Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts

4.02.2010

Murakami, "The Big Sleep," Allusions to Proust

As I have been teaching Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World this spring to undergraduates, I have been tracking some of the allusions and reference points. Some, like the references to Turgenev's Rudin and Stendhal's The Red and the Black, seem to be relatively straightforward allusions, though admittedly I haven't gone to the Turgenev yet to see if there might be more to it.

However, I did notice something potentially interesting with regards to an allusion I was able to check more closely. Murakami briefly mentions Hawks' film adaptation of The Big Sleep, based on the Raymond Chandler novel. It occurs about a third of the way through the novel, and interpreting it raises some interesting interpretive challenges. Going well beyond simple correspondences between the two texts, Murakami's allusion to The Big Sleep also appears to be an allusion to Hawks and Chandler's own literary allusions (often figured dimissively -- as examples of what not to read, i.e., Proust). In other words, Murakami's invocation of Hawks' film is a kind of versioning or remixing that channels not just a voice or a character from the source text, but the source text's entire orientation to literature. There is only one instance of a direct allusion to The Big Sleep in Murakami's novel, but as many as a dozen instances of what I might call buried allusions, which are only legible once we've applied the key represented by the first, and begun to read Murakami's novel through a Big Sleep lens.

To begin with, here is the passage in Murakami that names The Big Sleep:

I finished my business and hung up, then went into the living room and relaxed on the sofa with a beer to watch a video of Humphrey Bogart's "Key Largo." I love Lauren Bacall in "Key Largo." Of course, I love Bacall in "The Big Sleep" too, but in "Key Largo" she's practically allegorical.


The reference to Key Largo might be somewhat of a red herring -- the parallels that I can think of between Murakami's novel and that other film aren't so interesting to me (both books feature father-daughter relationships and outsider protagonists). But there are more than a dozen between The Big Sleep and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and at least some are examples of the "versioning" mode I alluded to above.

Let's start with a sample allusion from Raymond Chandler's novel (the dialogue in the film from this passage is taken, word-for-word, from Chandler), from the second encounter between Marlow and Vivian Regan (Vivian Rutledge in the movie):

"Well, you do get up," she said, wrinkling her nose at the faded red settee, the two odd semi-easy chairs, the net curtains that needed laundering and the boy's size library table with the venerable magazines on it to give the place a professional touch. "I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust."

"Who's he?" I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at her. She looked a little pale and strained, but she looked like a girl who could function under a strain.

"A French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn't know him."

"Tut, tut," I said. "Come into my boudoir."

She stood up and said: "We didn't get along very well yesterday. Perhaps I was rude."


The irony of Chandler's allusion to Proust is that he is both rejecting him as simultaneously too highbrow for Philip Marlowe -- and too dirty (that is to say, too much of a "connoisseur of degenerates"). Vivian's quip, "You wouldn't know him," comes across as a surface compliment, but actually it's a dig at Marlow's lower class status, and it quickly becomes clear that she actually finds that Marlow is exactly the "connoisseur of degenerates" she says he isn't.

Now, here is a moment from the beginning of Murakami's novel, from the standard Birnbaum translation:

Proust?

‘Marcel Proust?’ I asked her.

She gave me a look. Then she repeated: ‘Proust.’ I gave up the effort and fell back in line behind her, trying for the life of me to come up with other lip movements that corresponded to ‘Proust.’ Truest? … Brew whist?... Blue is it?... One after the other, quietly to myself, I pronounced strings of meaningless syllables, but none seemed to match. I could only conclude that she had indeed said, ‘Proust.’ But what I couldn’t figure was, what was the connection between the long corridor and Marcel Proust? (9)


As is often the case in Murakami, the rhetorical question the protagonist is asking himself as he attempts to make sense of the professor's daughter's mysterious invocation of Proust, is actually an interpretive question that the reader might do well to apply to the act of reading. Without the reference point to The Big Sleep, there's no direct answer.

The reason the professor's daughter can't speak aloud is later explained (her father has, through one of his neurophysiological inventions, accidentally put her on 'mute'). But what is never explained is what exactly Proust might be doing here, which leads me to think that this reference to Proust is only in Murakami's novel as a kind of buried allusion to a somewhat analogous (but much more cogent) conversation in the Chandler novel and Hawks film.

There's also a more conventional interpretation of the allusion to Proust. Hard Boiled Wonderland..., after all, is a novel that is at least partly about the attempt to recover lost memories. The "End of the World" sections clearly feature a protagonist whose memories are inaccessible to him (they are with his "shadow"), and one of his goals is to try and recover them, and explain how he got there. The "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" protagonist has some other connections to Proust -– for instance, after his "shuffling activation," the smell of fruits sets of random chains of association for him.

Finally, there are a number of other strong connections between The Big Sleep and Murakami's novel, some of which are in the same orbit as the "Proust" connection. Both texts prominently feature eroticized female librarian guide figures, who help the detective/protagonist decode the mysterious signs around them. In Murakami, the librarian helps the protagonist sort out the possible significance of the unicorn skull the professor has sent him. In Chandler & Hawks' The Big Sleep, there are actually two librarians, one helpful and flirtatious, while the other (who works for the pornographer Geiger) gives him the run-around.

The librarians and bookstore proprietors in The Big Sleep operate around the same discursive axis as Vivian's quip about Proust, that "connoisseur of degenerates." That Geiger's ostensible "rare books" operation is a front for a pornography ring is not an accident. Like Proust, whose literary output must be understood as "rarefied" in market/commodity terms, the high-brow posture conceals the presence of moral rot, the discovery of which is the detective's primary job.

And of course, both texts prominently feature characters who have an unconscious life over which their conscious selves have only limited control, though the content of that unconscious is wildly divergent. In Chandler, writing in the era of Freud, our unconscious is a space of sexual rapacity and exhibitionism as well as violence. In Murakami, by contrast the "End of the World" is a kind of utopian alternate reality surgically implanted inside the protagonist's mind without his knowledge. (I am not sure how much can be done here...)

To intelligibly graph the specific parallels between The Big Sleep and the Murakami actually proves to be quite difficult, though of course Murakami's is far from the only text (even within his own body of work) where this kind of problem arises. Does anyone know of a critic who has done a schematic study that might help us describe the different modes of allusion (specifically oriented to the kind of thing happening with Proust above, for starters) that are often seen in self-consciously intertextual postmodern fiction?

12.16.2009

From "Pinocchio" to "Astro-Boy": Fairy Tales and Sci-Fi

In the spring I'm co-teaching a course with a scholar visiting from Japan, "The Edges of the Human: Bodies, Animals, and Machines in Speculative Fiction Films and Literature." The course will be about evenly divided between Japanese science fiction films and books, and British and American science fiction and fantasy. It's an introductory course, meant for non-English major undergraduates.

I obviously have an interest in children's books and movies (see earlier posts on Kipling and Toy Story), as well as a limited interest in literary science fiction (China Mieville, Early Bengali Science Fiction), but I've never taught a course specifically dedicated to this type of topic before. It will be an added challenge to team-teach the course -- especially given that the topic itself is so wide-ranging.

To make the course cohere, we will need to show connections between the 20th century Japanese tradition in science fiction (both in literary fiction and manga, anime, and popular cinema) and at least one thread of the parallel tradition in the Anglo-American context.

One unit I am working on is a Pinocchio/Astro-Boy nexus. Pinocchio feels like a folk tale, like Snow White or Cinderella, but it is actually a late Victorian tale. It is best known through the 1940 Disney animated feature, but of course the story was first written by an Italian writer, Carlo Collodi, as The Adventures of Pinocchio (available in translation on Project Gutenberg, and as a free audiobook via LibriVox). Collodi was clearly influenced by the established fairy tale tradition and the Brothers Grimm, but his story also has some elements that seem distinctly Victorian, including the emphasis on show-biz, via the Marionette show, and some of the direct moralizing about what it means to be a good little boy. (Many Brothers Grimm tales actually do not have such blatant moralizing; the moral is quite often simply "pay attention to the fairy, dummy, if you don't want the witch to turn you into a statue").

Many of the trademark features of the Disney Pinocchio are missing in the first version of the story Collodi published in serial form between 1881 and 1883, including especially the nose that grows when Pinocchio lies (Collodi added that later), and the concern about becoming a "real boy" (also added in the second half, which Collodi apparently wrote to make the story more marketable to children -- and less bleak). While in Disney there is a Glenda-eseque, maternal "blue fairy" who makes Pinocchio come alive at the very beginning, in Collodi, the "Turquoise Fairy" only becomes a factor in in the second half of the narrative. Pinocchio's initial enchantment precedes his being formed into a marionette -- the block of wood out of which he was carved was already enchanted. (In Collodi he also burns off his feet near the beginning of the story, and kills the talking cricket. Ouch!)

I am not sure whether we will do all of Collodi, but it seems essential to at least look at the chaotic, violent, and generally picaresque structure of the first half of the book alongside the more sanitized Disney version.

The great Japanese manga artist and animator, Tezuka Osamu has described how he he was influenced by the early Disney animation style, and it's not hard to guess that the Disney version of Pinocchio had an influence on the genesis of Astro-Boy, which Tezuka created as a manga starting in the early 1950s (in Japanese, Tetsuwan ATOM). While the preoccupation in Collodi's Pinocchio is an industrial-era rendition of the prospect of artificial life, Astro-Boy is clearly inflected by the concerns of the nuclear age.

I have not seen the original, printed manga of Astro-Boy, though I have watched a little of an English-language version of the original televised cartoon, as well as the 2009 animated feature (which was, incidentally, better than the reviews made it out to be). However, what is immediately clear from the television cartoon is that Tezuka is interested in adapting the fundamental ideas of the Pinocchio story to the Japanese context after Hiroshima. While Gepetto is a puppeteer, Astro-Boy's father is a maker of robots, and his co-workers worry, in even the first episode, about the dangerous potential of the robot that is to become Astro-Boy specifically in terms of his potentially being used as a weapon.

In both the television cartoon and the recent CGI, animated film, Astro-Boy's "father" creates him as a substitute for a real son who died -- and for whom the father feels guilty. (This is not there in Collodi.) In neither case is there space for a mother figure anywhere; the mother is dead, out of the picture. The absence of women or mothers is roughly true even in the Collodi, where the maternal Turquoise Fairy was added in largely as an after-thought. Interestingly, and troublingly, none of these "Pinocchio" narratives seem to need or want mothers.

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I have one broader thesis about 20th century science fiction that I think Pinocchio/Astro-Boy reflects quite well, and that is that there are often strong affiliations between science fiction (narratives of the future) and traditional folk tales, which seem to reflect a version of the past. Though modern and post-modern science fiction tends to reflect contemporary concerns, they often rely on very traditional tropes.

But I also have other questions that I'm still thinking about; maybe readers can help.

For instance, to what extent should The Adventures of Pinocchio be seen as a variation -- albeit inflected with stylistic and structural elements borrowed from Fairy Tales -- of Frankenstein? In short, is Frankenstein relevant?

Another question I have, not being an expert in fairy tales or the Brothers Grimm (one of my projects for winter break is to catch up on scholarship by critics like Jack Zipes), is how to think of antecedents to the idea of the inventor who creates "living" machines -- artificial life. One thinks of the "Homunculus" in Goethe's Faust, Part 2, but even that is not that far off chronologically from Shelley's Frankenstein. Really, the appropriate point of origin seems to be the Golem figure in the Hebrew Tradition (The author of the Wikipedia "Golem" entry even suggests that some passages in the Talmud describe Adam himself as a kind of "golem").

Are not all of our modern and contemporary robots, cyborgs, and A.I.s simply variations of the ancient Hebrew Golem narrative? Is there anything really 'new' about "artificial intelligence"? (Isn't it, in fact, the oldest thing in the world?)

Yet another question to explore is whether there are antecedents for the artificial life of Tezuka's Astro-Boy in the Japanese folk tale tradition. (A surprising number of contemporary fantasy manga narratives -- one thinks of Naruto -- seem styled after traditional Japanese folk tales.)

Finally, can readers think of other "nexus" sites, where there is significant crossover between Japanese sci fi (including manga and anime), and western science fiction and fantasy? (One site we are exploring is Japanese cyber-punk -- Ghost in the Shell vs. western cyber-punk, in Neuromancer, et al.)