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Book recommendation: After Dark by Huraki Murakami

I've been a fan of Murakami for a while now. The more I read from him, the more I start to notice the similarities between his works. Sometimes it seems to me like there is almost a formula to his novels. For example,  they often feature isolated characters that like to read and listen to music. Naturally they also like to converse about it. In addition, cats are always mentioned. That all being said, his works still feel unique in their own way. Motives are repeated, but the stories feel fresh. Perhaps it is true what Alberto Moravia said (something along the lines of this): great writers are repetitive because they're trying to answer the question they were born to answer. If Murakami is repetitive, there is a sense in his repetitiveness. 

What kind of novel is this? A novel about two sisters who are more alike than it might seem at first. A novel about two strangers establishing a genuine connection. A typical Murakami novel, one might add. It might be a a bit shorter than others with a touch of experimental writing going on, but After Dark is not that different from his other works. If you like Murakami's style of writing, this novel will probably won't leave you feeling disappointed. I read some reviews that said that this is not his best work and I would tend to agree with that. Still, I believe this novel is worth a read. It is a book that made me ask questions and that's always a good thing. Like in all Murakami's novels, there were some hauntingly beautiful passages. Another thing that fascinated me was how the writer managed to fit the story into a very limited time-line. Everything that happens, happens after dark (meaning one afternoon and night), but within that time, memories are introduces- and that show cases just how fragile our understanding of time is. Time is relative, isn't it? 


It is probably worth mentioning that all events in this novel happen during a single afternoon/night. In that sense, the title After Dark is very appropriate. Besides things that actually happen, there is a lot of talk of things that happened in the past. The characters themselves analyse their own actions and wonder in what ways their past has shaped them. There is a lot of confessing and remembering going on. In that sense, it could be said that this novel also speaks of memories and analyses our relationship with the past.


Strangers in the night. That's the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of this novel. By that I primarily mean Takahashi and Mari, because that is what they basically are. Two strangers coming together, two individuals who slowly but surely start a genuine conversation. A conversation that causes an inner change in them to come about.

“I have been told I've got a darkish personality. A few times."Takahashi swings his trombone case from his right shoulder to his left. Then he says, "It's not as if our lives are divided simply into light and dark. There's shadowy middle ground. Recognizing and understanding the shadows is what a healthy intelligence does. And to acquire a healthy intelligence takes a certain amount of time and effort. I don't think you have a particularly dark character.” ― Haruki MurakamiAfter Dark

At first their conversation is a bit dry. Mari clearly wants to be by herself and read her book in peace but since the restaurant is packed (or so he claims), Takahashi sits next to her. The reason why he wants to talk to Mari is because they sort of know each other. They’ve been a double date some time ago, and now Takahashi questions Mari about it- and about her sister who is a known beauty.


Not a good way to start a conversation with a young lady? Asking her questions about her sister in comparison to whom she seems an ugly duckling? Well, you’ll have to read and see….for I don’t want to spoil anything for you. This novel (some might argue a novelette) is rather short, so it is best not to reveal too much of what is about to happen after this conversation.

I will, however, say that Hari, whom Murkami describes with care in the very beginning, is certainly an interesting character. The fact that she plans to spend an entire night reading the book tells us something about her- but as she engages in the conversation we learn even more. Speaking of that conversation, one could even argue that this conversation is what puts things into action. Alright, After Dark is not exactly plot driven novel, but the events that take place, take place mostly because of that conversation. The conversation is important for both the plot and the ending.
Sure enough, their conversation gets interrupted a couple of times, but these two do talk- and they talk well. Honestly, I could have had listened to them talk for another novel or two. These two establish a real conversation, one in which they do more than confess their secrets to one another, they share something genuine- and that sharing is what leads to possible changes in their lives. Their honesty opens a new world to them, I would add.


Dialogues often play an important role in Murakami’s novels and After Dark is no exception. Moreover, in After Dark those dialogues are often conversations between people who just met- but who have for whatever reason, connected. Often secrets are discovered and told in these conversations- sometimes just hinted on but at any rate, there is a lot of sharing (intellectual/emotional/imaginative) going on. Dialogues also serve as a link between different characters. Most conversations are between two people (as far as I noticed), so mentioning other people is a way to not add more light to characters as well as explain the dynamics of different relationships/ friendship.

Apart from THE conversation I just talked about, there are many interesting dialogues in this novel. It could even be argued that dialogues are a writing tool for Murakami. It is mostly through dialogues that we learn more about characters. When Mari speaks with a young Chinese immigrant girl, we learn a lot about Mari as well- if not right away but later on. For example, in conversation with Takahashi and others Mari reflects on the girl. Similarly, every time Mari connects with another female character she just met, we learn a bit more about Mari- and about the estranged relationship with her sister. During this difficult night three different women open up to Mari and as a result she opens up to them- and not only to them. I suppose that speaking with strangers is really easier sometimes.


If you think about it, reading is a bit like talking to a stranger. As a reader, we are listeners. We might comment, but the other side doesn’t really hear us- as is true in real conversations. Sometimes, the conversation really comes to life years after it happened- when we realize what was really said or implied. I described some conversations that took place in this novel as meaningful dialogues and that is how I viewed them- but there was one conversation (that was retold by Takahashi) that explained exactly that kind of situation- a person (a woman) who talked to Takahashi wasn’t really talking to him, or establishing a dialogue but rather just getting things of her chest. I can’t help wondering isn’t writing a bit like that. You just let things out for others to find…or is writing more like an endless conversation, one that goes on for an eternity? What about reading then? Are writing and reading just an endless dialogue of sorts? Is there such a thing as a true monologue? Or does our speech always carry the ghosts of others? Does our every utterance depend on others as much as on ourselves?

“You know what I think?" she says. "That people's memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn't matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They're all just fuel. Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand-yen bills: when you feed 'em to the fire, they're all just paper. The fire isn't thinking 'Oh, this is Kant,' or 'Oh, this is the Yomiuri evening edition,' or 'Nice tits,' while it burns. To the fire, they're nothing but scraps of paper. It's the exact same thing. Important memories, not-so-important memories, totally useless memories: there's no distinction--they're all just fuel.” 


Reflection is an important theme in this one. Mari and her sister Eri are reflected in one another. On surface, they couldn’t be more different. Eri is the model/student/beauty who tries to please everyone and ends up being miserable. Mari is the individualist/student/ insomniac who tries to please herself but is aware that she hasn’t accomplished much. Both sisters probably envy one another- and they don’t realize how similar they really are. Reflection also happens when we experience Eri’s dreams (if that is what those postmodernist chapters are) and see her reflected in and within the screen. Mari is also reflected in the Chinese immigrant girl who is exactly the same age as she is.


The motive of revenge is subtly woven into this story. During the course of this novel, a violent crime occurs. A man beats up a prostitute in a love hotel named Alphaville (taken in consideration the theme of SF movie of the same title, the name of the hotel seems appropriate). Will this vile man be punished? Will there be a just punishment for his crime? Some things that happen in the novel seems to suggest that there will be but noting is absolutely sure….but the funny thing is- as far as the narrative follows this guy he seems perfectly normal. He listen to classical music while he works long hours, he talks with his wife in a perfectly civil way…. What makes him beat up a young girl? Perhaps Murakami wanted to examine a darker part of human nature. More than once in the novel, there is this implication that there are many things hidden in the darkness- and it is not only the darkness of the night, or the darkness of some dark sinister alley- it is also our own personal darkness, things we hide and are afraid of, things that grow in the dark. Crime, punishment and justice are some of the issues examined in this one. Similarly, Takahashi suddenly decides to becomes a serious student of law (rather than a band musician who was only pretending to be a law student) after he witnesses a trial that shakes him up. During his long conversation with Hari, Takahashi had on one occassion spoke of how he suddenly realized there is no thick wall separating people who commit murder and regular people. Everyone can become a criminal, a murderer…. Perhaps it is true that everyone has their own demons, will they fight them or let them take over is up to them.


Insomnia is an important motive in this one. Mari is an insomniac and it seems that her sister sleeps enough for both of them. However, her sister’s sleep is actually a sign of distress- as is probably her own insomnia. Too much or too little sleep- neither is healthy or good- and in this novel perhaps both signal inner unhappiness. The atmosphere of the book is very much in accordance with the title of the book. At one point it is hinted that time flows differently during the night. I would have to agree with that. I would just hinted to add that Murakami did a good job at capturing that strange flow of time.


I know it was said a million times, but there is really something dreamy about the way Murakami writes. In this novel, his language is somewhat simplified- and not as poetic as usual (as far as I can remember) but still his writing flows beautifully. The novel is, unless I’m mistaken, set in Tokyo. This urban environment doesn’t hinder the dreamy atmosphere of the book- it reinforces it. The places where events take place are places ignored by society- a restaurant late at night, love hotel and back alleys. Perhaps it is just as the protagonist of the Orpheus Descending said, two different kind of people inhabit a city- night people and day people. They live very different lives and never meet- despite living in the same dream.


I found the narrative voice to be very interesting. For most part, it is a third person narration that fits well with long dialogues. At times, the descriptions resemble those of a script. That makes this novel seems like a film at times. This is especially so in those chapters that are written in camera mode. Those would be the chapters that focus on Sleeping Beauty- Eri. The narrative voice informs us of this camera mode and speaks directly to us as readers. It mentions, more than once, that it (the voice) is just a visual observer that it can’t influence events or glance into Eri’s mind. Those postmodern chapters were well written and only a bit confusing. Who is the man with the mask? All in all, I would say that the postmodern and experimental elements fit the novel well. As I said, some things are still unclear to me. For example, was there really someone stalking Eri? Was that stranger in the screen just a metaphor? Or was he manifestation of her own fears? Or of our own fears?


I actually picked up this novel while I was in the library and read it there. I was in mood for a Murakami book, so I went with this one and I’m not sorry I read it. The novel did feel familiar in terms of the style it was written but not in a bad way, it wasn’t boring or predictable, it just felt like being on a known territory. I have picked After Dark up expecting to enjoy it- and I sure it.

IF I WAS 19…..

If I was 19, I would probably give this novel five starts. Not that it can’t be read by regular adults, but it seems to be simply perfect for young adults/teenagers. Not just because of the self-searching theme (for really that process of trying to figure out who we are---- can happen and probably does happen at any age) but because I felt a lot like Takahashi and Mari when I was their age. I felt this feeling of restlessness, uncertainty and cautious optimism that is so characteristic of young adults. Most of the characters in this novel are quite young- and I’m kind of sorry I didn’t read this novel sooner. I would have probably enjoyed it more if I was 19 or in my early twenties. 


This novel was an easier read than I expected- I don’t mean that it was too light or anything like that. After Dark was not in any way banal. It was inspiring enough to make me write a long review and that counts for something, right? This novel is perhaps more complex that it seems at first glance. It certainly deals with some profound topics, but still I have this impression that it is not as complex as other Murakami’s works. It is complex enough to be called good literature, but as far as Murakami is concerned, I must admit that I liked his other works more. After Dark was very readable and approachable, yet it was not my favourite Murakami so far. I can’t point my finger at what is missing- but I do have a feeling that something was left unsaid. Simply said, it is not- at least in my view- Murakami at its best. However, it is still a very good novel. Highly recommended!

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