First Person Singular Review (1) Cream

May 5, 2021 By mk

*This article includes possible spoiler

“Cream” is a story based on the protagonist’s memories and begins with a scene in which “I” am telling a younger friend about an old experience “I” had when “I” was 18.

At the beginning of October that year, I received an invitation to a piano recital

As soon as “I” begin to narrate the story of the invitation from a girl, “I” am transported to the past, and the narration and monologue merge into one without realising it. The place where the story is set is obviously based on where the author actually lived. Murakami lived in Ashiya and went to high school and cram school in Kobe.

The recital hall was at the top of one of the mountains in Kobe. I took the Hankyu train line as close as I could, then boarded a bus that made its way up a steep, winding road.
From the arbor, there was a panoramic view of the harbor.
The houses near the top of the slope were large and luxurious, with massive stone walls, impressive front gates, and two-car garages.

Kobe is not an old city. Since the late 19th century, it was developed as an international trading port, and since that time, many foreigners have lived in the city, and Christian churches have been established. It was natural that the protagonist would saw Christian mission cars with “death” and “sin” messages”.

After death, everyone will be severely judged for his sins.”

The protagonist was exhausted and wished to hear “any word, spoken in a reassuring and resolute voice”, but without success. The thought of the girl’s possible hoax depressed him, and he was tormented by unjustified remorse.

But sometimes, without even realizing it, we trample on people’s feelings, hurt their pride, make them feel bad.

What is a circle with many centers?

The geometrical conversation between the “I” and the old man recalls a “koan (公案)”. A koan is a story, a dialogue, a question, or a statement used in Zen practice to provoke the ‘great question’. For example:

Pure wisdom is always in the form of a perfect circle. Its essence is always in a state of quietness, without any clinginess. 浄智妙円体 自空寂 如是功徳不以世求 [景徳伝灯録/jǐngdéchuándēnglù, 1004]

In Zen philosophy, a circle represents the ultimate state of harmony and enlightenment. A common metaphor used for the practice of getting there is the moon, which is constantly changing its shape as it waxes and wanes. Even the full moon, which is the ultimate perfect circle, begins to lose its shape after only one day, but no matter how much the moon appears to be missing, it is only because the missing part is not visible; the body of the moon is always a perfect circle.

In this sense, it is a fair question, “How could a circle that had many (or perhaps an infinite number of) centers exist as a circle?” but no one can give a secure and resolute answer to it. In Zen, by desperately pondering unreasonable koans, we experience for ourselves the limits of analysis and intellectual grasp through thought, and we aim for the state of “nothingness” that frees us from its bondage.

Enso is a form of circular, single-stroke calligraphic painting dating from the 7th century, symbolically representing enlightenment, truth, Buddhahood and the universe in the form of a circle. It has been depicted in various forms from ancient times to the contemporary era, but its interpretation is entirely up to the viewer.

“There’s nothing worth getting in this world that you can get easily.”

Murakami adds a twist to the typical Zen story of a boy and an old man by adding the French words, which is also the name of a confectionery shop in modern Tokyo. For the protagonist, it was completely incomprehensible at the age of eighteen, but now that he is older and closer to the state of nothingness, it is beginning to make sense. (But he still doesn’t have the answers.)

But thinking about it later, from a distance, after time had passed, it came to feel insignificant, not worth getting upset about. I felt as though it had nothing at all to do with the cream of life.”

who is the old man?

I wonder whether this old man is the protagonist of the present or of some years to the future. If it is the latter, did he go to see his younger self just before he dies, to tell him the essence that his old self has acquired in life?

And even now, whenever something disturbing happens to me, I ponder again that special circle, and the boring and the worthless. And the unique cream that must be there, deep inside me.

According to the story, the protagonist is still thinking about the special circle as he ages. In other words, he is still in a state of questioning, in a seamless loop between the future, the present and the past. The good news is that if the state of the protagonist is indicative of the author’s own state, Murakami is currently in the process of generating a story before arriving at the answer and sharing the result with the reader. In other words, his creation will continue.