The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I’m busy preparing my Retrospective View for 1968, but I haven’t read one of the most significant novels from the year (Stand on Zanzibar); so, while I’m reading it (it might take me a couple of weeks), I’m going to re-post a few reviews I made on my other blog (I suppose I’m being rather lazy, but I’ve posted quite a few reviews there that are ‘speculative’ in nature).

Haruki Murakami has become one of my favorite authors; he isn’t for everyone’s tastes, but The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle feels like a book he was working toward for years. Most of his usual themes are present, as is his ubiquitous protagonist-type; the lonely, thirty-something male, who allows outside influences to guide him through life.

Wind-Up_Bird_ChronicleIn this novel, Toru Okada loses his job, his cat, and his wife; he searches for the latter two, and opens his world to an extraordinary array of characters, stories, and situations.

There are several threads within the frame of the narrative, some of which remain unresolved to the satisfaction of some reviewers; however, I found the novel eminently satisfying. I’ve encountered many complaints about extensive cuts in the translation from Japanese to English, and counter-claims (some from the translators) that the Japanese edition was poorly edited and required ‘trimming.’ I can’t read Japanese, so I can’t compare the editions; however, I thoroughly enjoyed the English version and I suspect that many of the problems that readers had with ‘discontinuity’ were not a result of the translation; rather, the sense of discontinuity is a trademark of Haruki Murakami’s surreal craft.

There are frustrating sections, and disturbing scenes and moods, but there is a prevailing atmosphere of hope within the beat of its metaphysical heart.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle won the prestigious Yomiuri Prize (1995) for Literature: the recipient receives a million Japanese yen and an inkstone (the prize was awarded by Oe Kenzaburo, one of Murakami’s harshest critics).

Highly recommended.

Haruki Murakami has several other exceptional novels (e.g.: Kafka on the Shore, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and A Wild Sheep Chase), and I’ll get around to separate reviews of them some day…

If you’re interested, have a look at the author’s site

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Retrospeculative View: 1961

Some of the short fiction:

Hothouse, Brian Aldiss (Hugo Award, Short Story 1962)

Monument, Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

The Dandelion Girl, Robert F. Young

The Moon Moth, Jack Vance

Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, Cordwainer Smith

Harrison Bergeron, Kurt Vonnegut

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Some of the movies:

The Absent-Minded Professor (based on A Situation of Gravity, by Samuel W. Taylor)

Mysterious Island (loosely based on The Mysterious Island (L’Île mystérieuse) by Jules Verne)

The Pit and the Pendulum, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story.

Atlantis, the Lost Continent

Il Colosso di Rodi (The Colossus of Rhodes) an Italian sword-and-sandal film

The Curse of the Werewolf  (based on The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the basis for the TV show that first aired in 1964

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And the speculative novels of 1961:

Catseye, Andre Norton. A YA novel about a young man who has the psychic ability to communicate with genetically engineered animals. Some interesting subject matter for a young audience: exploitation of the lower class, government corruption, and war crimes. This was the first of two ‘dipple’ (displaced people) books: the other was Night of Masks, 1964. The dipple books were connected to Norton’s Janus and Forerunner series.

The Secret World of Og, Pierre Berton (illustrated by his daughter, Patsy). A much beloved children’s fantasy, written by an author known for his non-fiction works of Canadiana and Canadian history. Apparently, the CBC (Canadian Braodcasting Corporation) adapted the book as an animated TV show in 2006, but I haven’t seen it.

A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C. Clarke. A disaster plot enacted on the moon. The disaster involves a  sightseeing ship — the Selene — that skims over the dust contained in a lunar sea (The Sea of Thirst); during one of Selene ‘s scenic tours there is a moonquake, and the ship sinks into the dust. The Selene has a limited air supply aboard, and there is is no way for heat to escape (it is blanketed by powdery sand particles), hence a gradual buildup of heat within the ship. The plot revolves around the passengers and crew of the Selene as well as the rescue team. Apparently, this novel has the dubiuous honour of becoming the first science fiction book to be chosen as a Readers Digest condensed novel.

James and the Giant Peach, one of Roald Dahl’s popular children’s books. It was adapted into an animated movie (live action/stop motion) in 1996 (produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi). I’m not sure why, but neither of my daughters was enthralled with the movie: I thought it was quite well done.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein. I absolutely loved this book when I was a teenager, but it hasn’t aged well (or I’ve just gotten old, stuffy, and jaded). The set-up is quite good: the entire crew of a mission to Mars died, but a baby (born on the voyage) survived, and Martians raised the child. Many years later, the next mission to Mars brought the human back (the baby had grown and was, by then, a young man), the human/Martian becomes the center of a political conspiracy, a nurse ‘kidnaps’ the human/Martian to save him, and it turns out that the human/Martian has an intriguing philosophical outlook and some special abilities that were part of his Martian upbringing. So far, so good. But then the plot shifts gears, gets bogged down in Heinlein’s self-righteous prattle, and the story begins to fizzle out (there are still a few good moments, but they are few and far between). It doesn’t help that Heinlein’s sexual beliefs are a bit red-necked-wacko: one of the female characters declares that rape is almost always the woman’s fault (even as a teenager I was uncomfortable with that), and it is abundantly clear that Heinlein thinks that being gay is a ‘wrongness.’ This was an underground classic that I think gathered momentum because of scenes that concurred with the free-love theme of the 1960s, and also because of the far-out ESP concepts that permeated the book. There is some decent material, but the negative aspects, an inane, scattered plot in the novel’s second half, and Heinlein’s pedestrian prose left me flat when I re-read this ‘classic’ of science fiction: I no longer grok it.The more Heinlein I re-read, the less I respect his oeuvre; a sad thing, because he used to be one of my favourite authors.

Riders in the Chariot,  Patrick White. I haven’t read this novel, but Voss (also by Patrick White) was excellent, and Riders in the Chariot seems to explore some of the same themes (e.g.: shared visions). Patrick White received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973, so it’s probably a good read.

And my pick for Retrospeculative novel of 1961 is…

tumblr_mdeikxUQWa1rjv4gro1_500Solaris, by Stanisław Lem. There are several books by Lem that I’ve enjoyed, but Solaris is possibly his most memorable novel (remarkably, two other Lem novels were published in 1961: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, and Return From the Stars).  Solaris examines the possibility that humanity, in its zest to investigate space, might discover an intelligent being so alien that it displays no resemblance to our pre-conceived ideas of sentience. If we can’t understand it, how can we communicate, study, classify; and, ultimately, control it?

A research station orbits Solaris, a planet almost completly covered with water. The researchers are documenting the behavior of the planet’s waves, which transform into incredible patterns that defy scientific explanation. As they gather data, the researchers become haunted by enigmatic, impossible ‘visitations’ seemingly pulled out of their individual psyches. Is the ocean of Solaris attempting to communicate? If so, is humanity ready for the encounter?

There have been two movie versions of Solaris; one in 1972  (which was quite interesting), and another in 2002 (which was not very good), but I highly recommend reading the novel before digesting either film version.

Solaris is an extraordinary novel, first published in Polish in 1961, and published in English in 1970 (a Polish, to French, to English translation).

Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

Riddley WalkerRussell Hoban (1945 – 2011) made no secret of the fact that Riddley Walker was inspired by the painting of The Legend of Saint Eustace at Canterbury Cathedral. He began the novel the day he saw the painting, and completed it five and a half years later (he was able to maintain an income during that time by writing children’s books). He first wrote the story in ‘Standard’ English, but carefully worked out the Riddleyspeak that became the finished product and added layers of texture to the work. In Hoban’s Afterward  [SF Masterworks; Gollancz, 2012], he jokes: “I was a good speller before I wrote that book; I no longer am but can live with that.”

Riddley Walker is a tale of the fall of humanity, and echoes of humanity’s former technological heights are common; Riddley doesn’t ‘make plans’, he programs his actions; Pirntout (printout) means conclude; and glitch my cool (my personal favourite) means ‘upset me’. Riddley often mentions the Puter Leat (computer elite) who existed before the Bad Time. He also mentions a girt box of knowin (computer) that people hooked-up to via an iron hat, and they could programmit pas the sarvering gallack seas (past the sovereign galaxies). He talks about the many cools of the Addom (molecules of the atom, and an allusion to the biblical Adam), which they are the party cool of stone (particles of stone), he mentions the strong and the weak inner acting (the strong and weak forces interacting), and much more. Riddley bemoans what humanity once was, and how far they have fallen: O what we ben!

From the first sentence of the novel, the reader knows it will be a different experience:

On my namin day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundle Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.

The sentence above isn’t a particularly difficult section of the novel, but it certainly sets the mood. Riddley Walker can be a struggle to read; some people find that reading sections out loud helps, and it was designed that way, written in phonetic vernacular, with a British accent in mind (and, to be specific, an accent from the county of Kent). Punctuation is ignored, with the exception of periods. There is a limited vocabulary; so, as the reader progresses through the novel, it becomes easier to decipher the text, a first-person narrative by the protagonist, Riddley Walker, who is considered a literate man of the world although he is only twelve years old.

The book is written in a manner that forces the reader to slow down in order to demystify the story; just as Riddley Walker must slowly puzzle things out for himself (by the way, the names of characters in the book are representations of their personalities: Riddley Walker, Fister Crunchman, Abel Goodparley, etcetera). I assume that the book was purposely written so that the reader is forced to sound some sections aloud in order to comprehend the meaning; in Riddley’s world, information is shared orally, and Riddley’s writings form the possibility of a re-invented media.

The reader soon realizes that the events take place in England (‘Inland’) sometime after an apocalyptic, nuclear event (it is stated in the novel that over 2,400 years have passed since the apocalypse, but that seems too long a time for the slight degradation in language; after all, it is still recognizable. There are many misguided ‘facts’ within the novel and I suspect that less time has passed than what is stated). Riddley’s world is slowly revealed through the mists of confusion: there are struggles between agricultural groups and hunter-gatherers, wild dog-packs terrorize the countryside, and the government distributes its politico-mythic messages using portable puppet theatres (politically revamped Punch and Judy shows).

There are many intriguing descriptive passages within the book; Riddley stretches his language, and a few times he becomes frustrated with the limitations of words as tools of expression. The language is rife with distorted technical and political terminology, and allusions to religions abound, especially St. Eustace, referred to as Eusa in the novel, which can be interpreted as St. Eustace, USA (the first country to use a nuclear weapon on an enemy), us, use, and possibly you.

And there are many humorously reinvented place names; Dover is Do It Over, Herne Bay is Horny Boy, and Sandwich is Sams Itch. I’ve never been to Kent, but I’m sure that knowing the area would add to the reading enjoyment (Note: the edition I read didn’t include a map, but I found one on the web that overlaid Riddley’s world on a map of Kent as it is now).

The plot is interesting, but much of the enjoyment comes from untangling the language; it immerses the reader, who must ‘riddle’ things out as s/he ‘walks’ through the story.

There is a short glossary at the end of the book, but if you’d like some further help while reading, the sites listed below are useful (I found that reading a chapter and then perusing the annotations, while flipping through the pages of the chapter again, solidified the story). The SF Masterworks edition I read (Gollancz, 2012) has a nice Introduction by Adam Roberts, and two Afterwards; one by Russell Hoban, and the other by David Mitchell.

Highly recommended; but be forewarned, it is probably not a novel to take for a casual read on the beach this summer.

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A couple of resources (that also contain links to other resources):

Riddley Walker Annotations : with chapter-by-chapter notes, images, a map, and much more.

Russell Hoban’s official website

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