published in The Independent, 16 August 2014
by Peter Popham
It was the coming again of Harry Potter fever. Charing Cross bookshop Foyles stayed open all night to celebrate with jazz, the Royal Opera House and the Tate Modern were bathed in images of the cover, bookshops across the country happily anticipated a Rowling-like rush for the tills as the new Haruki Marukami novel, snappily entitled Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, became the book to beat in the pre-Christmas rush, having sold a million in Japan within a week of release.
But the comparisons are misleading: Murakami is nothing like J K Rowling. He may sell like Tom Clancy, yet remains a cult. He is as big as Dan Brown, but fans share their love of him like a happy secret.
At the heart of the new book we find a Murakami hero who is very much like all the ones that came before.
“It was as if he were sleepwalking through life,” he writes in the first chapter, “as if he had already died but not yet noticed it. When the sun rose, so would Tsukuru – he’d brush his teeth, throw on whatever clothes were at hand…He only spoke to people when necessary, and after school he would return to his solitary apartment, sit on the floor, lean back against the wall, and ponder death and the failures of his life…”
The prose is as flat and colourless as the protagonist. Then things happen: terrible things, beautiful things. He is attacked by birds with razor-sharp beaks and his flesh somehow becomes something else. “Tsukuru couldn’t fathom what this substance was. He couldn’t accept or reject it. It merely settled on his body as a shadowy swarm, laying an ample amount of shadowy eggs.” A vivacious, flirtatious woman takes him in hand. A challenge is presented which he forces himself to meet. Yet there is no transformation, no epiphany. Through everything he remains the same, his flat, pedestrian voice and tone of melancholy mystification as distinctive as Kafka’s.
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949. His father was the son of a Buddhist priest, his mother the daughter of a merchant from Osaka. Both parents taught Japanese literature. He moved to Tokyo to study drama at Waseda, one of Japan’s top universities. But he is on record as saying that he only reads western novels. He rejected his own literary heritage, and Japan’s academic literary establishment, in the form of the veteran novelist Kenzabruo Oe, has repaid the compliment.
As a young man, Murakami’s immersion in popular youth culture was reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s. After university his first job was working in a record shop. With his wife Yoko, whom he had met at Waseda – they are still together but have no children – he then opened a jazz-cum-coffee bar which they ran together for several years. Then he started writing, eventually doing it full time. “One night,” he explained to an interviewer, “looking down the bar of [my] club, I saw some black American soldiers crying because they missed America so much…I realised that, no matter how much I loved this western culture, it meant more to these soldiers than it ever could for me. That was really why I began to write.”
His novels were successful from the start but it was with the third one, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), that he found the tone for which he is beloved and familiar: sad, disconnected young mass man, living in a contemporary urban Japan which has nothing Japanese about it, meets bizarre circumstances which suggest weighty, symbolic significance or fanciful absurdity or both. Belying the mournful, pedestrian narrative voice, the results were beguiling and quickly captured readers in their snares.
The influences were overwhelmingly American: Kurt Vonnegut’s cocktail of science fiction fantasy and drily rendered, prosy reality; the capricious, feather light whimsy of Richard Brautigan; touches of Raymond Carver and the J D Salinger of The Catcher in the Rye, which Murakami has translated. His breakout book was Norwegian Wood, published in 1987, which sold millions to young Japanese and made him a household name. Averse to most of the paraphernalia of fame, he beat a retreat to the US, writing several more novels while a fellow at American universities including Harvard.
His absence from Japan reflected the absence of Japan – in any outwardly recognisable form – from his work. This changed abruptly after the twin traumas of the Kobe earthquake and the deadly sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. He returned home, and for the first time wrote books concretely related to real events – a non-fiction work consisting of interviews with survivors of the gas attacks, and a book of stories tapping into the collective emotion generated by the earthquake.
But if these works suggested that Murakami was moving into more mainstream ‘social’ fiction, he has since returned to the enigmatic and surreal domains which are his favoured territory. And his fame has continued to multiply, with his three-volume doorstopper 1Q84 (2011) selling out its first Japanese edition in a single day and selling a million within a month.
Murakami’s prodigious productivity, can be at least partly traced to his intensely disciplined and methodical approach: he works every morning, aims to sleep by 9pm every night, and allows few of the fripperies of fame to get in the way of his work. This recalls the equally disciplined approach of the otherwise wildly different Yukio Mishima, who set aside specific days each year to write specific works. He is also a committed runner, having run more than 30 marathons, and has written a book about that passion.
But what is the secret of his worldwide success? His first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, responsible for the English version of A Wild Sheep Chase, says, “Part of his popularity is that his novels are dislocated from Japan in a globalised nowhere. I tend to think of him as an American writer who happens to write in Japanese – sort of a reverse Kazuo Ishiguro. He is a poor man’s Vonnegut, whose dry offhand style and admixture of absurd SF and routine everyday reality he copied so many years ago – albeit without the political depth.”
But others find something hauntingly Japanese in the very absence of any overt Japanese culture in his work – reflecting the fact that in urban Japan, Western culture’s triumph is now complete: the last gasp of resistance to it from the literary world was Yukio Mishima’s grotesque act of seppuku [hara-kiri] in 1970.
Murakami knows Japanese culture is now beyond rescue – but he also knows that something’s gone missing. “Something has vanished in these 25 years,” he said in 1990, “some kind of idealism. It has vanished, and we became rich.” The result is the aching emptiness shared by all his protagonists. As the critic Celeste Loughman puts it, “Neither materialism itself nor the preference for western popular culture is the problem. The problem is that’s all there is.”
Or is that really a problem, or an insight disguised as a problem? The Buddhist tradition to which Murakami is connected via his father describes emptiness, ‘shunyata’ in Sanskrit, as indistinguishable from form. And that is not a source of woe, because the self, too, is an illusion. These are the insights glimmering through Murakami’s texts which explain why they are not terminally depressing but on the contrary exhilarating – and intensely Japanese.
by Peter Popham
Amidst the general disarray of a hideous August, here is one more reason to hang your head: Navi Pillay is retiring.
Name not mean much? Well it should. South Africa’s first non-white female judge, after becoming the first South African woman of colour to open her own law office, Pillay has been the world’s most powerful and effective champion of human rights for the past six years.
The phrase ‘human rights’ has no meaning for the pseudo-religious mob crucifying and decapitating their way across northern Syria and Iraq. But the fact that elsewhere even tyrants still feel the need to keep torture, unlawful detention and extra-legal killing under wraps is a measure of the extent to which Pillay and her colleagues have kept up the pressure.
On her watch the UN’s Human Rights Council has found a new sense of purpose. When the civil war in Sri Lanka was brought to a bloody end in May 2009, Amnesty International and others were quick to highlight the dreadful price Tamil civilians had paid for the peace. But the UNHRC merely saw the upside of the war’s end, “welcoming the conclusion of hostilities” and “the liberation…of tens of thousands of… citizens… as well as the efforts by the Government to ensure the safety and security of all Sri Lankans and to bring permanent peace to the country.” It merely parroted the Colombo government’s line and gave it a pat on the head.
Enter Navi Pillay. Five years on, after bitter, extended and often personal abuse by the Sri Lankan authorities, usually splashed across the front pages of Colombo’s government-controlled dailies, an exceptionally strong UN investigation into alleged abuses during the conflict is getting under way, in defiance of sustained efforts to derail it.
Up to 40,000 Tamil civilians are believed to have been killed as the army set about exterminating the Tigers’ brutal insurgency. And although the rebels’ two political chiefs tried to surrender, diplomats say that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of the president, ordered them to be killed – as they duly were. The source for that claim was General Sarath Fonseka, the army chief who was himself vindictively court-martialed and jailed after the war’s end.
Close scrutiny of how the war ended is therefore the last thing that Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa clan wish. One of the ways they tried to discredit Navi Pillay was by trumpeting her own ethnic origins, as the daughter of a South African Tamil bus driver. She responded by calling claims that she was biased and a tool of the rebels “deeply offensive.” She is on record as calling the Tigers “a murderous organisation”, which it surely was, and the government’s repatriation of 300,000 people displaced by war as “impressive”, which is also true.
Sri Lanka has been only one of Navi Pillay’s many battlefields during her six years in office, during which she has briefed the UN Security Council more times than all her predecessors combined. But it is perhaps the one that has evoked most strongly her courage and determination. She has also incurred volcanic fury from both sides in the Gaza wars and been described by the Syrian ambassador to the UN as “a lunatic”. The US has never agreed to her requests to look into what she calls “the many issues that trouble us” in that country, in particular drone strikes and targeted killings, while somehow the Chinese could never find a suitable date for her to pay a visit.
She has, in other words, been a world-class troublemaker. Prince Zeid of Jordan, her successor, will find he has very large boots to fill.
by Peter Popham
It was a scoop any western journalist would have been proud of: one can easily imagine it running in the New Yorker under Seymour Hersh’s illustrious byline. Four journalists working for Burma’s Unity Journal claimed to have uncovered a secret chemical weapons factory run by former generals, Chinese technicians and government officials.
But instead of winning an award, the four journalists and their boss are now serving ten years in jail with hard labour.
The law under which they were charged, the Burma State Secrets Act, was a colonial measure, enacted by the British in 1923. Their arrest was ordered directly by President Thein Sein – a man eulogised by the outside world as a courageous reformer, the leader who ushered in a new era of freedom and development.
Was the report a sensational discovery, a bold and brilliant job of reporting, or a mere fabrication? We will probably never know: the government said it was ‘baseless’, but failed to follow up by opening the military facility up to other reporters. Instead, in the time-honoured manner of Burmese generals, the hedgehog rolled into a ball. “If media freedom threatens national security,” the President told the Mirror, a state-run daily, “…we will take effective action under existing laws.”
This is all very dispiriting. And it must be especially so for US Secretary of State John Kerry, heading to Naypyidaw, the Burmese capital, for a regional summit this weekend.
Burma was supposed to have changed beyond recognition since Thein Sein, himself a former general, became president in 2011. But in this process of legalised repression and draconian imprisonment, one recognises precisely the regressive, paranoid hand of the generals who held Burma in thrall for 50 years.
The ASEAN Regional Forum, as the summit is called, is a feather in President Thein Sein’s cap. It was in order to be considered worthy of the honour of hosting such events, and the kudos of welcoming the likes of Mr Kerry, that he went out on a limb, rolling back press censorship, freeing most political prisoners and enacting other important reforms. They had the desired effect: first the EU then the US lifted the sanctions that had frozen trade relations with the West for decades. Mr Obama welcomed his Burmese counterpart to the Oval Office, and for the first overseas outing of his second term headed straight for the one foreign destination that he could claim as an unblemished success story of his first four years.
Unblemished it is no more. The legalised assault on Unity Journal’s brave journalists was just like the bad old days. Courageous journalism suddenly became very much harder to do.
The west’s sanctions were criticised for harming the Burmese poor and crippling development. But there is no doubt that without that lever, the West would have had a much harder job persuading Burma to change.
Now the sanctions are all gone but the job of reform is only half done. And while the Unity Journal’s staff are paying an outrageous price for doing their jobs, the government is digging in its heels and refusing even to consider further, much-needed reforms.
In the past three months, a coalition of opposition forces has been holding rallies to demand radical reform of the constitution, designed to cut back the dominating role of the military – they hold 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, for example – and remove the arbitrary rule that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.
A petition demanding these changes has gathered five million signatures. But Thein Sein and his colleagues have shown no interest whatsoever in even discussing them.
President Obama is said to be considering a second visit later in the year to this lonely outpost of presidential achievement. John Kerry should make it amply clear that the visit is not going to happen unless to President Thein Sein pays serious attention to reforming the constitution.
by Peter Popham
The epitaph, splashed across the front page of a newspaper consisting (as a protest) of only three printed pages, was appropriately self-pitying: “End of the line. After three months of battles, they’ve managed it. They have killed l’Unita.”
So bit the dust a paper which had served for decades as the loyal house organ of the Italian Communist Party, standing by it stolidly through the inconveniences of Hungary and Czechoslavakia, celebrating the false dawn of Euro-communism, till finally orphaned when the party changed its name. It survived, like other little-read daily titles, because the Italian state has long been in the habit of subsidising loss-making daily papers, and even Berlusconi’s governments were too squeamish to cut them off completely. L’Unita received more than £5 million per year from the state from 2003 to 2009. Even in 2012 it received more than £2 million in public money. It now has debts of more than £20 million.
If L’Unita is really dead – and last-minute rescues are not unknown even for apparently hopeless Italian dailies – its passing will be seen as the end of an era.
The paper was founded by the towering communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, whose Prison Notebooks became one of the most inspirational of 20th century texts for the left far beyond Italy. Born at a most unpromising juncture, one year after Mussolini came to power, l’Unita survived throughout the Fascist years as an underground paper, then came into its own with the rebirth of Italy after the war as a republic.
The Italian Communist Party became the biggest, most cultured and most robust in western Europe. For decades pressure from the United States ensured that it was penned on the margins of national politics, barred from playing any role in coalition governments, but given the appalling corruption that took hold within both Christian Democrat and Socialist parties, this was arguably a blessing in disguise.
The heirs of Gramsci used their decades in the political wilderness to conquer other citadels of public life, including much of the mass media, the universities and the judiciary. Where they managed to get voted into power, notably in Tuscany, they offered a textbook demonstration of how polite communists can provide socialist government of a high standard without resorting to anything so rough as a revolution.
This strategy of quietly commandeering the heights of the national culture fitted in with Gramsci’s famous theory of hegemony. As he wrote, “The supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways: as ‘dominion’ and as ‘intellectual and moral direction.’ Hegemony is achieved by direction, that is by the capacity to develop efficacious solutions to society’s problems and the political capacity to do so.”
This formula was interpreted by Italian communists to mean that they could transform society softly softly, by stealthily blanketing the country and its conversation with their ideas, practices and people – regardless of the harsh realities of capital and ‘dominion’.
And this is where they fell under the fatal delusion of grandeur that brought them to this sad pass, in which the house organ of communist hegemony is on the point of expiring with a Democratic Party government – direct heirs to the Communist Party – in power.
Italy’s communists and post-communists were so grand, so self-regarding, so immured in their private citadels of status, that they failed to engage in the fierce battles taking place all around them – in particular the battle that brought Berlusconi to power, but also the surge of subversive anger that led to the populist triumph of Beppe Grillo. They became merely irrelevant. L’Unita, which never forged an independent identity, went the same way.
by Peter Popham
I imagine mine was just about the last generation of non-Jews to regard a sojourn on an Israeli kibbutz as a cool way to spend some months of what was not yet termed the gap year.
My kibbutz experience fell in 1971, between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. The beleaguered condition of Israel was brought home to us very soon after arriving when we saw tracer fire rising into the night sky above the Dead Sea, and thousands of Israeli army conscripts hitch-hiking on the roads. The tiny size of the country was another fact quickly digested, one that brought home its extreme vulnerability to attack. The rights and wrongs of the Israel-Palestine conflict were already hotly debated. Gaza was already a hell hole. The West Bank was already occupied. But the Israeli point of view was more compelling back then.
On my kibbutz, Kibbutz Malkiyya, which sat right on the border fence with Lebanon in northern Galilee, many of the kibbutzniks were central European refugees, several were Holocaust survivors. This was kibbutz communism neat and strong, with no private property, no wages, children brought up in common, clothes issued from a common store. There was righteousness and courage and the pioneering spirit. One evening Fatah guerrillas came over the fence – luckily for us we were all in the air raid shelter that once a week did service as a cinema, happily watching Barbarella – and a number were killed in the ensuing firefight. That brought the vulnerability of the place home to us. The desperation of those whom the kibbutz guards had killed, who had been crazy enough to come over the fence, was very much a secondary matter. Likewise the plight of the impoverished Palestinian farmers down the road was barely mentioned. The principal fact was that the Jews had finally got their homeland and they were battling to hang on to it, and they deserved the outside world’s support in that.
I reminisced about these kibbutz experiences with Jewish friends in London the other day. The kibbutzim are not what they once were, most having ‘sold out’, as we would have put it in those days. But then nothing is as it was. And seeing both points of view about the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer sustainable. Too much innocent blood has been spilled in Gaza, this time around like last time. Benjamin Netanyahu makes it all very much worse with his grotesque language about ‘telegenic Palestinian dead’. The disparity of wealth and strength and resources between the two sides, which has always been extreme, is more appalling than ever. The discussion with Jewish friends begins and ends with pleasant memories of Mt Hermon glimpsed above the clouds and the grapefruit groves in the early morning 40 years ago. Try bringing the conversation into the present and it quickly becomes advisable to talk about something else.
But for our children silence is not an option. They haven’t been to Israel, haven’t seen for themselves how tiny and vulnerable it is, that you can travel from north to south in a few hours. Nor have they listened receptively, as we did once upon a time, to the Zionist foundation story. All they see is an extremely prosperous, nuclear-armed settler state, practicing a form of apartheid as bad as or worse than South Africa’s was, enjoying the unstinting support, financial, diplomatic and otherwise, of the west, and wreaking unbelievable misery on its impoverished aborigines. There is nothing more starkly black and white in the world than the way the Gaza conflict has played out in the media during these hellish weeks.
So now Europe is aflame with protests. Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times reports anti-Israel protests erupting in ‘dozens of cities in Europe, as thousands of pro-Palestine protesters have depicted Israel as the aggressor and sought to isolate it internationally’. And increasingly the taboo we were once keenly aware of – that of confusing ‘Israeli’ with ‘Jewish’ and of letting anti-Israel protests leach into attacks, verbal or otherwise, on Jewish targets – is being trampled on.
Part of this is plain ignorance. A great deal of it is down to the rise of neo-Fascism and neo-Nazism across the continent in recent years. Some, I have no doubt, is down to militant Islamists of the ISIS variety for whom Jews are just as legitimate a target – of extermination, if possible – as Shias, Christians, Sufis…And this time around, social media have done their usual catalysing work. On Twitter, the hashtags #Hitlerwasright and #Hitlerdidnothingwrong have been trending. And as a result there are also the warm-hearted young leftists, climbing aboard this terrible bandwagon. Some of their leaders are bright enough to be embarrassed by it. A leader of Germany’s Left Party, describing a protest by the party’s youth group in Essen, reported, “The Essen Synagogue was a proclaimed target of anti-Israeli participants at this demonstration. Bottles and stones were thrown at pro-Israeli demonstrators. I am deeply ashamed.”
As a result of all this, as well as of the heart-rending images of death in Gaza, the virus of anti-Semitism has burst the bounds of the different ghettoes, religious and political, where it has been deliberately cultivated for years, and risks becoming widely received and casually retailed as it has not been since the discovery of the Nazi death camps. How on earth can this return to the evil past be halted?