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
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