The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Dream Stuff, and Postmodern Narratives of Cultural Shame

If cultures are considered unifiable by way of shared stories, it is not inconceivable that cultures may be connected through distinguishable but ultimately similar histories of shame. Whether or not these histories force upon cultures the role of “persecutors” or “victims”, it is more than possible that such societies may become attached to others by way of such shared histories and stories of culpability, infamy, and remorse. Such traumatic history becomes an essential element within Haruki Murakami’s 1995 novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which explores Japan’s lingering but ignored sense of guilt over wartime atrocities committed before and during World War II. Likewise, history becomes just as important in Australian writer David Malouf’s short story collection, Dream Stuff, which quietly illuminates Australia’s guilt in participating or enabling the persecution of aborigine peoples. Using a range of postmodern literary technique, Murakami and Malouf each seek to unearth the buried sense of shame within their respective societies. This essay will first explore the postmodern and historical credentials of each text before continuing onto a joint discussion of the novels as examples of international literature.

Of the two works examined in this essay, Murakami’s work is considered the more “classically” postmodern and global text. While The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is known for its considerably scandalous condemnation of Japan’s white-washing of its history, it is just as renowned for its unique literary style and its frequent references to Western (particularly American) culture. The narrative follows a slacker, Toru Okada, who (repeatedly and through various means) manages to slip through time and bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Japanese before and during the second World War. The content of Murakami’s novel is notable in that it directly contradicts Japan’s “famous codes of cultural concealment” (Wood), referring to Japan’s purposefully revisionist mentality regarding this period in history. By graphically re-imagining the reality of Japanese brutality through fiction, Murakami makes a highly controversial statement about the need for Japan to confront its shameful past.

The novel is further characterized by a lingering sense of temporal distortion, a classic feature of postmodern writing which challenges the sense of reality in the narrative and further blurs the lines between dreams, memory, history, and present time. These parts of the novel recur in both succinct and elaborate descriptions, and an example of the former perhaps best illustrates the sense of temporal confusion in the novel:

“In bed that night, I went on thinking about Mr. Honda. Both he and Malta Kano had spoken to me about water. Mr. Honda had warned me to be careful. Malta Kano had undergone austerities on the island of Malta in connection with her research on water. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but both of them had been deeply concerned about water. Now it was starting to worry me. I turned my thoughts to images of the battlefield at Nomonhan: the Soviet tanks and machine gun emplacements, and the river flowing beyond them. The unbearable thirst. In the darkness, I could hear the sound of the river flowing beyond them. The unbearable thirst. In the darkness, I could hear the sound of the river. “Toru,” Kumiko said to me in a tiny voice, “are you awake?” (54)

This moment shows Toru effectively slipping into the past, and it is unclear whether or not he is simply lying in the dark, staring off in deep contemplation, or dreaming while he is asleep. While we can laud this moment as an exemplary instance of postmodern literary technique, the temporal distortion that occurs in this moment (and throughout the novel) is critical because it helps to illustrate the sense of cultural memory that pervades within these characters. Even though Toru himself had no experiences in Manchuria and (at this point) has not yet been told stories about this period in time, he seems to somehow simply “know” what had happened there. As the memory resurfaces within the character’s subconscious, Toru’s sense of time begins to slip and his reality thus becomes permeated with an unknowable and yet strangely familiar sense of the past. In this way, Murakami seeks to illustrate the way in which history keeps its hand upon the shoulder of an individual, even if that history has never been experienced first-hand.

Another postmodern characteristic of this novel is that it operates through the use of a metanarrative. While the novel is faithful to illustrating Toru’s experiences and development, Murakami is just as interested (if not more) in the stories that are related to Toru through conversations or written material. For instance, the first time Toru is taken back through history is when he asks Lieutenant Mamiya to tell him about his experiences with Mr. Honda as a soldier in 1937 Manchuria. While the novel continues into this section as a first person narrative, it is immediately distinguishable because the “I” no longer refers to Toru, but to Mamiya, who is made to effectively take over the story for a time (135). The history that the novel seeks to explore eventually comes through by way of testimonials that are created by other characters, and it is only through Toru’s listening to them that we (the audience) are able to bear witness to these moments in history. The metanarrative structure of the story is purposeful in that it has the protagonist emulate the position of the modern-day reader, who likewise can only experience history through experiencing the stories and testimonies of others.

Murakami’s novel emphasizes the multitude of ways in which history is communicated to an individual, with the temporal distortion created by cultural memory being one way and the necessity of testimony within a cultural metanarrative being another. What Murakami’s style ultimately enables is a sense of history as a haunting and unrelenting entity, as Toru is continually made to experience these slips in his subconscious and is also seemingly unable to escape the testimonies and stories of others. Whether or not Toru is content with these slips into history is debatable; what is undeniable, however, is the fact that Murakami is deliberately creating a character who is (at least in part) defined by the inability to avoid the past. This phenomenon mimics the way in which emotions such as guilt and shame are able to prey upon those individuals who have done wrong in the past, where memories of disgraceful or deplorable actions are made to remain with the perpetrator long after such deeds were actually committed. In this way, we may see how Toru exemplifies the cultural memories which pervade the Japanese conscious and subconscious even to this day. Indeed, parts of Toru’s journey illustrate the disturbing extent of immorality that was displayed by the Japanese during the war, including the slaughter of the zoo animals (400) and the heinous, baseball-inspired murder of a Chinese prisoner of war (521). Murakami depicts atrocities that are so outlandish in their brutality that they are indeed unforgettable for Toru as well as the reader. This itself mirrors the fact that while Japanese cultural codes may promote a white-washing of the cruelty within its own history, there is no escaping from this history for the individual.

Some years after the publication of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, David Malouf would cover the similar terrain of shameful history within a collection of short stories titled Dream Stuff, which is entirely set in Australia. In an interview conducted by Colm Tóibín for Bomb Magazine, Malouf makes the following statement:

” If you come from outside into Australia you notice certain things, you notice how open and friendly people are, so much sunshine, so much open space, so much freedom, but you also notice a darkness in the middle of all this, a continuing darkness surrounding the aborigine population . . . a lot of people feel a kind of shame, and almost everybody feels disturbed and uncomfortable at what contact with us did to them. “

In the aforementioned quote, Malouf makes it explicitly clear that he believes his country is haunted by a historical and cultural sense of guilt, a sentiment which is directly related to specific content from Dream Stuff. What distinguishes Malouf’s illustration of history from that of Murakami is the fact that while Japanese atrocities are physically confined to the past, Australia’s shameful history continues to physically haunt the landscape by way of the surviving Aborigine peoples who continue to live within the continent. In other words, there is no way Australian society would be able to impose a similar “cultural code of concealment” as in Japan, since shameful history is a physical entity within this society. Ultimately, Malouf’s work explores similar themes of guilt and shame within a very different national context from Murakami, ultimately showing how different societies are connected through shared stories of historical and cultural regret.

The story “Blacksoil Country” is notable for this argument because it operates through a highly postmodern mode of storytelling in which a fictionalized narrative of reality is created. In this case, Malouf creates an “origin story” to explain how violence against aborigines began, thus offering a fictional interpretation of Australian historical reality. Blacksoil Country” follows a failing farmer and father who randomly murders an Aborigine and eventually finds his son’s head smashed in as an act of retaliation, thus setting off decades of violence. In describing the father after finding his son, it is said that, “The whole country is his, to rage up and down in with the appeal of his grief. . . he speaks low . . . for the land to be cleared at last of the shadow of blood . . . and because he believes so completely in what he must do, is so filled with the ferocity of it, others too are convinced” (129). Malouf includes this illustration of a fictionalized Australian history because he is trying to show how persecution of an entire group of people requires a deeply-seated passion for hatred, as the father clearly possesses. While we may find sympathy with the father, Malouf includes this description because it demonstrates the psychological mentality of those who spark violent, even genocidal, conflicts. Ultimately, the father’s grief cannot justify the violence and it is said that “The blacks in every direction are hunted and go to ground. They too have lost their protection- what little they had of it” (130). What is significant about this quote is the fact that it is definitively non-fictional; in other words, the factual and truthfully historical nature of this quote juxtaposes the story of the father and the son, which is a fictional reality. In this way, “Blacksoil Country” descends from fictional reality to actual reality, all the while blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Ultimately, the reader is able to grasp a sense of how shameful the unjust and brutal scale of violence that plagues Australian history is.

In another story, “Lone Pine”, two elderly Australians are victims of a random act of violence in which they are robbed and murdered by a young man and his family. While this story does exemplify the postmodern trope of unpredictable and inexplicable realities, it also echoes the random and brutal acts of violence committed against Aborigines. This notion of “remembered earth” is apparent when Harry says about the stars, “If you looked hard enough, every event that was being enacted all over this side of the earth, even the smallest, would be reflected there. Even this one, he thought” (112). Later, after the killings, the murderer looks at the stars and it is said that “Their living but dead light beat down and fell weakly upon him” (115). Like “Blacksoil Country”, “Lone Pine” emphasizes the belief that the Australian landscape has a memory of its own, and that all acts of violence committed upon this land will be spiritually retained by it. Harry and May’s death, in this context, fall within a long history of randomly committed acts of violence that have occurred throughout history. In this way, the land becomes a symbolic vessel of Australia’s guilt and shame.

The darkly humorous final story of Dream Stuff, “Great Day”, follows a family during the 200th anniversary of Australia’s founding and their eventual discovery that their town’s history museum is being burned down in a bonfire of sorts. The story is postmodern in that it is highly ironic; in celebrating the founding of the country, it’s also celebrating the death and guilt that came along with it. This guilt is highlighted when Clem, who exemplifies the Shakespearean “prophetic mad-man” character, thinks “What we do not dare ourselves, he found himself thinking, they do for us, the housebreakers, the muggers, the smashers, the grab merchants. When we punish them it is to hide our guilt” (177). At this moment, Clem is experiencing a revelation about the nature of contemporary White-Aborigine relationships. He realizes that the only reason for the high crime rates within Aboriginal communities is because of their being forced into a dehumanizing existence of cultural exile and second-class citizenship. Clem’s reflection is also a transparent statement about the pervasive sense of shame and guilt that Australians feel regarding the treatment of Aborigines.

Dream Stuff ultimately operates as a question as to how Australians are supposed to make sense of a truly disgraceful past. Further complicating the matter is the fact that this heritage of prejudice and violence is something that is inherited by contemporary Australians, and while such violence has decreased significantly and ideologies have had time to change, there is a lingering sense of guilt over the actions of ancestors. While Australia’s demons remain out in the open, Malouf shows how there is a long-lasting sense of confusion as to how to deal with these historical demons, especially when there is no real prospect of rectifying such a traumatic past. While Malouf offers no definitive conclusions to these stories, nor does he suggest concrete answers for these questions, his novel is notable because it exists as an exploration of how the demons of the past are able to create and maintain a culture’s shame.

The argument for Murakami’s postmodernism in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a relatively easy one because of the fact that Murakami utilizes the traditional techniques of postmodern writing, such as metanarrative, and temporal distortion. The argument for Malouf’s postmodernism is considerably harder, considering the fact that his writing typically evades these defining characteristics of the movement. As I have shown, the more postmodern aspects of his writing are obscured yet ultimately evident in how he illustrates fictional, unpredictable, and ironic realities. However, the different uses of postmodernism in these two novels ultimately help to show how each text actually requires different modes of this literary style in order to maintain the author’s vision in discussing the past. For instance, the nature of Japanese history is that there is no physical presence of historical atrocities, requiring Murakami to use a style which allows him to fluidly move in between the past and present, therefore accounting for his use of temporal distortion. Furthermore, if Toru is used to keep the reader rooted in a sense of Japanese modernity, the past can only be experienced through the narratives related by actual witnesses to this history, requiring the use of a metanarrative. Moving on, Malouf’s work does not require such slips in and out of the past because he sets the nine within different time periods and throughout Australian history. Each narrative is, therefore, a portrait of a contained but complex reality which offers itself up to the reader’s examination. While there are varied senses of postmodernism within these two texts, the manner in which postmodernism operates in each of them ultimately reflect the requirements of the authors as well as the cultures they intend to examine.

In discussing the merits of these two novels as examples of global literature, we may recall the fact that world literature is defined by how it invites a reader into the world of another culture, all the while allowing them to interpret and imagine the world in a way that makes sense to them (both as individuals and as representatives of a different culture). Fundamentally, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Dream Stuff are undeniably local texts, since they exclusively discuss the histories of the specific societies that the respective authors belong to. Indeed, these stories as specific historical experiences are beyond the privilege of translation, since an international audience will never know the experience of having ancestors who perpetrated the rape of Nanjing, or who went on seasonal hunts for Aborigines. However, a work of world literature is required to allow the reader the ability to connect with this foreign culture in some way or another. Since there is no prospect of truly translating a specific cultural heritage, it is the essence or core of these stories that must be translatable to a foreign audience. In the case of these Murakami and Malouf works, what is translated is the shared experience of cultural and historical shame.

While it is a generalization to claim that all societies carry with them shameful histories, it is not wrong to assume that many (if not most) cultures shoulder historical incidents that bring a sense of guilt upon their respective citizens. Therefore, it feels natural to me that there is a possibility of international literature being based upon shared stories of national and cultural culpability or historical guilt. For instance, American readers may connect with Murakami’s novel because of the shame we should feel for the atrocities committed by our soldiers during armed conflicts in the Middle East. As for Malouf’s work, we may find common ground with his narrative when we recall the attempted genocide of Native Americans throughout the country. While we may not wish to reflect upon such shared histories of shame and remorse, we are nonetheless called by these works to find a sense of shared humanity in the fact that no history is spotless and no culture is blameless. In summary, despite the differences between these postmodern texts written by Murakami and Malouf, each work is undeniably global because they each endeavor to create a global “common ground” based on shared stories of cultural and historical guilt.

In discussing the postmodern international novel in this specific context, it would appear that to connect with another culture is a distinctively upsetting and traumatic experience of reliving such cultural shame and guilt. While there is no redemption in finding similarities with another culture’s history or indeed in finding comfort for one’s guilt in a shared experience, there is nonetheless a sense of global kinship that arises when historical and cultural trauma is translated for and understood by members of another society. In reading works like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Dream Stuff, we experience histories that are just as unconscionable and as unbearable as our own and by identifying with a foreign history, we effectively tear “the curtain” back and evaluate the text for what it truly is (Kundera 92). Global literature is established by writers who encourage the audiences to empathize with even the most unthinkable elements of their history and by sharing even our most painful stories, we establish a global literary community that is able to transcend all national, historical, and cultural borders.