Do any other bookworms sometimes feel a bit misled by publishers?
Often they make sweeping claims like “If you loved blah blah, you will love this” and then you see this claim rehashed in a thousand reviews on the internet and it’s just not understandable. They want to sell the books of course, and market them under the same umbrella as the genres and authors they know sell well. But is it really necessary?
Eine kurze Geschichte des Scheiterns auf Japanisch – Fiona Campbell
(English title: Death of a Salaryman)
When I came across Campbell’s book in the library and saw”Do you love Murakami? Then you’ll love this novel!” splashed on the back cover I was intrigued and excited.
This is a tricky one because I am a Murakami fangirl. I love him, even if his work does sometimes feel a bit samey. You know, there’s always that one bloke having a mid-life crisis, who listens to jazz and has a perpetual cigarette dangling from his mouth, not to mention a cat and a mysterious woman with a syndrome.
This time I wasn’t disappointed, as it turns out the blurb wasn’t totally wrong: I’m enjoying it and I can barely put it down.
But what does it really have to do with Murakami? The person who wrote the blurb seemingly flicked through, saw that there was some random, maybe “eccentric”, characters in there, saw that it was set in Tokyo and thought “Yeah that’s pretty much Murakami isn’t it”. Must it really be as simple as that? He is the master of magic surrealism. He is the master of making the mundane mysterious and finding meaning in melancholy.
It seems a shame to force Campbell’s story into the Murakami corner and to judge it from there. As I said, these kind of claims are purely about enticing new readers. (And irritating Murakami fans in this case.)
She tells the story of Kenji, an average man trying to find his feet again after he loses his job. Such a premise sounds like Murakami, yet there is none of his deep and reflective introspect here. There is no real depth to Kenji and so far I don’t feel like I know him at all. Murakami takes great pains to dig into his character’s psyche and tends to focus less on the surroundings, while Campbell appears to do the inverse. Though strange things and “coincidences” start happening to Kenji they all feel forced somehow. There is none of that magic Murakami thread weaving it together. The ethereal atmosphere just isn’t there. To me, it reads more like a comedy, even slapstick at times, and although Murakami is often humorous in his prose, silliness just isn’t Murakami-esque at all. And where is the music? One of Murakami’s trademarks are his effortless references to music and it’s one of the reasons why I love his work. There is something very special about curling up with one of his novels and listening to the music as you read.
Ok, you’re probably thinking “come on bookworm, they are obviously completely different books, no one promised you it would be the same.” I hear you. But that’s not all there is to it.
The story just doesn’t feel Japanese. Sure it’s set in Japan and the characters are supposedly all Japanese, but it just doesn’t come across quite right. There’s too much cuddly, bouncy intimacy. And it isn’t just me: there are a few complaints around the interwebs about the presentation of Japanese culture in the novel. There is simply far too much Western influence, especially in the characterisations and character interactions, i.e. too much getting up in each others private space. What struck me the most though is the tired image it presents us of Japan: workaholics, honour, social pressures and even the game shows. This is also where she differs to Murakami. He presents his (Western) readers with a Japan they do not know and provides a more subtle critique of Japanese culture without having to wheel out the stereotypes and slap us around the face with them. Perhaps it should be mentioned here that Fiona Campbell, although she worked in Japan for a few months, is a Londoner living in Liverpool. Impressive though it is that she wrote a book set in Japan after such a short time there it often just feels like she wanted to cram all of her experiences and the “weird” things she saw into a novel and say “look at me, I know Japan”.
That said, Murakami is arguably one of the most “Western” of Japanese authors and even referred to himself as “kind of [an] outcast of the Japanese literary world“, perhaps attributable to the fact that he immersed himself in American culture and literature as a teen, and that he often writes in English and translates back into Japanese. This lends his work a unique and inimitable style.
My point is, isn’t there a massive difference between a Japanese author looking at Japan through Japanese eyes while wearing Western sunglasses, and a Westerner looking at Japan through Western eyes?
Kudos to Campbell for not writing some factually incorrect trashy novel about a geisha though. The world really does not need another one of them.