The moments I found most compelling in this energetic, violent and hallucinatory Japanese novel are the descriptions of decaying landscapes. Here is one that comes near the beginning, when the two main characters – Kiku and Hashi – discover an abandoned mining town:
They cut across the playground of the abandoned school, past a twisted and broken horizontal bar. Cactuses grew luxuriantly in the sandbox, their needles covering the surface of a nearby pool filled with murky water. Three telephone poles, rotted and splitting, provided a nest for thousands of termites, and clouds of transparent wings filled the air. Beyond this translucent curtain, the boys could make out a town, or rather a row of empty shops facing a row of abandoned brothels and bars, and between the two a street from which the pavement was mostly gone.
“Look! Isn’t that beautiful!” cried Hashi, suddenly pointing toward a pit which contained, apparently, all the broken glass tubing from the neon signs on the bars and restaurants. The shards formed a luminous carpet that sparkled when the wind blew, shifting the bits of glass to catch the sunlight at new angles.
Ryu Murakami twists these images of dilapidation so that decay becomes beautiful. Termites are seen as a ‘translucent curtain’; a pit of broken glass is a ‘luminous carpet’.
This transformative process goes on throughout the novel. Violence becomes elegant and repulsive images grab you. It is certainly not for the squeamish, but you can work that out just from the very first sentence:
The woman pushed on the baby’s stomach and sucked its penis into her mouth; it was thinner than the American menthols she smoked and a bit slimy, like raw fish.
Hashi and Kiku are two babies, who are found abandoned in coin-operated lockers. They are taken into an orphanage, where they become inseparable, and are then adopted as brothers. The novel follows their lives as they grow up and spin out in different directions.
Neither of them is able to shed his awful start in life, those early hours of being left in a coin locker. When they are at the orphanage, they start to show characteristics of autism and are taken to a therapist who plays them the sound of a heartbeat. They spend their lives haunted by this sound, and by other repressed memories from their early years.
Kiku and Hashi never manage to leave their coin lockers behind. As they grow up, they move into other suffocating institutions and bounded societies – orphanages, schools, a prison, a recording studio, the hold of a boat, a mental institution. The book abounds with these closed confining spaces, making stark opposites to the open, uncared for wild places beyond these walls. There is the abandoned town, described above, and ‘Toxitown’ – an imagined part of Tokyo where society’s castoffs live lawless lives of violence, prostitution and yet also freedom.
The original coin lockers come to stand for these other institutions and for society as a whole:
Nothing had changed, not one thing – not since he’d let out that first scream in the coin locker. The locker was bigger, maybe; the new one had a pool and gardens, with a band, people wandering about half-naked, and you could keep pets – yes this one had all kinds of shit; museums, movie theaters, and mental hospitals – but it was still a huge coin locker, and no matter how many layers of camouflage you had to dig through if you felt like digging, in the end you still ran up against a wall.
The two boys are always pushing against the walls that confine them. What Murakami does so brilliantly is conjure what is on the other side of those walls. Toxitown is a bleak vision of violence, a kind of anti-society. It is a dystopia in which the two boys seem to flourish. Murakami’s portrayal of this lawless world begs all sorts of questions: Would we become these sawed-off-shotgun-wielding crazies and glassy-eyed prostitutes if we didn’t play by the rules of society? Is this anti-society better than our current society? These difficult questions make for disturbing yet compelling reading.
Coin Locker Babies is one of four novels by Ryu Murakami published by Pushkin Press this week. Best known for publishing intelligent European classics, like Stefan Zweig (see this post) and Antal Szerb, these books by Murakami suggest that Pushkin is branching out to the rest of the world. While, on the face of it, Coin Locker Babies couldn’t be more different to something like Zweig’s Beware of Pity, both books are gripping and unexpected. They both suck you into a different, stranger world. I’m excited to see what Pushkin will publish next.