Thursday, 18 August 2011

Recent reads: In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

While I've raved often about the work of Haruki Murakami, a friend (visit his blog) suggested I try Ryu Murakami and, for starters, In the Miso Soup.
'It's just before New Year, and Frank, an overweight American tourist, has hired Kenji to take him on a guided tour of Tokyo's nightlife.  But Frank's behaviour is so odd that Kenji begins to entertain a horrible suspicion: his client may in fact have murderous desires.  Although Kenji is far from innocent himself, he unwillingly descends with Frank into an inferno of evil, from which only his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Jun, can possibly save him.'
(Bloomsbury, translated by Ralph McCarthy)
This is a relatively short, three-part novel (180 pages), and it's fair to say that my responses to it changed with each part.  Part One captured my attention largely because of the descriptions of Tokyo nightlife; Murakami takes the reader on a neon-illuminated  tour of Tokyo's seedier nightclubs and peepshows, providing us with an intriguing view of the sex industry - at least, selected aspects of it - before leading us to a baseball batting centre ('a surreal open space illuminated by fluorescent lights'). As for the characters leading this tour, I felt  unconvinced and irritated by Kenji's intuitions about Frank's murderous nature, and wished that he'd stop his whining and get on with the job he'd taken or abandon the unlikeable Frank and go find, Jun, his girlfriend.

In Part Two, with blood pooling at the edge of each page, we meet the darker side of Frank.  Though it felt like overkill to me in every sense, and I nearly finished with the book on a couple of occasions, it was towards the end of this part that Kenji's inability to detach himself from events began to pique my interest.

However, the third and final part completely won me over and made me glad I stayed for the entire macabre experience.  Frank and Kenji came fully alive for me and I found myself wanting to find out what was going to happen to them.  (It's when I just don't care that I know a novel hasn't worked for me).

What added considerably to my appreciation of this novel, though, is that, by chance, I followed my reading of it with Robert Louis Stevenson's Gothic horror Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The similarities between Frank and Mr Hyde are startling, despite one being large and the other being 'dwarfish' and 'troglodytic'.  They are both malformed, malevolent and given to murderous rage, and there are qualities about their appearance (the feel of Frank's skin, the foul soul that ... transpires through, and transfigures, [Hyde's] clay continent) which both narrator's find difficult to pin down and articulate. Kenji is a modern Mr Utterson, although the path he travels is much more perilous.

All up, In the Miso Soup is a novel I'm glad I read, and I'll be picking up another Ryu Murakami before too long.

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