“I don’t know how to put it, but it seems to me that no matter how far we go – or rather, the farther we go – the things we discover are more likely to be nothing more than ourselves.”

Murakami and Nomonhan

Some background (and a fascinating story that sounds like it came from one of his books) for you all) on Nomonhan and Murakami:

From Jay Rubin:

“Murakami traced his own inward search in a series of articles written after visiting the site of the Nomonhan Incident on the border between Manchuria and Mongolia in June 1994. The timing is significant. Books One and Two of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle had just appeared, while Book Three was still growing in his computer. Which is to say that Murakami had never set foot on the Asian continent or seen the Khalkha River or Nomonhan before he conceived of Mr. Honda, the mystic who survived the Nomonhan slaughter, or before he wrote the scenes of cross-border espionage that bring Book One to its horrifying close with the flaying of the still-living Yamamoto. Only Book Three can be said to have benefited from Murakami’s first-hand observation of a battlefield that had haunted him as a schoolboy.

From a history book he read as a child Murakami remembered certain photographs of weird, stubby, old-fashioned tanks and planes from what he calls the Nomonhan War (generally referred to in Japan as the Nomonhan Incident and in Mongolia as the Khalkha River War), a fierce border clash that book place in the spring and summer of 1939. It involved Japanese soldiers stationed in Manchuria and a combined force of Soviet and Outer-Mongolian troops. The image of the event remained vivid in his memory for reasons he could never explain to himself, and he read the few books he could find on the subject.

Then, almost by chance, he came across several old Japanese books on Nomonhan in the Princeton library and realized he was as mesmerized by the event as ever. He sought out Alvin Coox’s massive two-volume study and was particularly pleased to discover that Coox, too, had been fascinated by the subject since childhood but found it hard to explain why. Continued rumination, however, led Murakami to a tentative explanation for his own unflagging interest: perhaps, he thought, ‘the fascination for me is that the origin of this war was all too Japanese, all too representative of the Japanese people.’

The same could be said of the Second World War, he admits, but that war is just too big, too much of a towering monument to grasp in its entirety. It was possible to get a handle on Nomonhan, however: a four-month undeclared war staged in a limited area that may have been Japan’s first experience of having its un-modern worldview – it’s ‘warview’ – trounced by a country that knew how to establish supply lines before going to war rather than simply hoping for the best. Fewer than 20,000 Japanese troops lost their lives in Nomonhan, but the number soared to over 2,000,000 in the Second World War. In both cases, they were the victims of a system that will make any sacrifice to preserve ‘face’ and that blindly trusts to luck rather than efficient modern planning. ‘They were murdered,’ says Murakami, ‘used up like so many nameless articles of consumption – with terrible inefficiency within the hermetically sealed system we call Japan.’ It happened first in Nomonhan, but Japan learned nothing from that harsh experience, and so it went to fight the Second World War. ‘But what have we Japanese learned from that dizzying tragedy?’

‘We did away with the pre-war emperor system and put the Peace Constitution in its place. And as a result we have, to be sure, come to live in an efficient, rational world based on the ideology of a modern civil society, and that efficiency has brought about an almost overwhelming prosperity in our society. Yet, I (and perhaps many others) can’t seem to escape the suspicion that even now, in many areas of society, we are being peacefully and quietly obliterated as nameless articles of consumption. We go on believing that we live in the so-called free ‘civil state’ we call ‘Japan’ with our fundamental human rights guaranteed, but is this truly the case? Peel back a layer of skin, and what do we find breathing and pulsating there but the same old sealed national system or ideology.’

As far as Murakami is concerned, nothing has changed in all the decades since Nomonhan. Perhaps the peeling of the skin of the spy and nationalist zealot Yamamoto is a metaphor for the need to look beneath the outer layer to discover why Japan, even in peacetime, continues to regard its own people as expendable commodities.

The border dispute in which the Japanese military became embroiled in 1939 was still very much alive when Murakami made his visit in June 1944. In order to get to the village of Nomonhan, he and Elzo Natsumura had to take a plane, then two trains, and eventually a Land Cruiser, to see the Chinese side of the Khalkha River. They then had to go all the way back to Beijing, take another two planes and a long journey by jeep across the steppe to see the Mongolian side. Direct border crossings were impossible between China’s Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region and the independent nation of Mongolia.

But it was worth it. Having overcome these difficulties, Murakami found himself standing on one of the best preserved battlefields in the world – preserved not by government mandate for historical research but by nature. The place was so fly-ridden, remote, arid and useless to anyone that tanks and mortars and other detritus of war had been left where they had been abandoned under the vast sky, rusting but still intact, more than half a century later. Seeing this vast graveyard of steel, where so many men had suffered and lost their lives for no good reason, Murakami wrote:

‘I suddenly realized that in historical terms we probably belong to the later iron age. The side that managed to throw the greater amount of iron more effectively at the enemy and thereby destroy the greater amount of human flesh would achieve victory and justice. And they would be able to take victorious command of one section of this drab plane of grass.’

There were more metal scraps of war on display at a large war museum in a nearby town, but a power cut hid most of them from view. On the way back to the military guest quarters where they were to spend the night, Murakami and Matsumura clung on amid the reek of petrol fumes from the extra tanks on board the bouncing jeep as their chain-smoking Mongolian Army guides took a detour to hunt down and kill a she-wolf. They arrived at one o’clock in the morning, and Murakami flopped into bed exhausted, but unable to sleep. He felt the presence of some ‘thing,’ and began to regret bringing back a rusty mortar and other war souvenirs that now lay on the table in his room.

‘When I awoke in the middle of the night, it was causing the whole world to pitch wildly up and down, as if the room were in a shaker. The darkness was total. I couldn’t see my own hand, but I could hear everything around me rattling. I had no idea what was going on, but I jumped out of bed to turn on the light. The quaking was so violent, though, I couldn’t stay upright. I fell, and then managed to pull myself to my feet by holding onto the bed frame…I made it to the door and felt for the light switch. The instant I turned it on, the shaking stopped. Now everything was silent. The clock showed 2:30 a.m.

Then I realized: it was not the room or the world that was shaking: it was me. At that moment, a chill froze me to the core. I was terrified. I wanted to cry out, but my voice wouldn’t come. This was the first time in my life I had ever experienced such deep, violent fear, and the first time I had ever seen such utter darkness.’

Too frightened to stay where he was, Murakami went to Matsumura’s room next door, and sat on the floor by his sleeping friend, waiting for the sun to come up. As the sky began to lighten after 4 a.m., the chill inside him began to abate, ‘as if a possessing spirit had fallen away.’ He went back to his room and fell asleep, no longer afraid.

‘I have thought about this incident a great deal, but could never find a satisfactory explanation for it. Nor is it possible for me to convey in words how frightened I was at the time. it was as if I had accidentally peered into the abyss of the world.

In the [month or so] since it happened, I have come to think of it more or less this way: It – that is, the shaking and the darkness and that strange presence – was not something that came to me from the outside, but rather may have been something that had always been inside me, that was part of who I am. Something had seized a kind of opportunity to rip open this thing inside me, that was part of who I am. Something had seized a kind of opportunity to rip open this thing inside me, whatever it was, just as the old photos of the Nomonhan War I that I had seen in a book as a grammar school boy had fascinated me for no clear reason and brought me some 30-odd years later to the depths of the Mongolian steppe. I don’t know how to put it, but it seems to me that no matter how far we go – or rather, the farther we go – the things we discover are more likely to be nothing more than ourselves. The wolf, the mortar, the war museum darkened by a power cut, all of these were parts of me that had always been there, I suspect: they had been waiting all this time for me to find them.

I do know this much, though: I will never forget those things that are there – that were there. Because that is probably all I can do: to keep from forgetting.’

Reading this description in a supposedly factual essay, it is hard not to share Ian Buruma’s reaction when he heard the story from Murakami: ‘I was skeptical. The scene sounded too much like one from his novels. It was if he had started to take his metaphors literally.’ However, Murakami insists that he described the event exactly as it had happened to him, and he even repeated it to the psychologist Hayao Kawai, stipulating at the outset that he did not believe it was a paranormal phenomenon, but resulted from his ‘utter commitment’ to (or perhaps we could say ‘obsession with’) Nomonhan. Kawai could reply only that he believed such experiences could happen, but that one had to resist interpreting them with ‘phoney science’ – for example, claiming that there was some ‘energy’ in Murakami’s battlefield souvenir.

Elzo Matsumura had no idea Murakami had come into his room that night. He only found about the whole strange experience when he read about it in Murakami’s magazine article. He had no difficulty in believing it to be true. He too had felt very strange about the Nomonhan battlefield. Although he knew nothing about its history, it had given him goose flesh (something he says almost never happens to him, and for weeks after going there he dreamed about the place That night, although Murakami found him fast asleep, Matsumura had had difficulty sleeping, despite the fact he was absolutely exhausted, and had drunk a beer to knock himself out.

Once, asked if he believed in the sort of paranormal phenomena depicted in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Murakami laughed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t believe in that stuff.’ He enjoyed writing about such things, he said, but in his own life he was strictly a realist. Having said that, he added without irony that if he ‘concentrated’ on people he could tell a lot about them – for example, how many siblings they had, or what kind of relationship they had with their parents. This was the technique that palmists used, he said, ‘Reading’ the lines on the palm was just a bit of fakery. But this kind of ‘concentration’ takes enormous energy and is extremely draining, so he reserves it for his writing. As for Malta Kano’s practice of divination using the water in a person’s house, this was not, as far as he knew, a venerable (if suspect) practice like palmistry. He had simply made it up for the book.

Murakami also has evocative things to say about the relationship between the world of the living and the world of the dead. After telling a British interviewer about Japan’s version of Orpheus descending to Hades to find Eurydice (the story of Izanagi and Izanami), he claimed it was his ‘favorite myth,’ before adding, with regard to certain deceased friends: ‘I feel the dead people around me sometimes. It’s not a ghost story. Just a kind of feeling, or, a kind of responsibility. I have to life for them.’ Asked by a reader if he believes in reincarnation, Murakami replied: ‘My stock answer for that is: ‘I’ll think about it when I’m dead.’’

In other words, Murakami sits on the fence as far as the supernatural is concerned. He is quick to deny belief in it, and yet feels the mind is capable of things science cannot explain. And so his visit to Nomonhan is of some value in illuminating what he went on to write: the third book of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Here Toru encounters the war and violence inside himself, as if they had been waiting for him all that time.”

My next post: Tuesday, July 1st, on The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Book Two, Chapters 3-12.

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