My current reading of this book is an entirely political one. It starts with an invocation of November 25, 1970, the day of Mishima’s death in a blaze, or a squib, of right-wing glory; the I, though, barely registers this in the background of the day, so intent is he on getting laid, there in his disillusionment in the aftermath of the death of the student movement. This is all by way of describing his relationship with a girl who, in the present moment of 1978, has just died; so once again I’s story seems like it’s going to revolve around his college loves (although how this one fits in with the ones in the first two books is a bit unclear – timeline-wise he would have had to be hooking up with this girl just as he was getting hooked on pinball – unlikely – if you’re getting laid, why would you waste time on pinball?). But: this is the last we hear of her. Instead, this whole prologue is there just to prime us to be thinking about the connection between post-Movement disillusionment and fascism.
Now, dig what the sheep is after. It’s only described in the vaguest way, but it’s always expressed in terms of a dissolution of self into something of great and impersonal glory – “consciousness, values, emotions, pain, everything. Gone” (Vol. 2, p. 204). Not specifically a nationalist thing, but definitely in line with the strength-through-unity ideal at the heart of fascism – losing yourself in something greater than yourself. Surrender. And of course the way the sheep’s will has manifested itself in 20th century Japan is right-wing politics, fascism, secret control of the levers of power both political and economic.
Specifically, the sheep has been inhabiting/controlling/constituting a Sasakawa Ryōichi-type figure, a kuromaku at the head of a vast conspiracy that controls Japanese politics and business, and the very flow of information, and that has clear ties to prewar and wartime right-wing ideology. Now the Boss is dying and the sheep has jumped to a new host, the Rat. And the Boss’s secretary is trying to ensure that the Rat comes out of hiding and joins the organization – he’s the perfect person to be the new head.
Now think about that: what makes him perfect? We’ve never seen the Rat have particularly right-wing ideas before this. In fact, he seems resolutely apolitical – disillusioned, we might well imagine, by the same things that disillusion I. I and the Rat have always been kind of mirror images of each other, and in Pinball it was the Rat’s epic melancholy that, by association, helped us realize just how much pain and misery was lurking beneath the surface of I’s cool façade. This, coupled with Rat’s confession at the end of this book, helps us see what set the Rat up to be a likely candidate for right-wing kuromaku. He’s rich, but all his wealth has never bought him anything but the leisure to truly appreciate how meaningless life is. He was probably inspired by the student movement in 1969, but as it collapsed he was left bitter and aimless, drinking his way through an endless succession of half-hearted affairs. He thinks the answer lies within himself, so he tries to become a writer, and then embarks on a kind of journey of self-exploration, wandering from town to town. But this doesn’t make things any better. He’s searching, but hasn’t found anything. A perfect specimen of late ‘70s Boomer malaise in Japan.
There’s one more factor: the Rat talks about his weakness, his uncommon, abnormal, almost superhuman weakness. But as I notes, we’re all weak. The Rat maintains that he was uniquely susceptible to the sheep, but maybe I is not so sure.
In short, I think what Murakami’s doing here is saying that the ennui he detailed so perfectly in his first two books has a sinister potential: it leaves his generation open to the temptations presented by fascism. The Rat is tempted. Is I tempted? No, but maybe just because he’s lucky: he and the Rat are a lot alike. And in the end if I doesn’t quite share the Rat’s weakness, still he may be close enough.
What leads the Rat to heroism, to rejecting the sheep and ensuring its destruction? His attachment to his weakness: his attachment to his own atomized oversensitive self. And that, by implication, is something that I has embraced all along. He’s never been happy, but he’s always been extremely determined to live by his own code, to guard his own pleasures. Maybe he is strong. And maybe, in that way, he’s suggesting that desire, while perhaps something that can blind us and let us play into the hands of the conspirators, can also be a site of resistance to their blandishments. He is resolute in his refusal to be folded into something larger than himself, and while that’s ego, it might also be wisdom.
It’s a very political book, I think. Contrary to what certain of Murakami’s early critics thought in the ‘80s when they were dismissing him as a non-thinking novelist.
Other things I noticed this time through that I couldn’t have before.
The end is a gloss on (the book version) of The Shining. Isolated mountain house (not hotel), where the hero is faced with the prospect of being snowed in all winter with ghosts. Evil spirit lurking there (for decades), trying to possess just the right visitor. Blowing up the house being the only way to definitively kill the evil.
The first half is more hardboiled than the second half: the Raymond Chandlerisms drop off once we get to Hokkaido. Interesting in light of what Rubin reveals about (a) the way Murakami made the book up as he went along, and (b) the way his research trip to Hokkaido resulted in his embrace of a healthier lifestyle.
The fact that the surreal turn here is new in the novel series, and clearly the result of experiments in the intervening short stories.
The suggestion that the ex-wife here is the secretary from Pinball.
The difficulties in fitting all the 1969-1970 details from the three books together. Clearly they’re meant to be about the same people, but it might be forcing it to try to make a single coherent narrative out of them. Maybe the details don’t quite square. If so, then my reading of Pinball might be on shaky ground.
Still, as a single narrative it really does take on great symbolic power as a portrait of a generation, seen through the eyes of a defiant individualist. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t Murakami’s epic.