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Book Review: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

After Dark is a novel by Haruki Murakami, a novel which on the surface seems to be simply a fictional book which does not lend itself easily to analysis of any historical significance. But if one looks in the right places, and with the right mindset, one can draw quite a few comparisons to the history of Japan, and perhaps more broadly that of East Asia.

The novel centers around the main character, a girl whose name is Mari. She is up very late at night at a Denny’s reading, and from this location in the metropolis of Tokyo, a strange series of events unfolds for her that keeps her up till dawn and leads her to very different and interesting parts of the city. Meeting all kinds of people, from silent Chinese gangsters, to prostitutes, hotel owners, and a friend who practices jazz late at night, she experiences the oddness of night and the surrealism of the city.

The main plot for this story does not center on any historical characters, yet the background and experiences of the people in the novel are grounded in historicity and lend itself to historical analysis. Our very first locale in the story strikes us (Americans) as strange and contradictory in what we might imagine as a stereotypical Japan. A Denny’s might remind us of a suburban blue-collar breakfast, not something we can easily transport to Japan. Here is our first clue to the transferability and colonialism of Western, and particularly American culture in East Asia. Our main character wears a Red Sox baseball cap, references to Western writers abounds, and Western music comes up throughout the novel, with nods to musicians such as Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Fuller, and Burt Bacharach. The characters even reference Western fashion with names like Prada and Gucci, and even pay homage to the American painter Edward Hopper with a reference to his painting Loneliness. The characters are Japanese, but the stage is American. One can trace this cultural colonization of Japan as far back as the Meiji period (its famous slogan “Eastern ethics, Western techniques” seems to hold particularly true for this book) and more importantly to post-World War II Japan. During American occupation, MacArthur used the opportunity to remake Japan in America’s image. Economic reforms allowed for the future giant export companies such as Panasonic and Sony. Education was remade to mirror the American model and anti-union policies by the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers quelled any dissent among workers. Additionally, an American committee drafted a constitution for Japan that was decided to be the “will of the people”. The Americanization of Japan was total, leading to the massive industrialization and modernization of present-day Japan.

We can see another aspect of colonialism in this novel as well, that of alienation. Soseki’s character in one of his novels could easily find himself in After Dark with the phrase “loneliness is the price we pay for being born in this modern age”. The sister of Mari, the main character, reflects this sentiment well when, “She knows she will end up as a mere convenient conduit used for the passage of external things”. The cultural problem within the rise of Japan in the Meiji and later in post-occupation Japan are mirrored in this novel. The problems that an endangered Japanese culture (and East Asian culture) faces under the shadow of Western imperialism, and later a global Capitalism seem to be a common experience for Japanese novelists and artists, and one that is shared by Murakami. The trend of industrialization started in the Meiji in Japan has led it to be one of the greatest economic powers in the modern world, yet at what cost? The history of East Asia is one of tradition and culture, which turns into one of colonization and eventually economic inequality and individualization. Ultimately Murakami describes this question in surrealistic terms, drawing on Western literature elements and Western philosophy to bring a modern East Asia to light. An East Asia that is global and Western, one that struggles with similar problems, and yet an East Asia that struggles to retain familial ties under the long history of Westernization that has occurred.


Book Review: Burmese Days by George Orwell

George Orwell is without a doubt one of the best English writers of the 20th century. But unlike most of the English writers of his time, he did not write all about how awesome white people were, or how helpful the British Empire was to all those poor, backward countries they owned. Instead Orwell wrote about the injustices he saw in everyday life in England as well as abroad. Burmese Days is one of those books. Considering Orwell served as a member of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, we can safely assume he is not talking out of his ass.

The book focuses around a lonely English bureaucrat who’s days consist of wandering around the Burmese village he inhabits, talking to his Burmese friend, and visiting the English club where he is a member. His dull and isolated life changes however, when he finds that his friend is being blackmailed by a corrupt politician and when an English girl arrives from France. This story is ultimately about the main character’s experiences and guilt while being an Englishman in Burma under the British crown. The character cannot communicate his experiences to anyone because they are so involved in the indoctrination of the culture with British imperialism.

Burmese Days is one of the most depressing books I have ever read, but it is well worth the read. Although not as much of a page turner as say, 1984 or Animal Farm, Orwell realistically and emotionally builds up our relationship with the main character as well as providing a very historically accurate background for the hypocrisy and tyranny of British imperialism.

Book Review: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ahhh, science fiction. scifi is an excellent genre to flesh out different ideas and ideologies one holds, particularly those ideas pertaining to politics or history. Some of the most famous science fiction writers expounded on philosophy, historical change, relationships, culture, and individuality such as Issac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, O.S. Card, and Ray Bradbury, to name a few. But the one science fiction writer who’s ideas seem to bubble to prominence in most of her works is Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin is probably one of the most famous and least well known American science fiction writers of the modern era. Her book, The Left Hand of Darkness, was recently featured on PBS as one of the 200 best American novels according to The American Scholar.

The Dispossessed is apart of Le Guin’s so-called Hainish Cycle (which includes The Left Hand of Darkness). The book centers around a prominent physicist who is devoted to working on certain mathematical problems about communication using the real-world equivalent of quantum physics with some philosophical concepts thrown in for good measure. The physicist (Shevek) lives on a desert moon (Annares) which orbits the Earth-like Urras. Annares is “run” as an anarcho-syndicalist society with some influence from Zen Buddhism, while Urras is a much larger planet divided between warring states much like Earth was during the Cold War. While the background of Le Guin’s story and parallels to real world philosophies and ideas are interesting to discuss, I want to focus here on what I think she does best with this story.

Although Le Guin’s lucid detail of different cultures and societies permeate this novel, they are not hard to discover or evaluate. What makes this book most interesting is the contrasts she makes between the two fictional planets and the sociological depth she takes in discussing the several different societies. Le Guin manages to make us sympathetic to the main character while not making him appear as a hero, nor making his society appear Olympian in nature. She takes a realistic approach of hashing out the different cultures and sociological differences between the two societies that Shevek encounters (the anarcho-syndicalist society of Annarres and the capitalist country of A-Io on the planet Urras). Le Guin makes it interesting by constantly shifting perspective between Shevek’s younger self on Annarres and his older self on Urras, which makes the contrast that much more prevalent. As Shevek struggles with his mathematics and physics (don’t worry, it doesn’t go into too much detail with these concepts) he has to contend with the growing bureaucracy that begins to appear on Annarres and fights to reconcile his philosophy with that of an impersonal bureaucracy. At the same time as his older self, he has to experience for the first time the reality of the destructiveness of capitalist society and how sexist and impersonal it can be. Le Guin brings in many philosophical concepts but presents them in an easy to understand way through Shevek, and as he is exposed to culture shock, he starts to realize that all is not as it seems on Urras. Le Guin brings us to experience the society of A-Io as that of an innocent and newcomer, and we share in Shevek’s growing cynicism of that society as we slowly uncover it’s serious and devastating consequences.

This being the first I have read of Le Guin, I am more than excited to read more of her work. Her mastery of sociological concepts, cultural anthropology, and political philosophy makes each page very intriguing and somewhat complex. If you enjoy more action based science fiction, this book is not for you (until the last few chapters). But if you enjoy mystery, drama, political cunning, and unrecognizable cultural norms then this is the book for you. Get reading!