by Sarah Menkedick
“Memory is like fiction; or else it’s fiction that’s like memory.”
– Haruki Murakami, “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon,” The Elephant Vanishes
It was on the day of empty restaurants that I realized my life had begun to blur with the literature of Haruki Murakami. The whole day felt like slipping through the city as a ghost. My husband and I boarded the subway at the odd hour of 10 a.m., when commuters had already hustled to work and the streets were populated mostly by shuffling elderly people with grocery bags. We went to Xidan, Beijing’s financial center, in search of shoes, but after an hour of sensory overload amidst a bazillion bejeweled malls and billboards we were already in need of a beer.
The first empty restaurant, therefore, was a cramped, overly lit, hot pot joint on the 9th floor of Joy City mall. We sat, beers in hand, lost in the vastness of Beijing, where the pollution had settled that day into a tangible, gauzy haze. Millions of people were going about set routines while we sat amidst the orange glow of the empty restaurant, aliens. A moment from Murakami came floating up to me:
Imagine – on a weekday morning, in a deserted cafe in a deserted shopping mall two people happen to be sitting right next to each other, reading the same book.
I let my foot swing back and forth and brush gently against Jorge’s, thinking of how our lives in Beijing had taken on a Murakamian feel. We were two of Murakami’s outsiders, reading the same books in deserted cafes, living lives that drifted silently outside of the norm.
On the way home at 4 p.m. we stopped at The Noodle Loft, a Shanxi style restaurant where men in tall white chef’s hats hand roll and carve one’s choice of noodles. 4 p.m. being outside of the peak Chinese eating times, the restaurant was near dead; lights off, waitresses sleeping, smooth black tablecloths at the empty tables. We walked in tentatively as if were disturbing some sacred tradition. Begrudgingly, the waitresses seated us, and fifteen minutes later we were eating steaming bowls of noodles in the cavernous silence of the huge, high-ceilinged restaurant. There was the occasional clank of the vinegar bottle against our bowls as we poured, or the soft murmur of the waitresses in the distance, but otherwise the restaurant seemed to exist in another time. The silence, the theatrical darkness of the empty restaurant, felt like a Murakamian setting, a Murakamian moment both set apart from and deeply embedded in the dull forward grind of city life in East Asia.
The final empty restaurant was a stone’s throw from our apartment. It was a massive place in the shape of a long railway car. We chose a booth by the window, and sat in the stark divide between the harshly lit restaurant and the darkness of 10 p.m. We ordered fried peanuts, a chrysanthemum salad, wood ear mushrooms, and tofu, and sat, again, in thought.
The Murakamian refrain ran through my head:
I thought about it for a moment.
People in Murakami stories are always pulling back from the flow of life and thinking for a deliberate, tangible moment. Like Toru Okada, protagonist of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in the midst of his first conversation with May Kasahara:
Tell me, she said, picking up her earlier conversation. If you were in love with a girl and she turned out to have six fingers, what would you do?
Sell her to the circus, I answered.
No, of course not, I said. I’m kidding. I don’t think it would bother me.
Even if your kids might inherit it?
I took a moment to think about that.
No, I honestly don’t think it would bother me. What harm would an extra finger do?
What if she had four breasts?
I thought about that too.
Perhaps this is the most distinctive characteristic of a Murakami character – this subtle, deliberate thought about everyday banalities and absurdities. I thought about this in an empty restaurant, over fried peanuts.
“This has been a very Murakami-esque day,” I said.
We discovered Haruki Murakami in the basement of the Xidan Books Building one exceptionally clear fall day in Beijing. Running my finger along the shelves, I recognized Murakami’s name, as a relic of some memory that had stuck either fatefully or randomly in the back of my brain. The book was Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a collection of short stories. At 60 yuan, it was a steal for an English-language book in Beijing.
“Whadya think?” I asked my Mexican husband.
“Sure,” he shrugged, reconciling himself to the reality that he was not going to find any literature in Spanish anytime soon.
Two weeks later, we found ourselves in the midst of a rabid Murakami marathon. It was 4 a.m., and we were sitting in bed under the insipid yellow light of two ancient bed lamps, sipping cans of beer, absorbed in a Murakamian world of the banal and the absurd.
I don’t know if Murakami would’ve penetrated so deeply and thoroughly into our daily consciousness if we weren’t living in China, in a world in which meaning is gray and diffuse, heavy and intangible, in what feels like a never-ending afternoon thick with pollution.
From the moment we arrived in China, we were aliens. Literally and figuratively; the flotsam and jetsam of Chinese bureaucracy (police registration forms, visa requests, visas, official letters) reminded us constantly that “Aliens must register! Aliens cannot leave the country! Aliens need to file for Z status by X date!” The word alienation took on a new, literal, palpable meaning. Walking dazed down Beijing’s wide boulevards, under the steaming yellow haze of late summer, we watched stone-faced men pass on bicycles, construction workers in cloth shoes smoke cigarettes, smart girls in heels sashay with cell phones and knock-off handbags. It felt more foreign than anything I had seen or experienced in four years of travel. My husband and I had once considered ourselves as coming from vastly different cultures (mine, American, his, Mexican), and suddenly we felt that our roots were very similar. Compared to this Asian reality, with its rickshaws and dumplings and its codes and gestures completely out of our intuitive grasp, our Western cultures seemed like two flowers of the same species; slight variations in color and petal number, but fundamentally the same.
Murakami himself seemed to identify with our position; he is a Japanese author who describes himself as undeniably Japanese, having grown up in that culture and language, and yet who also claims that he does not fit into the culture and does not accept it in many ways. He has described his literature as oriental in nature, with a different form and feel from Western literature, and yet his works have been largely rejected by the Japanese literary circle and he is often derided in Japan for his use of references to Western pop culture. He drifts on the outskirts of Japanese culture, a “ghost” as one reader described him, as we drifted on the outskirts of Chinese and Asian culture.
There was nothing exceptional about us or our lives; we weren’t particularly noticeable people with fascinating jobs, we didn’t behave outrageously, we kept under the Communist Party and most of society’s radar.
We would, however, become obsessed with the way Beijingers hung their laundry anywhere and everywhere; pink socks on a bush, a sweater on a stray wire. We would wander into the What? bar where Chinese punks were tearing away at the drums beneath a painting of a sad chicken. It felt as if all of these moments were metaphors, some of which we grasped, some of which we did not, but all of which had us saying, “Damn, this would make a great Murakami story!”
For two people who had just decided to up and move to China from one week to the next, the thought of aspiring for an office job with a stable company seemed completely, well, alien. Similarly, Murakami has said in an interview with Salon magazine:
I myself have been on my own and utterly independent since I graduated. I haven’t belonged to any company or any system. It isn’t easy to live like this in Japan. You are estimated by which company or which system you belong to. That is very important to us. In that sense, I’ve been an outsider all the time. It’s been kind of hard, but I like that way of living.
Murakami’s characters are not outsiders in the way one might initially conceive of outsiders, as revolutionaries or visionaries or hippies, or people of radically different religious, racial, or sexual cultures. His characters are “outsiders” because they are in touch with another reality of metaphors, absurdities, and myths that the rest of society is unwilling or incapable of seeing. This reality, according to Murakami, lurks beneath the conscious one, and people slip back and forth between the two; the world of myth and metaphor, the world of the alarm clock and the commuter train.
On the day of empty restaurants, on the 9th floor of Joy City mall, bathed in all that artificial orange, I realized I had found my Murakamian metaphor. These places at odd hours were my alienation within and my belonging to Beijing. They felt integral to the city and my life there in the same way Mexican cantinas and Cuban dives gave Hemingway a home, and Left Bank cafes fleshed out Parisian intellectuals.
This was the heart of Beijing, and to some extent, of East Asia. It was the surreal, alienated, contemplative other reality Murakami depicts. A few people sipping beers in an empty restaurant in mid-afternoon, while the rest of the city works and waits to take the subway home at precisely 6 p.m.