First Look, Non-Spoiler Review: The City and Its Uncertain WallsApril 17, 2023
Let me conclude first. Haruki Murakami’s new novel, The City and Its Uncertain Walls, is brilliant.
It is written by an old maestro who reconstructs the unforgettable memories of his youth, incorporating them into a world he has spent a lifetime creating. Benign obsessions and lyrical sentiments unfold against a backdrop of surreal scenes. And as ‘dream literature’, it continues the lineage of Japanese literature and, for long-time readers, reminds homage to his previous works.
Released on April 13 in Japan
The City and Its Uncertain Walls’ was announced for release on 1 February 2023 with an unknown title. The title was announced on March 1, and after a special message from the author on April 10, the book was released at 00:00 on April 13.
At the Kinokuniya bookshop in Shinjuku (where the protagonist of Norwegian Wood bought Faulkner’s Light in August), a countdown was held at midnight, and people queued up. The next morning, the author’s article appeared in the newspapers, and many people picked up the book, which was stacked in bookshops around the country.
The new novel, ‘The City and Its Uncertain Wall,’ is the title of a novel written exclusively for the magazine in 1980, minus the comma.
The 1980 novel ‘The City, and Its Uncertain Wall’ was published in the September 1980 issue of the magazine and was the prototype for Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, published in 1985. However, at Murakami’s insistence, it was never included in a book, nor was it translated.
In other words, the new novel is the ‘cousin’ of ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’. That is to say, ‘The City and Its Uncertain Walls (1980)’ evolved to ‘The End of the World’, the even-numbered chapter of ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’.
The new novel is in three parts, 672 pages in all. The first part (191 pages) is an extensive refinement of ‘The City, and its Uncertain Walls (1980)’, which is developed in the second part (417 pages) and concluded in the third part (57 pages), with an afterword by the author (8 pages) describing how the novel was written.
It is unusual for Murakami’s work to include an afterword at the end of the novel, but I think the author wanted to express his thoughts on his previous unfinished work and the significance of the context of Covid as a common worldwide experience.
Perhaps decades from now, when this novel will be read by a generation that has never heard of Covid, it will be accepted as a work about fate, dreams and illusions in human nature.
However, if readers with memories of the years 2020-2023 will read the novel, they will be reminded of the environment they were in at the time and the emotions they felt, and they will reflect them back to themselves in a certain atmosphere behind this novel.
Homages to past works
The City and Its Uncertain Walls will appeal to readers new to Haruki Murakami, but there are aspects throughout that will be more pleasing to long-time readers of his works.
Just as a jazz musician spins out their special phrases and rhythms in a transformative way in a session, Murakami, as an author, weaves his unique motifs into his work in various ways, like a watermark. For some readers, the people and background characters in the novel may seem like characters from Murakami’s previous works.
This fertile narrative makes Murakami’s work worth re-reading and presents a unique worldview that is not confined to a single work but is left to the expansion of the reader’s imagination. It also provides a reason to reread past works until the new translation is ready.
Besides ‘Hard-boiled Wonderland and End of the World’, I have noticed some homages to his past works, but maybe (or definitely) more are implied there.
“You want to ask whether or not my ears possess some special power?” I nodded. “That is something you’d have to check for yourself,” she said. “If I were to tell you anything, it might not be of any interest to you. Might even cramp your style.” <A Wild Sheep Chase, Ch.3 (1978)>
she said, she wanted to travel to North Africa. Why North Africa, I didn’t know, but I happened to know someone working at the Algerian embassy, so I introduced her. Thus she decided to go to Algeria. And as things took their course, I ended up seeing her off at the airport. <Barn Burning (1983)>
She showed me around the apartment, a pleasant, if plain, four-room unit: living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bath. It had no extra furniture or unnecessary decoration, but neither was the place severe. There was nothing special about it, but being there was kind of like being with Reiko <Norwegian Wood, Ch.6 (1987)>
I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me?
She showed me her room “Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?”
<The Beatles, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (1965): played by Reiko in Norwegian Wood Ch.6>
Life is a lot more fragile than we think. So you should treat others in a way that leaves no regrets. Fairly, and if possible, sincerely. <Dance Dance Dance, Ch.34 (1988)>
I was loading groceries into the refrigerator when the phone rang. The ringing seemed to have an impatient edge to it this time. <The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Ch.1 (1994)>
“I was alive in the past, and I’m alive now, sitting here talking to you. But what you see here isn’t really me. This is just a shadow of who I was. You are really living. But I’m not. Even these words I’m saying right now sound empty, like an echo.” <Sputnik Sweetheart, Ch.12 (1999)>
I felt utterly alone, like I was the last person alive on Earth. I can’t describe that feeling of total loneliness. I just wanted to disappear into thin air and not think about anything. <Kafka on the Shore, Ch.2 (2002)>
“Want me to go on,” Fuka-Eri asked. “No, that’s fine. Thank you,” Tengo answered, stunned. He understood how those news reporters, at a loss for words, must have felt. “How did you manage to memorize such a long passage?” <1Q84 Book1, Ch.20 (2009)>
Dream Link to Heritage
Japanese literature has a long tradition of novels about dreams. Writers from different eras have created works that draw on homages from across the ages.
In 1985, Haruki Murakami entered the lineage with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. If a writer’s task is to enter into the daily dreams of the people living in that time, and to create a world through verbalisation, then, Dreamreader, the job Murakami created, can be a projection of the author himself.
The last chapter of The Tale of Genji, the world’s oldest novel, written in the 11th century, is titled ‘The Floating Bridge of Dreams’ and sums up the 54-chapter story as a dream, metaphorically sharing the author’s dream with the reader while ending abruptly as if awakening from a dream.
In the 18th century, Akinari Ueda drew on historical narratives to weave a tale of the surprising development that occurs at the point of contact between dream and reality, while in the early 20th century, Soseki Natsume used the form of a dream he had every night for ten days to see through the essence of human nature.
In the 2010 interview, Murakami said: ‘For writers, writing is like dreaming while awake. It is an extraordinary experience that does not always involve logic. I wake up every morning to dream’.
Whether asleep or awake, Murakami’s dreams crystallise in the form of his works, which are shared with readers. His latest achievement is this ‘The City and Its Uncertain Walls’.
Given past practice, a translation of ‘The City and Uncertain Walls’ will probably be published in a year or two, and translators around the world may be busy now.
May the book reach readers worldwide soon, and we can share the excitement of reading this novel.