Travelling among mountains and streams, Fan Kuan, early 11th c.
In the art of the novel in the English language, we are much more familiar with the type of writing that uses normal literary devices such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, analogy, and synecdoche to weave a suggestive prose in order to ferry us to another world. For example, this beautiful excerpt from Yukio Mishima describing the psycho-physical atmosphere in a Thai temple in his novel The Temple of Dawn:
“The white columns of Indian marble directly in front of the main building, the pair of guardian marble lions, the low European-type balustrade, and the facade, also of marble, reflected the dazzling rays of the westering sun and formed a pure white canvas that served to bring out the rich decorative patterns of gold and vermilion. The inner frames of the pointed-arch windows were limned in scarlet and encircled by the ornate golden flames that rose, engulfing them. Even the white columns of the facade were decorated in brilliant gold with coiled naga-serpents that sprang abruptly from the capitals. Rows of golden snakes with raised heads edged the upsweeping roofs, composed of tier upon tier of red Chinese tiles, and the tips of each subordinate roof were formed of thin, golden serpent tails, like the spike heels of a woman’s shoe, thrusting upward, as if in competition, to the blue sky, to the very heavens. All this gold shone rather darkly in the sun, enhancing the white of the pigeons that idled among the gables.
But when the white birds, startled, suddenly flew up into the gradually darkening sky, they were as black as particles of soot. The soot from the golden flames, repeated in the ornaments of the temple, became birds.
In the garden the towering palms seemed petrified in amazement, arboreal fountains like bows, shooting their greenery farther and farther skyward.
Plants, animals, metal, stone, and Indian red, mingling in harmony, forlicked in the light. Even the marble heads of the white lions guarding the entrance appeared to be for all the world like sunflowers. Serrated seedlike teeth lined their gaping mouths; their lion faces were angry white sunflowers.”
We are skilfully lulled into a a kind of reverie where man-made ornamental beasts and golden decorations fuse with the natural world into a fiery feral beauty. And what is sacred and what is carnal can be interchanged.
Allison Markin Powell, the translator of Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl when asked about the difficulties in translating from the Japanese, observed that “there’s a lot of repetition. In English we vary the way we say things, we vary our use of nouns and verbs, we use synonyms but in Japanese you’ll find the same phrase repeated and I don’t think that works well in English.”
The writing of Haruki Murakami poses exactly this problem. He does not write beautifully in the conventional sense. It is rather tough going to plough through his longer novels because of the long-winded accounts written in bland language with uncommon sometimes awkward metaphors, and seemingly unimportant details. He favours a large amount of repetition and redundancy and slowness in plot; in words as well as thoughts going round and round in the heads of his protagonists. After a while you may even forget about the words.
We get a hint of his way when he says:
“… I’m not the type who operates through pure theory or logic, not the type whose energy source is intellectual speculation. Only when I’m given an actual physical burden and my muscles start to groan (and sometimes scream) does my comprehension meter shoot upward and I’m finally able to grasp something. Needless to say, it takes quite a bit of time, plus effort, to go through each stage, step by step, and arrive at a conclusion. Sometimes it takes too long, and by the time I’m convinced, it’s already too late. But what’re you going to do? That’s the kind of person I am.”
Quote from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
To get into Murkami’s novelistic world is like long-distance running. Step after step you pound on until you get into a kind of rhythm, until you find yourself immersed in the presence of that running, as long-distance runners would know. As readers you need the same kind of endurance to get to that state, the prose being not exactly illuminating. You may not enjoy it during the course, but the real reward comes after the physical fact of reading, after being in that world, lost in that world, alongside those characters in the story:
“I went to the kitchen for a glass of water, then out to the veranda to look at the cat’s dish. The mound of sardines was untouched from last night. No, the cat had not come back. I stood there looking at our small garden, with the early-summer sunshine streaming into it. Not that ours was the kind of garden that gives you spiritual solace to look at. The sun managed to find its way in there for the smallest fraction of each day, so the earth was always black and moist, and all we had by way of garden plants were a few drab hydrangeas in one corner – and I don’t like hydrangeas. There was a small stand of trees nearby, and from it you could hear the mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring. We called it the wind-up bird. Kumiko gave it the name. We didn’t know what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didn’t bother the wind-up bird. Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighborhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world.”
Excerpt from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
So in the conventional art of the novel, it is suggested that (in the English language) to fabricate a novelistic situation or world, one builds up by a kind of articulation, and repetition is not very suited to this elegant building up. This notion is rather similar to the usual conception of architecture we have been taught throughout its written history. That it is a fabrication or construction to be articulated through spaces, structure, detailing, materials. You judge its beauty or success by the “integrity” of such articulations. You walk around it thoughtfully enjoying such articulations.
But we know that just like there are other ways of writing novels, there are other ways of making and thinking about architecture that may not be what is commonly accepted. You could walk around it, use it, be immersed in it; perhaps forget its structure, its elements, its material, not see it for its details.