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• Sunday, October 02nd, 2011

Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most famous and acclaimed contemporary writers, was born in Kyoto in 1949 but grew up in Kobe. His parents were both teachers of Japanese literature. He majored in theatre arts from Tokyo’s Waseda University in 1975.

Since his childhood, Murakami has always been influenced by Western culture and literature and loved classical and jazz music to the extent that while still at university, he opened his coffee/jazz bar, “Peter Cat”, with Yoko, his university mate, who later became his wife. He ran the bar from 1974 to 1981 and sold it when he started earning his living from writing.

Haruki Murakami became a keen marathon runner in his thirties and in 2008 wrote a non fiction about it called : What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Haruki Murakami is a translator of books from English into Japanese, a novelist, who also writes non fiction, short stories and essays.

In 2006 Murakami received the Franz Kafka prize from the Czech Republic for his novel, Kafka On The Shore and won the Yomiuri Prize for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, published in Japanese in 1995 and in English in 1998.

The title of the novel refers to “a mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring”. Kumiko, the wife of the main character, gave it this name. The protagonist-narrator says: “We didn’t know what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didn’t bother the wind-up bird. Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighbourhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world. An ominous cry.

Toru Okada, the main character, was also called Mr. Wind-Up Bird by May Kasahara, his eccentric, insubordinate, adolescent, death-obsessed neighbour.

Toru Okada is a young, unemployed married man in his early thirties, without ambitions, who is having problems finding his way in life. His quiet existence topple’s over when his cat, Noboru Wataya, named after the evil brother-in-law he abhors, who later in the story is named Mackerel, disappears and his wife, Kumiko, the bread winner of the couple, leaves him for no apparent reason. Pandora’s box is now wide open. There is a strange succession of happenings; people start coming his way with their bizarre stories and predictions followed by enigmatic occurrences and peculiar persons. Their stories or fates are sometimes interwoven to ease the plot by making it less complicated.

The procession of mysterious characters who start appearing and disappearing in Toru’s banal life are eerie. There is Malta Kano, who is a clairvoyant of sorts, Creta Kano, who was initiated by her elder sister and claims to be a “prostitute of the mind”, then there is Nutmeg Akasaka who is a clothes designer and becomes a medium, and her only child, Cinnamon, who becomes mute at the age of six. There is also Noboru Wataya, the malevolently weird and popular politician with diabolical powers, who happens to be Kumiko’s brother. And not to forget the odd Mr. Honda, an old friend of Kumiko’s family and his strange will and his colleague, lieutenant Mamiya, who is now an old man and was in Manchukuo during the second world war and his gruesome story while in outer Mongolia when he was captured by Mongolian and Russian soldiers and was forced to watch his colleague being skinned alive by the Mongolian soldier.

The second world war atrocities are described in detail in various parts of the novel, as is also the massacre of the animal zoo and the savage and inhuman baseball execution in Manchuria.

A world of Kafkaesque surreal events unfolds in front of Okada’s eyes and he finds himself fluttering between reality and make-believe in a very strange universe with a stifled, bewitching atmosphere. Especially that Okada is of a compliant disposition and lacking identity which makes him easily drawn into each character’s sphere. Like lieutenant Mamiya, Okada is going to experience the isolation of a dry well in a forsaken backyard of a deserted, cursed house near his home in order to try to get to his inner subconscious, search himself and understand things in the hope of saving his wife, Kumiko, and bringing her back.

Things start happening as he goes through the well wall in his “predawn dreamlike illusion in the well” and finds himself in a bedroom hotel. He comes out of this experience with a bluish black mark on his cheek which gives him psychic powers.

In one of his interviews, Haruki Murakami mentions that the subconscious is a subject of great interest to him, especially that it is a “terra incognita” for him. He also mentions that he is attracted to wells, not for going down them, but for looking inside them.

He goes on to say that he likes to write weird stories despite the fact of being a very realistic person himself. Maybe it’s a sort of an escapism from reality, being a “loner” as he typifies himself. Referring to his young readers, he says he hopes that his books “can offer them a sense of freedom – freedom from the real world”.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an entertaining rich story, abundant in intricacies and brimming with an outstanding literary imaginativeness. A modern fantasy tale that takes place in suburban Tokyo, a few years before the end of the twentieth century. Some parts of the novel are intense and others are perturbing historical scenes of the second world war, during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria.

Despite the untied loose ends, the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an easy to read page turner and a captivating novel.

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• Friday, May 27th, 2011

Allison Hoover Bartlett was born in Toronto Canada. She is a journalist with a B.A. Degree in English literature from the University of Santa Barbara in the USA and is a member of North 24th Writer’s group and Word of Mouth Bay Area.

She has written articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and other publications about travel, art, science and education. A. H. Bartlett lives with her husband and two children in San Francisco.

Bartlett’s original article on John Gilkey, the obsessed book lover thief, was published in the Best American Crime Reporting of 2007.

Her book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, published in 2009, is about book theft and book collectors. It’s non-fiction, written in novel form and the two main characters are: an obsessed book lover-collector, the bibliomaniac, John Gilkey and Ken Sanders, his sworn enemy and tracker.

Sanders, is an antiquarian book collector and dealer and in addition to that, a self-assigned dilettante “book detective”. He owns “Ken Sanders Books” in Salt Lake City and is accredited the security chairmanship of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. After receiving several complaints from book dealers about thefts, Sanders becomes obsessed with the arrest of John Gilkey and is determined to have him put behind bars.

Gilkey loves books as objects, as artistic items, regardless of their content. He doesn’t read the books he steals – he collects them in order to attain a certain stature in society with his pricey rare books. He thinks that by assembling an impressive library, he will forge himself a prestigious identity, which he desperately needs as he wants to appear a refined intellectual gentleman. He never steals a book from a shelf, it’s always by credit card fraud – that way he is under the delusion that he isn’t really stealing the books and consequently isn’t a thief.

According to Gilkey’s way of thinking, “all rare book dealers are crooks and fraudsters” so stealing from them is justified by someone like him who insanely loves books and feels the urge to acquire them but can’t afford them. This shows how much Gilkey lives in his own world and has completely lost touch with reality. The fact that he also wants these valuable books as a source of pecuniary wealth is hidden in his subconscious.

Bartlett questioned Gilkey, his family, Sanders and other book dealer victims of Gilkey’s thefts for three years about their involvement in this whole affair. In an interview, she mentioned the reasons that attracted her to write this book: “ I love books, not just for their content, but the ”thingness” of them and I wanted to explore what that was about”. In other words, how an obsession can turn into a glorified crime.

Perhaps the idea of touching and smelling a book has a rewarding feeling that an audio or electronic book can’t equal, at least for book lovers. As for handling rare, valuable books, it can be an unparalleled, magical experience for an enthusiastic connoisseur to the extent of having a clamshell box made to keep this old printed treasure in. As Gilkey told Bartlett: “when he holds a rare book, he smells its age, feels its crispness, makes sure there’s nothing wrong with it, and opens it up very gently”.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is a fascinating story because of its authenticity. An interesting read, which would have been more intense in its impact if the character of the main protagonists were more searched, psychoanalysed and developed. The book would thus have gained more depth.

Gilkey and Sanders psychological behaviour is portrayed briefly by Bartlett as being inconsistent. Gilkey at times appears to be reasonable and sane and at other times seems deranged or irrational in his reasoning. As for Sanders, he appears friendly with Bartlett at the start, before turning hostile and irritated when speaking to her on the phone.

Nevertheless, the book is an enjoyable easy read, specially that Bartlett provides a valuable and interesting insight into the world of books and its aficionados, whether it’s book collectors, book dealers, or book kleptomaniacs.

Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment