BooksJanuary 4, 2020

‘I am leaving you’: Michelle Langstone writes her heart out to Haruki Murakami


Summer reissue: Tired of his tropes and infatuations, Michelle Langstone writes about her waning love for the writings of Japanese author Haruki Murakami. 

First published 29 July 2019.

I left you behind with a note that said “Free to a good home. No longer wanted.” Blunt, perhaps, but that’s how it is when love runs out. There isn’t room for sensitivity when it’s an acrimonious separation after many years of infatuation. The afternoon heat in Vietnam brought rain. The windows were blurred with it, and the flashing of red brake lights from taxis and scooters on the street beyond where I left you made it seem like I was walking away from the scene of an accident. 

You wrote something once. Well, you wrote a lot of things, but you wrote something about love and you nestled it like a treasure to be found and thieved and coveted; read again and again in the pages of a book you called Kafka on the Shore. The words were monuments to love, and I built a city around them, dragging stone and glass and timber like a faithful labourer. 

“Your heart is like a great river after a long spell of rain, spilling over its banks. All signposts that once stood on the ground are gone, inundated and carried away by that rush of water. And still the rain beats down on the surface of the river. Every time you see a flood like that on the news you tell yourself: That’s it. That’s my heart.” 

I think it was the last time you showed your heart to me like that. Your love came in hot in your early works, you were giddy with the intensity of feeling you had to share. All your early words carried the mysteries of connection. Sputnik Sweetheart, Norwegian Wood – they were drenched in it. And then you became busier with strange towns and jazz and cats; women wanted you, or they wanted something else, or they couldn’t speak about their longing but you sensed it. Sad women and students divorced from themselves. Pale women with dark hair occupied you. I wore my hair like a curtain and wondered if you’d like it. 

I once lay in bed with a man who was listening to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle on audiobook. He lived with his mother, and she had gone to work on a night shift, so we lay in the cheap sheets in the dark, listening to the story I’d read so often, narrated in an accent that was not American nor British, but existed in a strange vacuum of indistinguishable origins. After the part where you made yourself a simple meal and poured a small glass of beer, you masturbated. I think you’d visited the mysterious well in the neighbouring prefecture, and were at sea in your apartment again. I think that was the order of things. I’ve lost count of those simple constructions, and where they belong, but you were always thoughtful over a meal. We listened to the narrator tell us that you gave yourself a methodically restrained and efficient handjob, and then we had sex. I remember thinking there was some kind of power in that, that I was somehow linked to you forever, by virtue of sexual gratification. I say you because it is you, isn’t it? I go looking for you in every book and I find you instantly. You’re there in a simple meal of grilled chicken and rice with spring onions, you’re there in a lazily-spinning record in a room high in a house, you’re there with your hand on it after a perplexing incident. You gave it a tug more times than I can count, and I wonder if you ever considered restraint. 

You always had a thing for breasts. It’s impossible for you not to comment on them, and I forgave you at first because I was young and I loved the thrill of thinking breasts were worthy of such attention that they made it into nearly every single one of your books. I suppose I thought it was part of what made your writing so alluring — that unashamed gaze on the female. Once I even justified it was a link to your jazz records, to the round shape of them, some kind of motif, something you’d done intentionally to imprint the shape of your world. Honestly, I cringe that I indulged you. 

It grew tired. By the time 1Q84 came around to bludgeon us with its weight and girth, your women were practically sex dolls, and I could trace their outline in the air, even if I’d never know what they were thinking or feeling, or what their heart was like, or if they’d had dreams, once. I left you behind in the height of this breast mania, in Killing Commendatore, where you’d often contemplate your sister’s growing bosom with the lofty musings of a philosopher. She was dying of some kind of affliction that apparently would beset you with psychological issues for the rest of your adult life, but don’t let that stop you describing their budding form, buddy. 

Here’s something, Haruki. You changed translator with your book Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I don’t know why you did that, but I felt it immediately, and it didn’t sit well on me. It was like pulling last winter’s trousers from the cupboard and finding them suddenly ill-fitting, as if they had been made for someone who had no bottom, no curves to speak of. Your voice was lost to me, held just back, as if you existed through a thick pane of glass and I could still see you, but no longer hear you. You always had an elegant way of tangling feeling with practicality, and it was dazzling because you brought Japan with you in your coat pockets, and showed it to me, this formal, structured existence filled with intense and secret passion. 

I think that’s where it all unravelled. You changed, or perhaps I did. Your coat got baggy, and you let the fabric stretch and become misshapen. Nobody stopped you. I remember being excited that Kafka on the Shore was a bit heftier than usual, because it meant more time in your company. When 1Q84 arrived you were a companion I enjoyed in more measured doses. It was fantastic, and fantastical, but it was flabby. Colourless Tsukuru was, well, pale. It was pasty and cumbersome and I didn’t know what the hell was going on, even though I still loved you. There were strains of Norwegian Wood that I’d let out a breath for, when I encountered them, and feel relieved you were still there, before I began to drown in the swathes of vague words again. 

I picked up Killing Commendatore from the bookshop, where I’d reserved a copy, and I felt tired just looking at it. I put you on a shelf intending to read you, and I picked you up and put you down many times and I felt irritated that you asked so much from me. I chose you to come with me to Vietnam because I thought being farther away would help me to connect with you again. I thought we’d have a nice holiday together and remember why we loved each other. You put me over my hand luggage weight allowance. You hurt my shoulder, jammed in my handbag like that. My wrist ached from holding you up, like I’d given myself too many post-meal handjobs. You went on and on about your sister’s breasts and you were blank-eyed and bloodless about your casual lovers and the perfunctory sex you were having. There was the mystery of a painting in an attic, there was a strange cairn of stones and a ringing bell in the night and a man with white hair. Someone made a bingo card of your ‘youness’, did you know that? Every box, something we’d come to know and expect from you. I think I collected the set before I was halfway through the damn thing, it was so full of your tropes. You made ham sandwiches this time, and while I applaud you broadening the scope of your simple meals, the only time ham sandwiches sound appealing is when Enid Blyton writes about them. Look her up – she can give you a good adventure without causing RSI. 

I don’t really want to read about two men listening to classical music for a hundred pages. I don’t really think you can justify a 700-page book, even if you are a legend. Remember when you came to the Auckland Writers Festival and the event sold out and we were giddy for you? Remember when that audience member asked the best question ever recorded in the notoriously fraught ‘question time’, which was approximately “Do you think cats really have magical powers?” and you smiled benignly and said “It is just a cat” and we all applauded and laughed and glowed with your pragmatism, even as we secretly hoped you’d have said yes. Even as we recalled how many times we’d looked carefully at our own moggies, hoping they might say something. 

Even though you can describe the stillness of a scene like you paused the world just to show me, even though your love of running reminds me of my dad, even though your devotion to music is so deep that it creates a soundtrack for every sentence you write, and even though the way you write about longing is as if you have drawn blood from me and examined it under a microscope, I am leaving you. Think of it as a cooling-off period, and a chance for us both to come back to ourselves. Perhaps, down the line, we might make another go of it, but I won’t promise you that. 

As much as it hurts, I think it’s better if we don’t have any contact, so I’m sorry, but I don’t want to hear from you for a while. I’d prefer it if you didn’t write. 

Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami, is available at Unity Books (and, if you’re lucky, the foyer of the Hotel Grand Saigon).

Keep going!