Barn Burning along with the cultural context

February 5, 2021 By mk

Murakami’s short story, Barn Burning (included in The Elephant Vanishes), gives unusual elements in usual life. Its surrealism does not exist in the setting but does in the way that the characters behave. Like many great literature pieces, the story provides a clue to investigate the reader’s own insight, but there is no correct answer.

Following is my interpretation of Barn Burning based on the cultural-historical context and how people behaved in the 1980s when the novel was published.

(1) Historical attitude towards fire and arson

Since 1590 of its establishment, Tokyo (old name Edo) became one of the world’s largest cities in just 120 years; People lived in wooden houses in the dense city, so arson was regarded as one of the worst crimes. The perception still continues until now, and the maximum penalty for arson is death.

Tokyo was the most populous city in the world in 1709, 119 years after its establishment.

In the dense old Tokyo, firefighters were heroes. People admired their fashionable bravery and bought their Ukiyo-e (woodblock print) pin-ups, as people do those of rockstars. Many of those pin-ups are collected by museums now.

Center: painted by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892)
Left and Right: painted by Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900)

The current Tokyo Fire Department team is regarded as a successor of the heroes. In 2011, they went to The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to cool the uncontrollably heated reactors and people praised them as their ancestors did centuries ago, but no pin-ups of the firefighters were sold.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011

In the late 1960s (at the setting time of Norwegian Wood), the far-left students often rioted in town. Initially, people often empathised the protesting students, however, as they started to set fire in the city, the support from the general public was faded, and those students group headed to self-destruction.

Ms Saeki’s boyfriend was killed during this self-destruction process of the protesters.

Miss Saeki’s boyfriend died when he was twenty, Oshima goes on. (Kafka on the Shore, Ch.17)

In 1995, “the cult” committed unprecedented terrorism to spread toxic chemicals in the subway. However, they even did not set fire in town. I wonder if they also had some natural feeling of disgusting arson, even with their super evil nature.

Or rather, “they” are the mirror of “us”! (Underground, Blind Nightmare)

The aversive attitude towards fire remains at the unconscious level. In the recent events in other countries/regions, I found that Japanese people’s empathy towards “protestors” was quickly faded when TV news started to report the fire in town set by the protestors.

In the literature world, setting fire was treated as a metaphor of insane.

One of the most famous examples is The Temple of the Golden Pavilion written by Yukio Mishima in 1956. It is based on a real story of a young monk with a mental disorder set fire to the Golden Pavillion. Mishima clearly depicted the magnitude of the madness and deep desperateness of the arson to the historical national monument.

The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto was originally built in 1397 and rebuilt in 1955, five years after the arson.

Now let me get back to Murakami’s Barn Burning.

(2) The protagonist reaction to barn burning

For some reason, I remembered a play we’d done back in grade school. I was the owner of a glove shop. A baby fox comes in looking for gloves, but he doesn’t have enough money to buy them.
“You can’t buy gloves with that,” I say—the villain.

It was the 1980s style of young people to tell nursery tales when they got drunk. It was surreal but did not make any sense, and nobody listened to it usually. However, Murakami added an implication of the following conversation in the last word.

“—sometimes I burn down barns,” he said.
Excuse me?” I said. I was drifting off, and I must have heard him wrong.
“Sometimes I burn down barns,” he said again.

The confession of “the boyfriend” brought a significant surprise to the protagonist.

“Is it strange?”
“I’m not sure. You burn barns, and I don’t. Obviously, there’s a difference between the two.”

This conversation is funny. The protagonist had already drifted off from the usual moral world by smoking a joint which is strictly banned until now due to another historical reason. But he still tried to draw the line.

“But if you’re caught you’ll be in trouble. It’s arson, after all. You blow it and you could wind up in jail.”
“I won’t get caught,” he said casually.

The protagonist turned to be serious, and the answer from the guy is screwed up. And then, they moved to “morality conversation”.

“I’m out to commit an immoral act. I have my own code of morality.”

In the country where smoking a joint is strictly prohibited, and arson is regarded as a severe crime, the guy’s answer was totally screwed up. The aforementioned cultural context towards arson emphasized the magnitude of screwing up of “the boyfriend”.

After all, it’s not me who burns barns, it’s him. No matter how much the image of burning barns might swell up in my head, I’m just not the barn burning type.

The protagonist obviously came back to himself and drew the line again.

(3) The result of his reaction

The woman’s disappearance lingered more on the protagonist than on “the boyfriend”, and the author left a question to readers about what happened to her.

She doesn’t have a cent,” he continued. “Or any real friends, either. Her address book is crammed, but those are just names. There’s not a single person she can depend on.

The words of “the boyfriend” made ominous implication.

She just disappeared.

The protagonist had to accept the reality with unsettled feeling.

I still run past the five barns every morning. No barn in my neighbourhood has burned down. And I haven’t heard about any barn burning.

The protagonist seemed to felt relief not to see the barns on fire. Unlike William Faulkner’s Barn Burning, the Murakami’s protagonist did not take any action, and the fire did not happen. Still, he seemed to be successful in resisting the temptation of barn-burning, the metaphor of evil immorality.

A tangerine is peeled this way

(4) What helped the protagonist

Before the protagonist realised the boyfriend’s obsession, the foreshadowing was presented in the story’s earlier parts.

I was gazing at the trees in the garden, eating an apple. I must have eaten seven apples that day.

I am not sure if I could say this apple represents the metaphor of the forbidden fruit. However, anyway, he ate the apple. But he also had eaten a tangerine that the girl peeled. I wonder if the tangerine counteracted (I understand it can sound silly).

“You’re pretty talented,” I told her.
“This? It’s easy. It has nothing to do with talent.

In Tokyo’s 1980s context, peeling a tangerine was a special favour from a girl to a boy. (I understand this saying can be taken as gender-biased in 2021, but it actually was in the 1980s when the novel was written.)

To present his appreciation, the boy had to praise the graces of the way the girl peeled; and the girl usually responded that it was an easy job. It was a very typical conversation between the couples (while a boy had to say “it’s easy” when he carried weighty stuff for the girl, and she praised his strength in response).

I wonder if tangerine worked as a vaccine to prevent him from evil.

Over near Nogizaka, I spotted his car in the parking lot of a coffee shop.
Nogizaka, Minato Ward, Tokyo in springtime

(5) Who was “the boyfriend”?

In regards to “the boyfriend,” my favourite surreal interpretation is as follows.

“Just like Gatsby, I thought. A young man who’s a riddle.

“The boyfriend” in Barn Burning may have transmigrated to Gotanda in Dance Dance Dance. And what Gotanda did in DDD had been implied in the boyfriend’s obsession in Barn Burning which represented the inevitable dark side of a human.

In this sense, when I watched “Burning,” the film adaptation of Barn Burning, I wished Ben (the boyfriend) drove Maserati rather than Porsche, although it was a good film itself.

“Yes, the Curse of the Maserati. As you warned me.” Yuki did not answer. (Dance Dance Dance, Ch.41)

Thank you for reading this to the end. Have a good weekend.

<Following was added on March 15, 2021>

Additional trivial topics on “spring fire” in Tokyo

Every year in early March, Haru-Ichiban (the first spring wind) blows over Japan. Historically, big fires happened at this time of the year because it blows after Tokyo’s dry wintertime. Among many, except the wartime and quake, the worst fire happened on March 2/4, 1657, caused by the surreal story collected in English by Koizumi Yakumo (1850-1904), born Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, Greek-Irish descent and became naturalized in Japan in 1896. Although it is not directly related to Murakami, I believe this short story may be interesting for Murakami readers.

<Synopsis> A beautiful 17 years old girl, Umeno, who lived in Azabu (the area of the Willow House in 1Q84), fell in love with a boy but died due to illness. Her parents put her furisode (festive kimono for a young girl) over the funeral coffin and presented the relics to the temple. Following the custom, the sextons sold the furisode to another girl, but she also died, and the furisode went back to the same temple. They then sold it again two times, but the girls died. The sextons felt a connection, and the chief priest decided to burn the furisode and did a memorial service. When the service started, strong winds suddenly blew from the north, and the furisode with the fire soared into the sky, and the fire spread over the city.

Every year, the fire prevention week is set for the first week of March and we see the ad in everywhere in town.

In the street ad
In the subway
In many places on the street