Book Review: “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami

The mechanical cry of the wind-up bird that the book’s hero sporadically hears is the sound of history winding its spring.

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

Toru, our protagonist,  meets a series of curious people: May Kasahara, a troubled teenager who feels responsible for her boyfriend’s death in a motorcycle accident; Malta Kano, a psychic who makes prophecies about Toru’s missing cat; Malta’s sister, Creta, who claims that she was raped by Kumiko’s brother, Noboru Wataya; Lieutenant Mamiya, a soldier who says he witnessed a man being skinned alive in Manchuria; Nutmeg Akasaka, a mysterious healer whose husband was violently murdered; and Nutmeg’s son, Cinnamon, a sharp dressed young man who stopped talking he was a boy.

May Kasahara is wise beyond her years, she works in a wig-making factory and observes: “…all I do here is work that my bosses tell me to do the way they tel me to do it. I don’t have to think at all. It’s like I just put my brain in a locker before I start work and pick it up on my way home.” How many of us have had similarly mind-numbing jobs?

This book reminds me of others, in “Kafka on the Shore” the protagonist is also hunting for a missing cat, which leads him to a whole series of adventures. One of the most memorable parts of the book is with the protagonist at the bottom of a well, which feels very Kafkaesque as he is gripped by an inertia and can’t do anything to save himself. In Pamuk’s “My Name is Red” the action begins at the bottom of a well with a murder victim recounting his story.

“One cannot look directly at one’s own face with one’s own eyes, for example. One has no choice but to look at one’s reflection in the mirror. Through experience, we come to believe that the image is correct, but that is all. (p 282)”

Murakami’s novels are all rather strange with elements of magic realism. There are also a few scenes of graphic violence, a man is skinned alive in Manchuria and soldiers are taught how to kill someone with a bayonet. The story begins as a hunt for a cat but then goes to some strange places in space and time.  Lieutenant Mamiya’s tale of an operation behind enemy lines in Manchuria during WW2, which goes dreadfully wrong and the lieutenant’s incarceration in the Soviet gulag, saved from almost certain death by his ability to speak Russian are particularly memorable. There are a couple of Georgian connections, Beria, Stalin’s infamous henchman sets the quotas for the Siberian coal mines where many POWs are driven to death. There is also the time the carnivorous animals in the zoo are shot as the Japanese retreat, this reminds me of the shooting of the wolves, lions and tigers, who escaped from Tbilisi Zoo in 2013 (Tbilisi Zoo floods and shooting).

The petrolhead in me takes issue with a factual mistake in the narrative. Creta Kano tells us of her suicide attempt “I went to my brother’s room and asked to borrow his car. It was a shiny new Toyota MR2,”. (p95)
That was six years ago, in May of 1978.” (p97)
Interestingly the Toyota MR2 wasn’t produced until 1984…

 

wind up bird

In an interview with David Pilling, Murakami described his writing process: “There’s a basement, but below that you have an inner basement beyond a secret door. It’s dark, completely dark down there. It’s a maze and a labyrinth, but if you are trained, you can come back to the surface. That’s what I do when I am writing.” When we pick up a Murakami novel, we too are taken into the labyrinth.

My rating 4 out of 5 Some of the novel was excellent but other parts felt like filler. The scenes at the bottom of the well were for me the highlights.

 

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Nine years in Georgia: the good and the bad.

Every September, I reflect on moving to Georgia, the country not the US state (it needs qualifying every time). I am often asked do I like Georgia? Well, my answer is “Yes and no”. Some things I like, some I don’t (as with any country, there will be the inevitable few, who will say the tired “if you don’t like it go back to where you came from!“). I’ve been here 9 years now, on balance I’d say I’m happy here and have no plans to move. This inevitably will be a very personal viewpoint, I realise others will have different likes and dislikes.

So let’s look at those likes and dislikes in more detail:

I love the fantastic light. Lots of clear sunny days make for good photos. Coming from England, where sunny days are rarer, this is a great blessing.

Light

light in the stairwell
light in the stairwell of our old block in Varketili

Mountains

The mountains are spectacular, some are higher than any in the Alps (Mont Blanc is 4810m, Mount Shkhara in Svaneti is 5193m). As a drawcard, I think this is what can really attract tourists to Georgia.

Khevsureti
Khevsureti mountain scenery

Women

I might get into trouble for the next observation; but I find Georgian women are very pleasing on the eye, strangely many Georgian men seem to fantasize about Ukrainian women.

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Georgian model in Old Tbilisi

Georgian Cuisine

Georgians rave about their cuisine, one list places Georgian Cuisine as 4th out of 48 European Cuisines ranked behind only Italy, France and Spain. I am not so impressed and miss English roast dinners and puddings (UK cuisine was ranked 13th) . I don’t really like khachapuri, their signature dish, a cheese filled pastry, I find it too salty. Georgian meals are important events and most birthdays and holidays are marked with a feast or “supra”. Georgians are also proud of their wine and claim to have been the nation which invented wine back in the mists of time, some 8 000 years ago, a claim for which there is substantial archaeological support in the region. Georgian Wine

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churchkhela (walnuts in a grape jelly)

The Georgian Language

The language is a real nightmare for me, using a different alphabet and having long words with tricky consonant clusters. I lived in France for six years and can get by reasonably well in French, but Georgian is a different story. I explore this in a separate blog :  The Georgian Language is one of the most Difficult to Learn detailing my travails with the language.

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Georgian signs

Rubbish

One thing that saddens me is despite the Georgians singing so much that they are proud of their country, so many of them litter with abandon.

rubbish
Litter near the roadside

Cars

I’m crazy about cars, though strangely I don’t drive here (see traffic later in the post). I love seeing the old Soviet cars around.

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Can you see three Moskvitches in this Tbilisi street?

Work

I can work here quite easily as an English teacher, many people want to learn English and there are not a lot of native English speakers. I have taught English since 1994, first in France, then England and now Georgia. The cost of living is relatively cheap, particularly public transport and accommodation, which are much cheaper in Tbilisi than in London, but wages are also much lower.

Safety

Tbilisi feels a safe city, I have had no troubles, apparently it hasn’t always been like this, in the 1990s there was a lot of street crime. Walking around late at night in an English city on a Friday or Saturday night is more intimidating than walking around Tbilisi at night.

Public Transport

The public transport, though cheap can be very overcrowded.

on the bus blog
on the bus

Traffic

The traffic is scary at times, the drivers have little respect for pedestrians and won’t stop just because you are at a pedestrian crossing. When asked by Georgians what I don’t like I usually say “the traffic !” and they nod in agreement, though apparently it is even worse in Iran.

crossing by Drybridge Market
there is no guarantee cars will stop for pedestrians on a crossing

Religion

Religion is important here, despite the Bolsheviks trying to stamp out religion in the past, there are many new churches and most Georgians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. I have been baptised into the Orthodox church but I find their intolerance of other denominations rather un-Christian. My wife is quite devout and prays twice a day, every day.

metekhi church
Metekhi Church

Smoking

Smoking is very common here, it is cheap and many smokers seem oblivious to those around them, it pains me to see people smoking around children.

smoking and kids
Do they have to smoke around a young child?

Biltmore Hotel

The newly built Biltmore Hotel doesn’t fit in with the Tbilisi City Scape, there are many other examples of modern architecture at odds with the city skyline but the Biltmore really stands out like a sore thumb.

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Biltmore Hotel…

There are many other positives and negatives, maybe I will expand this post next September as I celebrate a decade in Georgia. Please add your thoughts in the comments.

Heidegger and Cemeteries

heidegger cemeteries

We have forgotten to notice we’re alive.

We know it in theory, of course, but we aren’t really in touch with the sheer mystery of existence, the mystery of what Heidegger called ‘das Sein’ or ‘Being’.

Martin Heidegger was a 20th Century German philosopher, following a lecture, in 1961, Heidegger was asked how we might recover authenticity, he replied that we should simply aim to spend more time ‘in graveyards’.

I used to have a student who lived near Vake Cemetery and if I arrived early, I would wander about the cemetery, taking photos and reflecting on my own mortality. Georgian graveyards are different to British graveyards, many of the gravestones have photos etched into the stone of the deceased person. Many of the deceased lived for less time than I have.

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She died young

At 53, I am acutely aware that I am nearer death than birth (I won’t live to 107+). Heidegger like Kafka and Murakami highlighted  the uncanny strangeness of everything, wondering why things exist as they do.

For Heidegger, the modern world is an infernal machine dedicated to distracting us from the basic wondrous nature of Being. It overwhelms us with information, it kills silence, it distracts us– partly because realising the mystery of Being has its frightening dimensions. What we’re really running away from is a confrontation with ‘das Nichts’ (The Nothing), which lies on the other side of Being.

heidegger cemeteries 3.JPG

The Nothing is everywhere, it stalks us and it will swallow us up eventually, it’s only when we realise that other people cannot save us from ‘das Nichts’ that we’re likely to stop living for them; to stop worrying so much about what others think.

Two years ago, my mother died, I posted about the experience at the time: Between Funerals. When our parents die, we realise we’ll probably be next. Sometimes I believe in an afterlife, sometimes I think there is just nothing. Wandering around a cemetery, I realise I am alive but at any moment such being may cease.

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Jikia Cemetery

Book Review “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle

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A Year in Provence

This is a famous book, it tells of an Englishman who fell in love with Provence and moved to a small village in Luberon. As the title suggests; the book covers a year from January to December.

The Luberon sounded different in spring. Birds who had been ducking all winter came out of hiding now the hunters were gone, and their song replaced gunfire.

Mayle moved to France in the late eighties. The book is a drily amusing look at getting an old farmhouse renovated, when the French workers have a “mañanamañana” attitude, a sharp contrast to the anglo-saxon work ethic. Each month has its own essence, the cold Mistral blows through the pages, making its presence felt, especially in the winter and spring months. The locals are colourfully painted with their tall tales of how to cook fox. The book will appeal to foodies with Provençal dishes lovingly described from the aperitif to make a trou (hole) in the stomach, to the last sliver of bread to mop up the  dregs of olive oil at the end.

The whining about the slow pace of the renovations, I found a little tedious and I’m no gastronome. If I want culinary inspiration, I go to the YouTube channel Laura in the Kitchen, where a personable Italian-American shows how to make delicious food simply and quickly.

My six years in France (1991 to 1997) were spent mostly in Brie (just east of Paris) with the final six months in Corsica, which was heavenly if you didn’t have to work for a living. Unlike Peter Mayle, I was in no position to play Lord of the Manor, I had no minions working in my vineyard. The book was a bestseller and inspired many affluent middle class Brits to invest in French property.

My rating : three out of five