JOK Notebook

The Shadowy Middle Ground of Murakami

In all the years I've been studying Japanese, one of my dreams has been to read Haruki Murakami in Japanese. I mean, I've done it, using annotated readers to study two of his essays, but it's hardly the same as picking up his novels and breezing through them unassisted.

Anyway, his Japanese unexpectedly came my way today. That is, I was writing about this term in the forthcoming essay 1681 on 濃 (concentrated, thick, dark, undiluted, dense):

濃淡 (のうたん: light and dark; shade (of color))    dark + light

When I took a break, the following passage immediately popped up in my Facebook newsfeed:

“It's not as if our lives are simply divided into light and dark. There's a shadowy middle ground. Recognizing and understanding the shadows is what a healthy intelligence does.” 
―Haruki Murakami, After Dark

What a coincidence! Wondering if the original Japanese included 濃淡, I asked my proofreader if he could track down that text. To my delight, he did! Unfortunately the passage (the next-to-last paragraph at the link) doesn't include the keyword, but I no longer care. I'm just tickled to have a manageable piece of Murakami's Japanese to devour. On the off chance that you relish the same challenge, here it is, buck-naked (that is, without any yomi or translations). See what you can do:

ねえ、僕らの人生は、明るいか暗いかで単純に分けられているわけじゃないんだ。そのあいだには陰影という中間地帯がある。その陰影の段階を認識し、理解するのが、健全な知性だ。(pp. 267–268)

To block the "answers," here's a preview of the newest essay:

Okay, now I'll dig into the text and see what it's really like! Here's the first sentence of the three:

ねえ、僕らの人生は、明るいか暗いかで単純に分けられているわけじゃないんだ。
It's not as if our lives are simply divided into light and dark. 

ねえ (hey; you know what); 僕ら (ぼくら: we (for men)); 人生 (じんせい: life); 明るい (あかるい: light); 暗い (くらい: dark); 単純 (たんじゅん: simple); 分ける (わける: to divide, shown here in the present-progressive form of its passive form, meaning, "being divided"); 

Hey (ねえ!), that was straightforward! No fancy tricks, nothing to make me sigh in desperation or feel locked out of a secret room. So far, a few things jump out at me: 

• Murakami is famous for his use of 僕. In the 2002 book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, author Jay Rubin spent several pages analyzing the uses of 僕 by Murakami’s male narrators. I know 僕 works fine for those narrators, but this statement is a universal one about the human condition. Why limit it to men? Oh, my proofreader suggests that the narrator may have been speaking to a man when he said this.... But no, I've just located the passage on page 226 of Rubin's translation of After Darkand in fact a man says this to a woman. The point isn't to differentiate men from women, either; the woman has just said that people tell her she has a "darkish personality." (Incidentally, darkness is a major theme in the book, which should come as no surprise, given the title and the premise; the novel is about people who are wandering around Tokyo between midnight and dawn. Shadows are important in the story, too. I found comments on page 204 about racing with one's own shadow and the inability to outrun it.)

• There's instant gratification, in that the "light and dark" bit has come right away in 明るいか暗いか. I'm surprised that Murakami used 明るい for "light" because I always see that translated as "bright, cheerful." But given that 暗い can mean "dim" (not just "dark"), 明るい and 暗い are natural antonyms. As to why a か follows each word, that makes the phrase literally translate as "whether it's light or whether it's dark."

• The word 濃淡 (のうたん: light and dark, dark + light) suggested to me that the Japanese habitually think of "dark" as preceding "light" in such pairings. In English it's the opposite; native speakers say "light and dark." With 明るいか暗いか, though, the sequence of the Japanese matches that of the English. My proofreader explains that, when listing items like this without a set expression, the Japanese often go from positive to negative. 

Okay, on to the next Murakami sentence:

そのあいだには陰影という中間地帯がある。
There's a shadowy middle ground. 

そのあいだ (between those (extremes)); 陰影* (いんえい: shadow); 中間地帯 (ちゅうかんちたい: twilight zone)

Ah, the last kanji term is delicious and intriguing, particularly because I didn't realize (until my proofreader suggested "twilight zone" as a definition) that "twilight zone" could mean anything other than, you know, The Twilight Zone!

The Japanese is certainly far more complex here than the English translation. And although "middle ground" sounds reasonable, balanced, and highly desirable, it's shadowy in this case. At this point I have no idea if that's positive or negative. "Shadowy" puts me on alert, as if dangerous people are lurking in the midst. Still, if you mixed light and dark, you'd come up with a grayness that I suppose one could call shadowy without any negative nuance.

Maybe the next sentence will clarify matters:

その陰影の段階を認識し、理解するのが、健全な知性だ。
Recognizing and understanding the shadows is what a healthy intelligence does.

段階 (だんかい: gradation); 認識 (にんしき: recognizing); 理解 (りかい: understanding); 健全 (けんぜん: health); 知性 (ちせい: intelligence)

Well, he has certainly served up an enticing batch of vocabulary words! I could feast on these for quite awhile! I know all the kanji, but I usually see them assembled in different pairs.

As for the shadows, I think what we ultimately have is a caution against black-and-white thinking. Or an acknowledgment that, as the saying goes, every life has ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. 

But what's this about recognizing and understanding the shadows? Is there much to recognize and understand about the middle of the roller coaster ride, the part where it's neither agonizing nor exhilarating?

I feel as if I'm failing his basic emotional intelligence test! But that's okay. I set myself the challenge of understanding his Japanese, and I think I made good progress with three sentences. Imagine tackling 1Q84 in Japanese at this rate!!! I would need 10 lifetimes!

Have a great weekend!  

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