Haruki Murakami: “Town of Cats”

11/14/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 5, 2011. (Translated, from the Japanese, by Jay Rubin.)

I just don’t understand Murakami. Or rather, I see the devices that he’s using, and I just don’t appreciate them. I suppose I should be grateful that the hokey mysticism has been dialed back for this short story so as to focus on the relationship between a stern father and his at-long-last confrontational son, and yet the title of this piece is derived from a fictional 1930s German story (i.e., Murakami made it up) which the son recalls while traveling on a spur-of-the-moment whim to visit his aged and mentally diminished father at a sanatorium (whom he has not seen in two years). This story within a story is about a young man who travels to an abandoned town, which, at night, turns out to be a town filled with cats. As it turns out, the cats — which speak English and operate the stores of the town at night — sense that there’s a human invading, but when they find him, it is as if he’s invisible, and when he attempts to leave, he finds that the train no longer stops for him. He is in “the place where he is meant to be lost,” emphasizes Murakami.

During an awkward moment of tenderness, Tengo relates this story to his father — who he is realizing is probably not his biological one — and it turns out that the entire “Town of Cats” interlude has been a set-up for the son’s forgiveness of this ultimate stranger: “You loved my mother as deeply as you knew how. I do get that sense. But she left, and that must have been hard on you–like living in an empty town. Still, you raised me in that empty town.” I’m not sure if that last part is forgiveness or condemnation — probably the former, given the single tear shining on his faux-father’s cheek, and Tengo’s promise to visit again — but the idea Murakami is chomping at the bit to get across is that some lives, no matter how adventure-filled they may be in one’s brash youth (as we are given to understand Tengo’s father’s was), are eaten up by a vacuum, an event that one cannot get past, that grows inside and consumes all, until there is nothing left but the shell of the man: “From a distance, he seemed like less a human being than like some kind of creature, a rat or a squirrel–a creature with some cunning. He was, however, Tengo’s father–or, rather, the wreckage of Tengo’s father.”

None of this is particularly bad, save for a really bad interior monologue at the start, which is even more awkward given the third-person narrative. (“Then he sat on a bench and gave some thought to where he should go. ‘I can go anywhere I decide to,’ he told himself. ‘It looks as if it’s going to be a hot day. I could go to the seashore.”) But this plodding cross between the factual trip Tengo decides upon — visiting his father — and the fanciful story that Tengo conveniently mulls over on the way there, isn’t an enjoyable read. There’s a lack of suspense borne of not caring, and a brittleness to these messages that are so insistently being foisted upon the reader. It’s the fact that we can catch sight of Murakami out of the corner of our eye on every intersection, the artificer caught up in the act of creation. The rare sections in which he disappears, and we learn about Tengo’s father’s hardscrabble life and work with NHK are interesting, but the second they spill over to Tengo, it’s as if they’re part of a lecture: “As a result of the teacher’s talk with his father, Tengo was free to spend Sundays as he pleased. This was the first tangible right that he had ever won from his father. He had taken his first step toward freedom and independence.”

“If you can’t understand it without an explanation,” says Tengo’s father, in their cryptic time together, “you can’t understand it with an explanation.” I think that about sums up my difficulties with Murakami more than anything else: his stories are either explanations themselves, or sorely in need of¬†explanations (this being the former). I prefer my fiction to give me the space to think things through.

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