yours, too, but it’s not the official version of the decade, is it? The official version is – yawn – spandex leggings and Duran Duran, puffball skirts and mullets, shoulder pads, Dynasty, yuppies and Tories, Tories, Tories.
Of course, this is all about dominant discourses and cultural hegemonies and, as Thorn says, history getting written by the winners. And it doesn’t really matter whether you lived through a period or not: I’ve written elsewhere about the time I was gently informed that my 1960s were the wrong flavour, or something. And my own 1980s, for example, would involve rather more of Ms Thorn’s work (especially from the early years when she was on Cherry Red records with Everything the Girl and the Marine Girls and as a solo act and probably hovering in the background elsewhere) than would crop up in the puffball version she describes. A 1990s disco programmed by the winners might well include her global smash hit ‘Missing’ but not if I had a say in it; and anyway, as I’ve also argued, the 1990s was the first decade that resisted such a simplistic approach.

It was probably thinking on such lines that brought the House of Love to mind. They’re one of the bands that seems to fall off my personal radar every few years, then leap back with a jolt. I like them for a number of reasons: because they sounded a bit like the Velvets and the Bunnymen and the Jesus and Mary Chain; because the singer, Guy Chadwick, had magnificent cheekbones; because they came up with weird lines like “your face is a foreign food”; because in the face of the Roses and Monday et al they steadfastly denied that there’d ever been a dance element to their music; because the released three separate albums all called The House of Love; and above all because of a gig in the last month of the 1980s, just a few days after they’d fired their guitarist, when they played with the focused intensity of a jilted lover who just has to do this to keep from dissolving into tears. In my memory they only performed for about 25 minutes and left the audience stumbling around as if it had been mugged by plectrums and pain. Someone somewhere can probably disabuse me but I hope they don’t. It was my 1980s and it was my gig.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fun With Asian Nazis

Probably foolishly, I’ve started a new Tumblr. It’s called Fun With Asian Nazis and it’s about the complex relationship some Asian people have with the trappings and/or ideology of the Third Reich — the sort of thing I covered in this post last year. If you have any relevant nuggets to share (especially from countries other than Thailand and Japan, for which I have a wealth of material) please give me a shout.