This book, like many of Murakami’s stories, explores the ‘push and pull’ between two different worlds;
Our ‘real’ world and another one, that acts as its creative well-spring and foundation.
This brings into question what is real and what is not. From our viewpoint the other world appears nebulous and dreamlike, but when we find ourselves in it, we are shocked to realise, it is really our world that is the phantom.
This other world is hidden; A place where ‘seeds’ and ‘roots’ can germinate and grow in darkness. We are only able to see the results when, whatever has been growing, breaks through the surface.
Our world then, is the multiplicity and chaos of many seemingly separate things that really have a simple origin, if only one can trace far enough back! But to go back to the root of things is to descend, ‘underground’ into the darkness.
As Noboru Wataya states on the hotel TV,
“And so you see, my friends, everything is both complicated and simple.
The important thing is to seek out the root. Dig beneath the complicated surface of reality. And keep on digging. Then dig even more until you come to the very tip of the root.
The stupid ones can never break free of the apparent complexity. They grope through the darkness, searching for the exit, and die before they are able to comprehend a single thing about the way of the world.”
The main theme of the book is concerned with the natural flow from that other world and what happens to our world when that flow becomes blocked and stagnates.
Noboru Wattaya has somehow created a foothold in this other, more fundamental world. Like some sort of unnatural damming of the flow, Something is swelling and gaining power in the darkness. And this has cut off the natural flow to the ‘real world’. The well has dried and time has taken on strange properties.
Toru confronts Noboru at their meeting
“As I sat here looking at you, I suddenly remembered the story of this shitty island. What I’m trying to say is this: A certain kind of shittiness, a certain kind of stagnation, a certain kind of darkness, goes on propagating itself with its own power in its own self-contained cycle. And once it passes a certain point, no one can stop it-even if the person himself wants to stop it.”
And Mr. Honda further emphasises the importance of ‘the flow’.
“When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness. “
There are many characters in the book who exhibit powers, and insights garnered from their interaction and sensitivity to the other world, but the two characters who are fully ‘split’ beings, inhabiting both worlds equally are Noboru Wataya and Cinnamon.
They are polar opposites however. Both encountered the ‘other world’ as children, splitting off and becoming dual beings with a foot in each world. But they developed very differently. One sacrificed his voice to retain the balance that additional knowledge and insight might upset, whereas the other instead used his voice to beguile the world and gain power.
“He clearly had the knack of appealing directly to the feelings of the mass audience. He knew how to use the kind of logic that moved the great majority. Nor did it even have to be logic: it had only to appear so, as long as it aroused the feelings of the masses.”
Both present themselves immaculately in this world.
We get to know a lot more about Cinnamons story. Noboru’s is more obscure and its darkness is only hinted at, remaining hidden, but it does seem to involve a sinister warping of ‘natural function’.
We hear the story of Cinnamons boyhood experience. And, as ever, the strange sound of the wind-up bird acts as a herald to the transition between worlds. It announces a shift of scene, like the arrival of the white rabbit or the sighting of the white stag. It is a creature that resides on the threshold.
Cinnamon sees an otherworldly scene from his bedroom window, then falls asleep. He has a vivid dream and knows that he is dreaming because it feels different from earlier when he was looking from his window. Before, he was in his physical body, but now he is in his etheric body. Outside, he discovers a still-beating human heart that has been buried, but when returning to bed he discovers his own body is still there. He has been split into two.
This splitting-off and separation is explored throughout the book, both on a physical level, such as the skinning of Yamamoto, the taking apart of the zoo animals by the Chinese peasants and the strange death of Nutmeg’s husband involving the removal of his internal organs, to more subtle separations such as Lieutenant Mamiya losing a part of himself in the well, becoming a hollow vessel, Kumiko becoming the debauched and animalistic separated part of herself, the woman on the phone and in the hotel room and Cinnamon after he wakes from the dream,
He felt as if his self had been put into a new container. He knew that he was still not fully accustomed to this new body of his. There was something about this one, he felt, that just didn’t match his original self. A sudden feeling of helplessness overtook him, and he tried to call for his mother, but the word would not emerge from his throat. His vocal cords were unable to stir the air, as if the very word “mother” had disappeared from the world. Before long, the boy realised that the word was not what had disappeared.
Toru Okada walks the path between these figures. His is the archetypical heroes journey. That is, to descend into the underworld in order to find what has been lost.
‘The magic flute’ is referenced throughout the book and details a similar heroic journey; To enter the magical castle, overcome the evil that lurks there and rescue the princess.
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice also seems to be reflected. Orpheus seeks to rescue Eurydice from the land of the dead, and he manages to do this, but with the proviso that he must not turn and look at her as they leave. This is like a fragile protective charm, that must not be broken, and in this book we see a similar charm used by Kumiko in the hotel room; Don't shine the torch and look or else the spell will be broken.
The Hotel then, is the magical castle; The labyrinth
One can almost see a reminiscence of the Hotel in ‘the shining’, which also has a labyrinth. But the magic place here, that seems to hold what the ‘hero’ most desires is room 208, not room 237.
No one can make it through the labyrinth without aid. Theseus had Ariadne’s thread, Hansel and Gretel had a trail of breadcrumbs and Toru has a whistling waiter and also the faceless, hollow man!
You are an intruder here, and I am the only one on your side. Don’t forget that.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
The faceless man handed me the flashlight as if passing a baton. “I am the hollow man,”
he said. Faceless face toward me, he waited in the darkness for me to speak, but I could not find the right words. Eventually, without a sound, he disappeared. He was right in front of me one second, swallowed up by darkness the next. I shone the light in his direction, but only the dull white wall came out of the darkness.
There is a resonance here with Nutmeg’s husband, (Cinnamon’s father) who was physically ‘hollowed-out’ and his face disfigured in an Akasaka hotel room.
The head had been severed from the torso and set on the lid of the toilet, facing outward, the face chopped to mincemeat. The killer had apparently cut and chopped the head first, then set about collecting the organs.
In ancient Egyptian burial rights the dead are also hollowed out. Their organs are removed and stored in four Canopic jars, representing the sons of Horus. The only organ left in place is the heart, because that is required to be weighed in the next world.
Cinnamons vision of the two figures, one like his father, racing up the tree to follow the wind-up bird, the other digging a hole and burying a still-beating heart, lends to this notion that the heart is not like the other organs.
It was then that the boy realised: the small man looked a lot like his father. Of course, he was too short to be his father, but aside from that, he was exactly the same: the build, the movements. But no, his father could never climb a tree that way.
In the end, and at the correct time however, the weapon is always provided to slay the beast!
The lady in the lake provides excalibur and Kumiko in the hotel room hands over the baseball bat. The sacred weapon and talisman is kept safe by the princess and the unicorn lays it’s head on the lap of the maiden.
In this book time appears fractal in nature. Similar patterns appear again and again. Things are rearranged but the core remains. Toru’s mark is an echo of Nutmegs father’s. Like a birthmark that identifies a wound suffered in a previous life, This mark is also a wound from the other world.
For those able to see the patterns, the future can be known. Fate is irresistible, but how it goes about its machinations is in the hands of the gods.
Nutmeg on fate:
All these inexplicable events that have occurred in my life so far-the intense passion that welled up inside me for fashion design and the way it suddenly disappeared; the way Cinnamon stopped speaking; the way I became swept up in this strange work we do- it’s as though they were all ingeniously programmed from the start for the very purpose of bringing me here, where I am today. It’s a thought I can’t seem to shake off. I feel as if my every move is being controlled by some kind of incredibly long arm that’s reaching out from somewhere far away, and that my life has been nothing more than a convenient passageway for all these things moving through it.”
“Just be careful of water. Sometime in the future, this young fellow could experience real suffering in connection with water. Water that’s missing from where it’s supposed to be. Water that’s present where it’s not supposed to be. In any case, be very, very careful of water.”
“Mr. Okada,” she said, “I believe that you are entering a. phase of your life in which many different things will occur. The disappearance of your cat is only the beginning.”
“Different things,” I said. “Good things or bad things?”
She tilted her head in thought. “Good things and bad things. Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.”
Biting his lower lip, Honda stroked the sand at his feet. I could see he was wrestling with conflicting feelings. “Lieutenant,” he said after some time had passed. He looked me straight in the eye. “Of the four of us here, you will live the longest- far longer than you yourself would imagine. You will die in Japan.”