Haruki Murakami: 世界の終りとハードボイルド・ワンダーランド (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World)
Many writers have just one book in them. They write many books but all are variations of the same book. Fortunately, this is far from being the case with Murakami. While some of the same themes and style may re-occur, each book is totally original. Of course, this book, like the others, shows the influence of American literature, particularly American detective stories, the hero is a likeable loner, with a taste for American culture, who is dragged into some strange quest and he meets a girl a bit like him but then there are many novels like this.
This one, as the title shows, is seemingly two stories though, as we can guess, the two stories will intersect. Initially, it is difficult to see how. The first one – Hard-Boiled Wonderland – is the story of our loner, who is a Calcutech. It is not entirely clear what a Calcutech is but they work for the System, which is a semi-official but private entity fighting the Semiotechs, who are the bad guys. Calcutechs have had their brain core altered and are used to perform some sort of computer analysis but what that involves is unclear. What is clear is that it involves transference of data between the right and left brain and that they are contracted out through the System, while fending off the Semiotechs who want to use the data for nefarious purposes. As we later learn, one of the latest techniques employed by the Calcutechs is called shuffling but that has been suspended, as all of the Calcutechs who did it have died, except one. You can guess which one. Our hero is summoned to an office in Tokyo where he is met by a chubby young woman dressed in pink, who leads him through a maze of passages. He then has to walk through a river in the dark, with the risk of being attacked by inklings, intelligent fish-like bottom feeders, who eat humans, amongst other detritus. Surviving the river and the inklings, he meets the young woman’s grandfather in his underground laboratory. The grandfather tells him that he is working on a lot of projects, which include suppression of sound and examining skulls to extract their memories and dreams. Though the grandfather seems to be a good guy – he gives our hero a task and a present which turns out to be a unicorn skull – our hero is well in truly dropped in it by the grandfather.
Meanwhile at the End of the World… This story is fantasy, involving a man arriving at an old-fashioned city at the end of the world. He has forgotten who he is and his past and, at the door, he has to leave his shadow (which is cut off by the Gatekeeper, who is both guardian and maintenance man). He is assigned the task of Dreamreader which involves reading skulls, starting, of course, with a unicorn skull, to determine their dreams. He is aided by a librarian (as our hero in Hard-Boiled Wonderland will be). Gradually, with the aid of clues, we learn how the two stories are related and, of course, they will merge. While End of the World is low key involving mainly whether he will or will not escape the city and his relationship with the librarian and his shadow, Hard-Boiled Wonderland is full of action. He gets beaten up, meets attractive women, is almost killed by an underground flood and finds that his mind has been more tampered with than he had imagined.
Certainly, the first story owes a lot to cyberpunk and the American hard-boiled novel, but it is also about the whole nature of consciousness, dreams and how we, as humans (whatever that may mean), fit into the general pattern of life. Clearly, for Murakami, there are things going on about which we do not have a clue, both within our brains but also, naturally, in the world at large, with the bad guys, the government and, maybe with the good guys, though, ultimately, the only good guys we can trust are ourselves. While the second story may seem relatively straightforward fantasy (though well-conceived and -written), the key is both how it fits into the main story and the punch-line. While probably not as good as ねじまき鳥クロニクル (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), this is still another great novel from Murakami.
First published by Shinchosa, Tokyo in 1991 in Japanese
First English translation in 1993 by Random House