First Person Singular Review (6) CarnavalMay 5, 2021
*This article includes possible spoiler
Carnaval is about a friendly relationship with a woman with a deep knowledge of classical music, and the destiny of that woman in the form of a recollection of past memories.
Besides the story, Murakami seems to have assumed that he would write about the portrayal of the female character at the edge of correctness. He has spent a lot of time at Princeton and belongs to a liberal community, so he has a complete understanding of correctness. And he may have been aware that some people might say that his way of portrayal of women is misogynistic and that some expression may strike a nerve with those people, but he wrote;
Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.
The following is a generally accepted concept in many modern societies in all parts of the world.
- Being beautiful is a favourable characteristic. (So that we can say he/she is beautiful)
- Being ugly is an unfavourable characteristic. (So that we should not say he/she is ugly)
- Having favourable characteristic leads to a good relationship.
- Having unfavourable characteristic leads to a bad relationship.
We are not supposed to portray people as “ugly” on the basis of the above presumption, according to recent codes of correctness. We are also supposed to attribute appearances only to positive aspects (i.e. we can say “you are beautiful”, but we should not say “you are ugly”). For example, the following statement is totally inappropriate
“He told me that my face is plain but my body is the best.” (On a Stone Pillow)
However, Murakami has devised an ingenious way of dealing with the aforementioned general acceptance, so that the protagonist has a good and respectable relationship with the woman after having repeatedly called her ugly without fear of offending the reader. For all appearances, the relationship between the protagonist and the woman is a pure exchange of favours.
The piece is the ideal of playful music, but within that playfulness, you can catch a glimpse of the specters lurking inside the psyche. The playful sounds lure them out from the darkness.” She was silent for a while, and then continued. “All of us, more or less, wear masks. Because without masks we can’t survive in this violent world. Beneath an evil-spirit mask lies the natural face of an angel, beneath an angel’s mask lies the face of an evil spirit.
Isn’t she an ideal friend with whom one can discuss art and music?
She came to my house several times, but more often than not I went to hers, as she lived near the center of the city, while I was out in the suburbs. After hearing forty-two recorded versions of the piece, her number one choice was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s recording for Angel Records, and mine was Arthur Rubinstein’s RCA recording.
Then the author made another twist: she and her husband were arrested for fraud. At least, while the protagonist was spending time with her, the evil spirit behind her mask was not visible.
Maybe some negative force in her relationship with that man had sucked her into some criminal vortex. Maybe her own evil spirit was quietly hidden at its center. That’s the only way I could fathom it.
“I” met her frequently and discussed Schumann with her, but because she did not reveal anything personal, “I” did not know anything about her. In explaining Schumann’s split soul, she implied the existence of her own evil spirit, but this did not matter to the protagonist. It is like the “Sphinx”, an unplayed sound anagram of Schumann’s “Carnival”.
Regarding the concept of beauty, in 1923, Ryunosuke Akutagawa wrote a short story called “Two Komachis (Futari Komachi: 二人小町)”. It is about two women, one of whom is very beautiful and the other not so much.
Ono no Komachi, known as the most beautiful woman in history, was visited by a rabbit-eared emissary from Hades. The emissary was sent to condemn her to hell, but he felt sorry for her as she begged for her life and said he would help her if she offered him a woman with the same name as a substitute.
Ono no Komachi : Komachi! Is there anyone named Komachi? Yes, there is. There is a Komachi in Tamatsukuri. Please take her instead of me.
Emissary: Is she the same age as you?
Ono no Komachi: Yes, she is about the same age as me. She is not a pretty girl, but you do not care for her looks, do you?
Emissary: No, not at all. (Amiably) It’s better if she’s ugly, so I don’t feel sorry for her.
Ono no Komachi: (Lively) Then let her go. She says she would rather live in hell than on earth, as she has no one to meet.
And the emissary was on his way to take Tamatsukuri no Komachi to Hell. She claimed that Ono no Komachi had lied and did not want to go to hell herself. On the other hand, she said that she loved the handsome emissary and asked him to take the hateful Ono no Komachi in her place. Later, the emissary went to Ono no Komachi’s house again but was rebuffed by the guardian deity.
Decades later. Two old female beggars had fallen on hard times and would rather die than suffer any longer. They were Ono no Komachi and Tamatsukuri no Komachi, and they asked the emissary to take them to hell. But the emissary refused, not wanting to get into trouble again. When the two Komachis said, “Please hate us,” the Emissary replied, “I cannot hate you. If I could hate you, I would have been more fortunate,” he replied and went away.
(Excerpt translation of “Two Komachis (二人小町)” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, 1923)
In this story, Akutagawa began to describe the story as if it were progressing by contrasting beautiful and ugly women. As the story progresses, however, the reader learns that appearance has nothing to do with destiny. Akutagawa’s device in this story is to remind readers that they tend to be bound by preconceived notions of women’s looks, and on the contrary, to reveal that looks have nothing to do with it.
At the beginning of Carnaval, Murakami painstakingly describes the details of women’s ugliness, as if he was writing an observation report. This unflinching description leaves the reader wondering if the author has any malice or misogyny towards women.
However, as the story progressed, the protagonist clearly became intrigued by the woman. Their relationship came to an end with her arrest, which was completely out of the protagonist’s control. The story then moves on to another unattractive girl. The protagonist uses the word “unattractive”, but he was clearly attracted to her. And the relationship ended with the loss of her phone number.
As it turned out, it didn’t matter what she looked like. Can we not think of it as the wisdom of the experienced author, who looked back on his life with the virtue of modesty, saying: “These were both nothing more than a pair of minor incidents that happened in my trivial little life”