Rid­dles, rab­bit holes and a death from ‘Don Gio­vanni’

Haruki Mu­rakami’s rich new novel is a com­ing-ofmid­dle-age tale wrapped in a mys­tery, says Leo Rob­son

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the num­ber 36 in Haruki Mu­rakami’s lat­est novel? It’s the age of the main char­ac­ter, an artist holed up in the moun­tains, but it isn’t sim­ply the age he hap­pens to be. When he notes that a mar­ried woman with whom he had an af­fair was 41, “five years older than me”, it seems to be a piece of brisk nar­ra­tive busi­ness. But then a few pages later, the chap­ter closes with the dec­la­ra­tion: “I was 36 at the time.”

The first place you might look to il­lu­mi­nate this em­pha­sis is else­where within the novel it­self. Cru­cial in­ci­dents oc­cur at 1:35 and 4:32 – both of which add up to 36, if you swap “:” for “+” – and 1936 arises as the year of the Anti-Com­intern Pact signed by Ger­many and Ja­pan.

But these de­tails don’t ex­plain the num­ber’s cen­tral role in the book, only cor­rob­o­rate it – and you can’t be en­tirely sure they are do­ing that. Or you might want to root around in Mu­rakami’s bi­og­ra­phy – ac­cord­ing to his me­moir What I Talk About When I Talk About Run­ning, 36 is the num­ber of miles he cov­ers every week. Or in Ja­panese cul­ture – the print­maker Hoku­sai pro­duced 36 views of Fuji (at least one of them world-fa­mous) and literary his­tory talks of 36 im­mor­tal po­ets. So what?

Turn­ing to the writer’s pre­vi­ous work, a pos­si­bly telling dif­fer­ence emerges. There might be lit­tle to be done with the 36 dead cats in one novel or the 36 twists of a spring in an­other. But whereas in Mu­rakami’s ear­lier nov­els, in­clud­ing the most re­cent Colour­less Tsukuru Tazaki and

His Years of Pil­grim­age (2014), 36 (or 37) was the age for tak­ing stock of late ado­les­cence – lost love, faded friend­ships, un­pro­cessed grief – here it serves as the site of ac­tion, a start­ing point, not sim­ply a van­tage point. The un­named painter, like the 35-year-old Dante at the start of the In­ferno, is shown pen­e­trat­ing a dark for­est or “sea of trees”, con­fronting the fu­ture, not reck­on­ing with the past. At this point, you might want to flip back to the author’s life: Mu­rakami, who turns 70 in a cou­ple of months, was 36 when he wrote his break­through novel, Nor­we­gian Wood. (In Mu­rakami’s use of that im­age, the noun car­ries the sense of wood­land. The Bea­tles were singing about wall pan­elling.)

The nar­ra­tor, for his part, de­fines 36 by its dis­tance from 40 (“I still had four years to go”), the point by which he would need to ac­cept his fate as a painter of com­mis­sioned por­traits or to re­vive his dor­mant in­ter­est in ab­strac­tion. The reclu­sive busi­ness­man Men­shiki, who lives in a house across the val­ley, tells the nar­ra­tor that 36 is “the best age,” and from the su­pe­rior wis­dom of 54, seems to con­firm his ten­ta­tive sense that life is only just be­gin­ning.

And while the nar­ra­tor’s age is es­tab­lished, reaf­firmed and pored over, he is never given a name, nor, we learn, does he have a part­ner, job, house, money, po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion or tone of voice, so that for the reader’s pur­poses, 36 is most promi­nently what and who he is, his strong­est iden­ti­fy­ing fea­ture. Of all the novel’s war­ring iden­ti­ties, comin­gof-mid­dle-age story be­gins to feel most prom­i­nent.

These thoughts arise partly from a de­sire for solid ground, a cen­tre of grav­ity, as one nav­i­gates this over­whelm­ingly rich novel, and partly in re­sponse to the novel’s own en­gage­ment, spec­tac­u­lar in its tren­chancy and range, with how to ap­proach com­plex works of art, how to de­ter­mine in­ten­tion from ex­ter­nal signs and con­tex­tual knowl­edge, and how to rec­on­cile the de­sire for clar­ity with an ac­cep­tance of the sort of mys­ter­ies that elude hu­man un­der­stand­ing and even Google.

When the nar­ra­tor isn’t re­ceiv­ing vis­its from his mar­ried

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