filling in the gaps

Once more with feeling, I am trying to complete 1Q84. I am now further than I have gotten before, though admittedly that isn’t very far. I made the biggest monetary commitment I could—the new boxed set of paperbacks, not the hardback, which is too heavy for me to carry around long without pain—in the hopes of guilting myself into finishing it. This on top of the iBooks version, which proved unreadable.

At least, that was the excuse I gave for abandoning it. Probably it had more to do with my post-degree inability to deal with Japan than with anything lacking in the text. Though, it’s true, reading it entrenches my conviction that the problem with translators-of-novels-to-English is that they don’t read enough novels in English. Too much time spent (and that it is necessary time, I don’t doubt) polishing up their non-native language and—in the case of Jay Rubin, who translated two of the three books, and whose Murakami translations I have never liked—writing peer-reviewed articles about Japanese novels rather than reading English novels. This matters. This leads you to decisions like using the cut-and-dried literal translations they teach you early on in language classes as legitmate stand-ins for what should be natural, flowing language. Language you’d recognize as natural and flowing if you read enough novels in your own tongue. I try to ignore it, this early on, because I know the last book (the one I didn’t know existed; the one that made it impossible for me to go on pretending I had no interest in reading the English because I’d read the Japanese—when in fact this final volume came out half a year after I left) was translated by Philip Gabriel. He’s better at what he does. He also doesn’t milk Murakami or his relationship to Murakami’s prose for gimicky peer-review after gimicky peer-review, for which I respect him.

Anyway, Lake Motosu has begun to feature prominently in the book, and I wondered if I had been there. And I wondered if I should be wondering if I had been there; if I should have a better idea of where I went and what I did. Enough time has passed that I should—am becoming able to—look back without a whitewashing response of yea or nay; of “I did the best I could with what I had to work with,” or ”yeah I really fucked that up”. Both answers kill narrative. I believe I’ve made it quite clear where I stand on the obliteration of narrative.

But a detailed analysis that doesn’t generalize itself out of any relation to reality is difficult when I, ah…made so much of that reality up. Perhaps I should feel guiltier about this than I do, but maybe 70% of the time I went somewhere and did something with people, I knew next to nothing about the people I was with, where we were, or what was said. This, though, would not have been terribly entertaining for my count-them-on-one-hand blog-readers at home, for whom I lived. So I made it up. 

Consider this place: 

This is why I thought maybe I might have been to Lake Motosu. That tall one on the left—I stood on top of it at one time, having at various points during the day been convinced I was going to die. I rode the 4AM train to a rendezvous with some kind of literary group led by an older man who sat in on a class I was taking. He was friends with friends of mine, all of whom could converse with him better than I could but none of whom attended. He had daughters my age whom I gather had little patience for his lectures on history and literature and ancient battlesites. I felt bad for him, and agreed to go on this hike up a mountain I initially heard wrong and continued to hear wrong, such that I’ve only found out now that this is the one. We clambered up landslides from a recent earthquake (who does that? how is that remotely safe?), yelled bloody murder to scare away bears (no bells, anyone? none?), and clung with muddy desperate hands to the roots of half-washed-away trees, which alone stood between us and thousand-foot drops.

What the hell was I doing there?

When an angry woman who wanted me to stand as a representative of every U.S. foreign policy decision since WW2 wasn’t speaking, our guide was. And while some of my failure to follow him might have stemmed from the jagged adrenaline spikes that kicked in every time a foot or a hand slipped and I was forced to consider the wisdom of my having worn a shirt so bright they’d at least be able to find my corpse easily, most of the failure to communicate was linguistic, and entirely my own fault. The guy was Tokyo-born and raised; he spoke exactly the kind of Japanese I had been trained (for all of 1.5 years, but still) to understand. 

I didn’t.

So I filled in the gaps. I caught shreds and snippets of what was said and built on them. When our guide mentioned something about an author liking the area and coming out there to write, I thought of Hemingway in Michigan and constructed an elaborate story of a gangly Tokyo youth gone west (it’s true; it’s dead west) to hunt bears and pursue a specific brand of reforged masculinity on Lake Okutama. When our leader pointed to a roped-off area by a waterfall and said something about restrictions and wasabi, I purported to have been able to lay eyes on a wasabi strain of such culinary rarity that it only grew by waterfalls on this one particular mountain. When, on the way down—which was for me a euphoric trek down blessedly wide and safe-seeming logging roads, abandoned decades ago—we passed a broken-down VW bug hung with cotton floral-print curtains being incrementally eaten up by the most explosive moss/fungus encroachment I have ever seen, I was brought up short. How many flower children had—could have been—conceived in that van, how many ill-thought-out manifestos proposed and discarded like treehouse rules? But how could those stories work when it had been abandoned halfway up the road to nowhere, in Japan of all places? By the time we returned to civilization I had concocted an entire peace-and-love commune àla Drop City, perhaps formed by those disappointed in, but not disillusioned by, the ANPO riots of 1960, and who had perhaps (given the state of the van) been as thwarted in their attempts at communal living as those enterprising stoners in Sonoma County and then Alaska.

So I embroidered a bit.

My problem, though, is that increasingly, memory and especially defensive memory being what it is, I am left with only embroidery to mark my time there. There are images I will always have—the daily dawn vigils at the one window in our building that showed sky; the tunnel-peppered bullet train to Kyoto that was as scintillating and as lonely a reproduction of Lost in Translation as I could have hoped for; the great curve of the expressway around the city I loathed as it bore my mother and me toward the airport and the second most-difficult goodbye I’ve had to say in my life—but my actual day-to-day experience is fading. I had hoped it would, when I was there—I struggled daily to convince myself that, as had of course happened with the rest of my life, one day I’d wake up and the cubicle room and fumbled apologies and lost feeling would be years-past and laughable—but now I worry I am in danger of falling prey to a nostalgia I should know better than to indulge in. I spent too much time in Google Street View trying to find a good view of that mountain, wandering up and down roads I know I rode over, once. I try too hard to visualize the stations Murakami mentions (don’t I know all of them!) in even this, the barest fraction of the beginning of 1Q84. I write about Japan too much. Entirely too much.

And with genetics that I know will rob me of my memory, it seems very important to get it right. Even the ugly parts. So I don’t forget, and go off and do something dumb like that again, and not have the wherewithal to rescue myself from the situation before it turns grim.

ETA: That’s not Lake Motosu. That’s nowhere near it. But I can strive so hard to try and remember a better story, a stronger connection, than was in fact there, that it will probably become Lake Motosu with time, if I let it, and kick enough details under the rug.

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