Trying to make sense of the new collection of stories by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, I asked the question: What is the most important thing? Previously, I had discussed what, in general, the book is about. Murakami is such an important author that the time spent on analyzing his latest book in greater depth than usual is well warranted.
Nothing is as it seems – So what is the most important thing?
My next question is: What is the most important thing in the book? It is difficult to answer since the stories in the collection change from realism to Surrealism as they progress. Each story contains an early foreshadowing statement indicating that such a twist will happen. But how do you tell what is important if something may or may nor be real, and may or may not matter? Moreover, how do you tell what the most important thing is, if you cannot figure out what is critical to the characters?
The establishment of the fulcrum, or pivotal, critical point in a narrative is to to make the things that happen to the characters life-threatening or extremely serious. The events depicted in these stories are not what I’d call critical. Nothing bad actually happens to the narrator himself, they happen to people around him – and even then related via a third party.
Also, the events are strange in an abstract, not visceral, way. Typically, every story is at first just an ordinary retelling of an event, which then becomes weird and mysterious. Afterwards the narrator reminisces and tries to make sense of it, often wondering whether he had been dreaming:
“Once again, I was confused. It felt like bits of reality and unreality were randomly changing places. But I had definitely shared two large bottles of Sapporo beer with the monkey as I listened to his life story.”
First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami, p. 151, Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey
These Surrealist scenarios, if they are that, are in all the stories, sometimes straightforward or overt, like in the talking, philosophizing, identity-stealing, bath-attendant monkey in Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey. And sometimes it is subtle, almost – but not quite – normal, like in the opening story Cream.
Sometimes the strangeness happens in a normal day, and is just one odd event, for instance when the author reads the story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa called Spinning Gears, out loud to the brother of his girlfriend. The brother turns out to have periods where he loses his memory – and the Spinning Gears story creepily foreshadows the life of the narrator’s girlfriend. (You can read the depressing background to Spinning Gears and its author here.)
Other times, the whole story is a dream sequence or a hallucination, for instance First Person Singular – for which the collection is named. Judging by the ending of this story it seems that the narrator has been in some kind of alternate reality all along. Or has he? Is his “normal” life, described at the start, the hallucination, while the final scene is reality? Or does he have a Doppelgänger and lives in two worlds at the same time? In which case he is not a first person singular, but a second or third person plural.
A mixture of references and themes
These elements are so distinctive that Surrealism becomes a very important thing in the stories – the idea that subconscious desires and emotions can change reality, can change the outcomes of people’s lives, and that reality may be nothing but a dream, a mistake in perception.
However, what this does is make it more difficult to decide what the most important thing is in the stories – if you go beyond the obvious, namely the Surreal elements.
Just as the stories contain elements of both realism and Surrealism, the language in First Person Singular is a mixture of informal and slangy, and formal English, and modern and classical cultural references. Also, each story has a specific, single concept at its core – memory loss, identity theft, memories, faith, etc., whereas common themes, such as unrealized potential and music, can be found in most of the stories. Some of the individual concepts are only mentioned briefly, but are actually quite complicated. It is therefore quite hard to pick out a particular concept or idea which is most important.
An example of this is the idea of “a circle with many centres and no circumference”, in the first story, Cream. It sounds simple, but refers to an important statement, loaded with meaning, which has been used in the writing of, amongst others, the French philosophers Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) and Blaise Pascal. This statement means that “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” (In French: “Dieu est un cercle dont le centre est partout et la circonférence nulle part.”)
“God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”
“Dieu est un cercle dont le centre est partout et la circonférence nulle part.”
Used in Cream, in First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami
(Photo by Sebastian Voortman on Pexels.com)
Voltaire and Pascal used this statement with its ancient origins in their discourses, but it is attributed to a much earlier age, to the Ancient Greeks. They used it somewhat differently than the French philosophers, to explain their ideas of how the world works, and using it as a basis for their understanding of religious beliefs. Murakami assumed that readers would understand this theistic statement and be able to connect it with the meaning of the story. I, for one, had to look it up first.
The most important thing
So, while there are interesting and varied themes in the stories, I think the most important one is related to the persona of the author and is also the basis for the best written, most convincing story in the collection. I think that it is the transformative, universal power of music.
The essential, core, critical idea is in the story that, in my opinion, best displays Murakami’s refined skills and talent as a world-class author, namely Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova. In this story, Murakami’s tone becomes more serious, without the irritating, pervasive teenage slang used in the other stories. The expressions he uses are more lyrical and evocative, the tone is more consistent, and overall the writing is more like one would expect from an award-winning author.
Part of the appeal of Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova is that the protagonist is caught in a deep desire for something he cannot have.
Neil Gaiman believes that a writer can only successfully depict a character, if what the character wants is something that comes from within the writer themselves, and if what the character wants, conflicts with what the other characters want. This gives a story a plot, a voice, and the conflict necessary for a satisfying resolution. (Incidentally, it illustrates the Buddhist belief that suffering is caused by, amongst other things, desire.)
In Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova, the narrator has severe and chronic nostalgia for something he has wanted since he was a young student, and this results in his desire for something impossible: He wants, passionately, that Charlie Parker, the real life, famous American jazz saxophonist, had recorded him playing his sax bossa nova-style, before he died. But Parker had not done this. (That’s a historical fact.) The narrator expresses this desire by describing and writing a review of this non-existing album while at university:
“And once that performance of the piano theme is over, Bird’s alto sax quietly enters, a faint twilight shadow slipping through a gap in the curtain. He’s there, before you even realize it. These graceful, seamless phrases are like lovely memories, their names hidden, slipping into your dreams. Like fine wind patterns you never want to disappear, leaving gentle traces on the sand dunes of your heart…”
First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami, p. 61, Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova (Photo of Charlie Parker, from Wikipedia)
To put this impossibility into perspective: Charles (Charlie) Parker Jr. (August 29, 1920 to March 12, 1955), and was nicknamed “Bird” and “Yardbird”. He was a classical jazz saxophonist, and a genius at improvisation. Bossa nova, on the other hand, is almost the opposite of the jazz that Charlie Parker would have played. It is Brazilian dance music that developed from a combination of Brazilian samba music and cool jazz, which is modern, more relaxed, slower, more formally structured (less improvisation) and less syncopated than classical jazz – since it is meant to be danced to. “Bird” was a master of improvisation on the sax; he could hold a note as if he had the breath of twenty men, not just one, and he could make that sax talk, cry, croon, shout in an almost human manner. Just listen to this recording from 1942:
The narrator wants something that would have been impossible in Charlie Parker’s time, since bossa nova developed after jazz and after Parker had died. Therein lies the conflict and the resolution of the story. He wants what he cannot have.
His desire for this music turns it into something real. His “dream” of wanting to hear and buy the album becomes a night-time dream about Charlie Parker, and then this imaginary album turns up in a record shop. Or perhaps his mind is playing tricks on him. But remember that desire leads to suffering. That’s why the cover of the book is such a teaser – who desires what? Is it just the protagonist who wants this, or is it also the dream of the author?
I feel that this iteration of the narrator is the most convincing and authentic of all the narrators in the eight stories, because Murakami’s fervour comes through so clearly in descriptions of music (rather than, for instance, romance or baseball), whether it is hits from the Beatles, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 1, songs from The Sound of Music, the Theme from A Summer Place or Robert Schumann’s solo piano composition Carnaval, Op. 9. It shows in his language, which becomes poetic, evocative, sensual, and specific – even if it is about a fictional recording:
“I’d like you to start by listening to the first track on the A side, ‘Corcovado.’ Bird doesn’t play the opening theme. In fact, he doesn’t take up the theme until one phrase at the end. The piece starts with Carlos Jobim quietly playing that familiar theme alone on the piano. The rhythm section is simply mute. The melody calls to mind a young girl seated at a window, gazing out at the beautiful night sky. Most of it is done with single notes, with the occasional no-frills chords added. As if gently tucking a soft cushion under the girl’s shoulders.”
First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami, p. 61, Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova
Photo by Masha Raymers on Pexels.com
Now doesn’t sound just like the narrator is in love with this music? All this tenderness, sweetness, and fragility in the depiction of one song. Yes, absolutely, music is critical in this book, and in these paragraphs Murakami proves it. Even I want to now hear that song! It sounds simply gorgeous.
Music: character, theme and catalyst
Music, the most important thing, functions as a character, a theme, and a catalyst in this particular story, in the collection as a whole, and in Murakami’s other works of fiction as well.
When Murakami gives a piece of music the attributes of a character, he uses both real and fictional recordings from a wide variety of genres, for instance: a jazz instrumental – an imaginary composition by Charlie Parker called “Corcovado” in Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova; a pop song – like in his novel Norwegian Wood; or a selection from an opera – like in his novel Killing Commendatore, specifically W.A. Mozart’s opera buffo “Don Giovanni”, Act 1, Scene 1.
Music as a character is pervasive, its every aspect is rich with meaning, it is a voice which speaks to the other characters, it dominates their thoughts, and it influences their emotions.
Music is also a theme running through the collection, for instance the lurking spectres and evil spirits hinted at in Schumann’s mostly cheerful Carnaval which is echoed in the dark undertone and ending of the story Carnaval.
And finally, Murakami uses specific pieces of music as catalysts. For example, whether or not, and when, a woman chooses Carnaval as her favourite composition, or proves that she has the same taste in music as he does, determines whether or not the narrator will date her. Often the narrator remembers a place or a time mostly by what he was listening to – the soundtrack of his life. In these instances music is what Neil Gaiman calls a “funny hat” – something exclusive and idiosyncratic that distinguishes a character or a situation.
Inspiration for fan creations
I found out after reading the book that other readers had wished that there really existed an album called Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova – it sounded so irresistible. I could almost hear it in my head from Murakami’s descriptions. And what an inspired subject for a story it was – what an unusual confluence of eras and art forms. The unlikeliness of the dead Charlie Parker playing bossa nova tunes on his sax, because someone wished him back into existence, makes this story impactful.
At least one reader, Miłosz Konarski, has written and recorded their own version of this imaginary album since the book was published: it is called Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova (What If). Konarski composed the music and it is performed by Wojtek Rejdych.
The track list is not the same as in the short story but the musical genre is the same. It is really good. The album might be fictional in the book, but Konarski’s version is real, professional and very accomplished. I think it sounds like Murakami imagined it could be – that sexy, smooth sax blending into the slow, fluid bossa nova rhythm, which makes your hips swing and your feet tap.
(Above) “Charlie Parker plays Bossa Nova (What If) is an attempt to answer Haruki Murakami’s question: how would Charlie Parker have sounded had he not died in 1955, but after several years of recovery, returned to playing the saxophone and, in 1963, when bossa nova was popular, released a bossa nova album?” – Miłosz Konarski
(Music by Miłosz Konarski; performed by Wojtek Rejdych; album recorded at Konarscy Factory Studio, Kraków, 20.01 – 4.03 2021; sound engineer: Igor Stanuch; mix and mastering: Radek Tadel)
In the next post: A final question about First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami