May 30, 2011

Norwegian Wood (#106)

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

What I said then: 

A Japanese writer and a book named for  a Beatles song? How could I resist?

What I say now:

Norwegian Wood is a book I'm having a bit of difficulty writing about. I suspect this will be an extremely unsatisfying blog post ... or at least, more unsatisfying than usual.

Because ... because ... well, because I absolutely loved Norwegian Wood but I'm not really sure why. There's nothing about it that stands out as being particularly brilliant, but it was brilliant. I can't point to anything in the plot, or the themes, or the style that vaults it above other books ... but it is better than other books. 

Murakami is usually a bit insane; his other books include flying elephants, Johnnie Walker and Ronald McDonald appearing as a characters, men who can talk to cats, and other wacko things like that. This novel, being strictly realist, is very unusual within his fiction. In his thirties, Toru Watanabe hears a bad muzak version of the titular Beatles song and is immediately reminded of the first couple of years he spent at university in Tokyo in 1969 and 1970, and of the two women (girls, really) who fell into, out of, and back into his life. His romantic fumblings take place before a backdrop of political unrest and student activism, and is soundtracked by the music of its time. A Norwegian Wood playlist would make for fantastic listening.

I suppose the real genius of this novel is the way that Murakami is able to capture the confused moods of his protagonist. Watanabe doesn't know what he wants, or even who he really is, and I think most of us have, at some point, felt something similar. I won't go so far as to say that it's a universal experience, but during our teenage years, didn't most of us have moments when we felt that childhood had fallen away, but had no idea yet what the hell kind of adults we were going to turn into? I think most people can empathise with that, and Murakami absolutely nails it. There are aspects of Watanabe that are completely alien to me, but then there'll be one sentence that perfectly expresses a feeling I've had for ages but never been able to put into words. The hopeless way he falls in love and can't, for all his trying, express what he's feeling, is as familiar to me as I guess it will be to anybody who's lived and breathed.

There isn't really that much more that I can say, I'm afraid. At different moments it's funny, and tender, and beautiful, and ridiculous, and sad. But at every moment it's fucking great.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Light of Day by Graham Swift
books to go: 105

May 17, 2011

Gomorrah (#107)

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano

What I said then:

An expose of the Camorra, rivals to the Mafia as Italy’s most dangerous network of murderers and thieves.

What I say now:

Gomorrah was absolutely dreadful, to the point that it was painful to read. For the first time since I began this challenge I was tempted to chuck a book in the bin and cross it off the list that way. Not even Jane Eyre got my goat to this extent.

Saviano is a native of Naples, a city which has been effectively taken over by the Camorra (the local equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia) at every single level of its bureaucracy. And when he's writing about the Camorra, about things that they are doing or things that they have done, then the book is fascinating. Unfortunately, most of the book is not about the Camorra, but about Roberto Saviano's reaction to living in a Camorra-infested city. Saviano obviously believes himself part-poet, part-prophet, part-philosopher, and the majority of the book is taken up with self-important, pseudo-psychological blather about the meaning of what's being described. It's completely insufferable.

Let me give an example of what I mean. After a chapter detailing a war between rival Camorra clans (a chapter that consists almost entirely of a massive list of dead men's names, with no context given ... but that's another complaint), Saviano writes this: "It was as if I had an indefinable odor on me. Like the smell that permeates your clothing when you go to one of those fried-food places. When you leave, the smell gradually becomes less noticeable, blending with the poison of car exhaust, but it's still there. You can take countless showers, soak for hours in heavily perfumed bath salts and oils, but you can't get rid of it. And not because --- like the sweat of a rapist --- it has penetrated your flesh, but because you realise it was already inside you. As if it were emanating from a dormant gland that all of a sudden started secreting, activated more by a sensation of truth than of fear. As if something inside your body were able to tell when you are staring at the truth, perceiving it with all your senses, with no mediation."

A couple of things about this passage (and seriously, there are hundreds just like it scattered throughout the book): the observant among you might have noticed that it's not about anything! The whole passage is a metaphor (it starts "It was as if I had...") with not one, but two similes ("like the smell that permeates your clothing" and "like the sweat of a rapist") contained inside the metaphor! That's just horrendous writing, confusing as hell ... and worse, it's completely devoid of content. What does the Camorra have to do with the above passage? Not a god-damn thing. And that's not even mentioning the bizarrely melodramatic language, which goes past 'so bad it's good' and ends up back at 'dreadful' again. "Like the sweat of a rapist [...] it has penetrated your flesh." Seriously, Roberto? SERIOUSLY?!?!?

The shame of it is, that when Saviano actually has something to say, it's worth listening to. The best moments of the book are the moments of actual reportage, when he's simply telling a tale, rather than commenting on it. There's the enthusiastic Camorrista who uses his connections to travel to Russia for an audience with his hero Mikhael Kalashnikov, designer of the AK-47. Or the teenage kids who drive trucks of toxic waste to illegal dumpsites because ordinary truckers won't go near them, then boast of their bravery. Or the junkie girl who revives her overdosing boyfriend by laying a handkerchief across his face and urinating on it (don't ask me how that worked ... but apparently it did). If Saviano had reported the facts, rather than insisting on intruding on them, he could have written a hell of a book. As is, unfortunately, you have to slog through endless BS to get to the good stuff.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
books to go: 106