Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book review: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Bifurcation.  Infinite division.

In the end, that is the key to Haruki Murakami's 1991 novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

The novel is the story of an unnamed narrator who has been specially-trained to sort and encrypt data using his subconscious mind.  But, at the same time, it is the story of the same unnamed narrator transported to a strange other-world governed by laws he cannot understand and from which he cannot escape. In Hard-boiled Wonderland, the narrator must contend with Japanese gangsters, enigmatic lovers, and a certain mad scientist.  In the End of the World, he must fight to save his dying shadow and adapt to a universe where time and identity are meaningless.

Murakami maintains these two running narratives throughout the novel.  The two story lines approach but never converge.  Murakami writes with sarcastic humor and a pervading fatalism.

Reviewers point out that the Hard-boiled Wonderland narrative recalls the work of Raymond Chandler, an American detective-story writer, while The End of the World has a Kafka-esque flavor to it.  I haven't read any Chandler so I can't comment on the former comparison, but I'm familiar with some of Kafka's work (In the Penal Colony, The Metamorphosis).  And, indeed, the pessimism and recognition of futility in The End of the World narrative did recall Kafka's hopeless self-loathing.

The novel is a translation, and as with all translations, there is much that is unfathomable to readers not fluent in Japanese. Translating words and sentences is possible.  Translating culture, zeitgeist, or morality, less so.  Nonetheless, my book club was unanimous in declaring the novel "good."

In a key passage, the mad scientist reveals how the narrator's mind has been altered to divide time into infinitely shorter units, creating the perception of infinity.  As the narrator arrives at the dual climaxes of the novel, he realizes how this alteration has affected his life, his universe.  Think of a trigonometric function:  an equation in which a curve approaches but does not equal 0. 

If you like neatly-wrapped endings, this might not be your book.

Infinity doesn't work that way.  

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