Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Unbearable Lightness of Memory

Late last week I received Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Beach and hope to post a review on the main Three Monkeys site in due course. When I was reflecting on how much I like Murakami’s work, I tried to remember what it was about my first encounter with his writing–reading the incredible Wind-up Bird Chronicle in 1999–that so struck me. I discovered that when I tried to rifle through my memory for what the book was actually about, I could retrieve only a few disconnected episodes–the protagonist cooking pasta while listening to opera (is that accurate?), the protagonist then sitting at the bottom of a well for days, some exchanges with a wise-cracking teenage girl, a Russian secret policeman being skinned in Manchuria, and that’s about it. The story as a whole–its direction, the state of relationships with the characters, and how it ends now remain lost in the fog. The website Complete Review reported that one of the reasons that the plotting of the book may seem somewhat opaque to Occidental readers is that the American publishers demanded an abridged translation (see here for more). You could claim that Murakami’s work is peculiarly oneiric, and, like a dream, its substance dissolves almost as soon as you surface in the ‘real’ world. Yet I wonder if this example of literary amnesia is actually a widespread trait, shared among diverse books that apparently engulfed our attention at the time. On the 20th anniversary of the publication in the West of Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, author John Banville fessed up to a similar vagueness about the actual content:’…I realised that, true to its title, the book had floated out of my mind like a hot-air balloon come adrift from its tethers. I managed to retrieve a few fragments – the naked woman in the bowler hat whom we all remember, the death of a pet dog, a lavatory seat compared to a white water lily rising out of the bathroom floor, and the fact that Nietzsche’s name appears in the first line on the first page – but of the characters I retained nothing at all, not even their names.’I can think of similar landmark books of which I retain only vestigial memories: A Hundred Years of Solitude (the ascension of the girl into heaven–classic magical realism), Gravity’s Rainbow (Slothrop transformed into a Pig–an antic stolen by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, although I suppose Pynchon wasn’t the first creator to turn his characters into swine), or The Tin Drum (the rotting horse’s head on the beach and, of course, the tin drum-dwarf combo).Rather than being an indicator that these works are perhaps not all they’re cut out to be (as Banville suggests), the inability to recall such books in great detail might actually be one of the most compelling signs of their greatness. They lodge one or two brilliant images in your mind, and then, like Banville’s hot-air balloon, float away, evading boring captivity. I have my doubts about Gravity’s Rainbow, however.