Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
by Haruki Murakami
English translation by Alfred Birnbaum
Published in 1991 (Japanese); 1993 (English)
Published by Vintage Books
ISBN: 0-679-74346-4

The Hard-Boiled Wonderland: Our protagonist is a Calcutec. He has been trained to use his subconscious mind for encryption of sensitive information. The bad guys are called Semiotecs. They are criminals who deal in stolen information for profit. The setting is a slightly surrealistic Tokyo. The plot is set in motion by the protagonist's meeting with an eccentric elderly scientist with an underground lair, and his oddball granddaughter.

The End of the World: Our protagonist arrives in the city and takes up work as a Dreamreader. He is separated from his shadow, which is put to work and will eventually die. The city is home to a herd of unicorns. Our protagonist starts work reading dreams in the library.

Confused? Don't be. Haruki Murakami shows us through the startlingly well-formed world of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland in the odd-numbered chapters. He never quite gives us enough exposition for us to be certain of the contours and rules of this world, and yet he relates our nameless protagonist's story with enough confidence that I assumed for a while that this novel took place in a universe Murakami had established in earlier books. (It doesn't.)

And in the generally shorter even-numbered End of the World chapters, the nameless protagonist (presumably the same man as the hero of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters, although it's a while before we find out for sure), devoid of memory or knowledge of why he has come to the City at the End of the World, develops a regular everyday routine in his new surroundings.

I've been aware of Murakami's name for some time, but this is the first time I've read his work, or experienced this particular sort of surrealism. The protagonist of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland has lived something of a humdrum existence, despite his unusual occupation, and as the plot progresses he sees his life torn to pieces. But Murakami keeps us at an emotional distance; I felt intellectually engaged, but never really cared much what happened to him or the other (equally nameless) main characters, or how much worse his life was going to get.

Instead, it was in the far more fantastical End of the World chapters, in the world of furry unicorns and shadows that can talk, where I felt much more emotionally interested in what was going to happen. Somehow Murakami manages to make the novel work as a unitary entity, even in the early chapters, before the reader has a clue how the two settings are going to be connected.

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