Haruki Murakami, Master of Blandness
What is taste? Or, more specifically, what is it that allows us to taste—to differentiate between, say, the bitterness of an endive leaf, the mouth-puckering sourness of a caper berry, and the cloying sweetness of a Milky Way bar? According to the third century Chinese classic Renwuzhi (“Of Men and their Abilities”), the ground of taste, the ground of all sensation, lies in the experience of tastelessness itself: that is, the experience of the bland. In his 1991 book In Praise of Blandness, the French Sinologist François Jullien begins with the Renwuzhi and compiles a catalog of classical Chinese arguments for the importance of blandness, drawing from the Daodejing (“The Tao is insipid and flavorless”), the Confucian classics, and the whole range of literature that followed them. “All flavors disappoint even as they attract,” Jullien writes:
They represent nothing more than an immediate and momentary stimulation that, like sound sifted through an instrument, disappears the moment it is consumed. In contrast to such superficial stimuli, the bland invites us to trace it back to the “inexhaustible” source of that which constantly unfolds without ever allowing itself to be reduced to a concrete manifestation or completely apprehended by the senses.
Bland foods, of course, are the foods we give to babies and small children, and the foods we often return to for reassurance or “normalcy.” They are the staples of comfort and routine. As, for example, in this scene, which begins Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:
When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.
I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It could have been somebody with news of a job opening. I lowered the flame, went to the living room, and picked up the receiver.
“Ten minutes, please,” said a woman on the other end.
The tone of this passage, the tone of all of Murakami’s fiction, is…well, what is it, exactly? A person performing an ordinary act in a state of reasonable, attentive calm. A world of plain, exact nouns, and neat, perfectly appropriate cultural citations: not only The Thieving Magpie but specifically the Claudio Abbado recording with the London Symphony. Is it cold—by virtue of its detachment and eerie calm—or warmed by the familiarity of safety, routine, the steam rising from the pot, the ardent music of Rossini? Neither, or rather, both. The temperature, like that within a thermostat-controlled house—or, for that matter, within the human body—varies within a very small range. Even when Murakami’s characters are under great emotional stress, or in the midst of a dangerous act, they—or rather the sentences that make them—almost never lose this placid, observant neutrality. A sentence that crops up over and over again in his novels is, “I didn’t particularly care about dying.”
An appreciation for blandness as a separate category of experience—and not a new one—may help us understand how Murakami has managed to produce an intensely interesting body of fiction around characters, and sentences, that operate in a kind of continuous monotone. He follows a century of Western writers of negation, absence, and “plainness” (Kafka, Hemingway, Camus, Beckett, Pinter, Carver) but the resemblance is—perhaps by design—only superficial. Blandness, for Murakami, is not a symptom of late capitalist culture, the endpoint of cultural disintegration, or a post-apocalyptic end of history, but a condition that precedes those things and, more disturbingly, renders them harmless. Depending on one’s position, his characters’ calm acceptance of wind-up birds, sheep men, and cat towns, their ability to regain emotional homeostasis in the most dire circumstances, might seem the essence of weightless global cool or the soulless literary equivalent of a shrink-wrapped airline meal, but either reading ignores the obvious: every literary sensibility, like every shred of pasta, comes from somewhere.
Any discussion of Murakami, outside Japan and inside it as well, eventually comes around to two observations: first, that his work is quintessentially “postmodern”; second, that it is not very Japanese. Matthew Strecher, a prominent Western scholar writing on Murakami, describes his prose style in the original as having “a strikingly international ambience”:
The frequency of his use of the first person rivals that of its use in English, despite the fact that the Japanese language does not require the naming of subjects when the context makes them clear. The result of this prodigious use of the first person familiarBoku is to lend the text a rather un-Japanese atmosphere, almost as if it were translated from English. Murakami is also fond of using expressions which are taken from English, translated literally into Japanese (such as sore ijo de monai shi, sore ika de monai for “neither more nor less”) as well as repeating himself almost to the point where one can predict his next use of the most commonly recurring phrase,Boku ni wa wakaranakatta: “It wasn’t clear to me.”…Presumably this is what led [Kenzaburo] Oe to comment to Kazuo Ishiguro once that “Murakami writes in Japanese, but his writing is not really Japanese. If you translate it into American English, it can be read very naturally in New York.”