14 September 2008

After Dark ราตรีมหัศจรรย์

After Dark has just been translated into Thai and I didn't hesitate to buy it upon first seeing. Of course, you may accuse me of getting lazy to read the work in its English translation. But my rationale is that even the English edition is the translated one. So why bother?

Like Wong Kar Wai, Haruki Murakami has done a great job in making us believe that being lonely is cool, as well as listening to jazz and smoking in public places, coffee shops especially. In After Dark, Murakami revisits his signature themes, such as urban angst, loneliness, and alienation. Characters in this sleek novel loiter in the dark world of an anonymous city (probably none other than Tokyo). They are probably the Japanese version of those in Thailand who belong to the so-called Sleepless Society clan, engineered by the mastermind named Narongvit.

All the main characters are lost in some way or another in the big city, not knowing what they want or why they live. Mari likes to read a novel in a cafe at night-time; Takahashi likes to play his trombone in a secret place underneath a building. Then, due to the weird twist and turn of events, Mari needs to be an ad-hoc translator for a Chinese prostitute who has been maltreated by an unsatisfied businessman at a seedy hotel called Alphaville. But the irony is Mari never feels estranged at this hotel, even wishing to return there to talk to people at work there. Of course, she's more comfortable talking to strangers than to those she "knows well".

Some might say that this novel represents another optimistic turn in Murakami's career, when he sees some hope in this city life, when Mari manages to learn about love and care in one single night as she eventually returns home to help bring her sister Eri back from an existential slumber.

However, I choose to look another way. I'm more interested in violence in this novel. The guy who brutally beats up the Chinese prostitute turns out to be a simple guy, someone really normal who works in an unknown office somewhere in the city. His plainness is somewhat errie, as it means that we city-dwellers are prone to commit such an act of violence. Life in the city has somehow bestowed pressure upon us, whether we realise it or not. And this violence is infectious, spreading like a plague. For those who wish to survive in this urban arena, you must either be an alpha-male slaving away during the day time and becoming a sadistic evil at night, or you must retreat from the whole thing, sleeping yourself away like Eri in a condition of social withdrawal called hikikomori.

One of the scenes I like is the Chinese prostitute's mobile phone, which is left by the businessman at a 7-Eleven, to be found later by Takahashi and a sales assistant. Threatening messages from a Chinese gangster are heard by these Japanese characters. By such a symbolic gesture, violence is committed across time, space, and even language, to those who are not directly involved in the original act. But then can we really say that they are completely absolved from the crime? In this cityspace of intertwining, net-like human relations, we are all connected in some way or another. Without knowing, I by listening to the music of Pink Martini today may contribute to the genocide in a far-away country tomorrow.

Perhaps what Murakami is saying is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to avoid an act of violence (either us being victimised, or on the contrary us hurting other people) in the city where the relationships among city-dwellers are both complex and ultra-sensitive. To live (or to just survive) therefore means simply to acknowledge this and to help each other go through. But then where's the destination? No destination but really just another site of darkness perhaps.

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