A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 20 – Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

Untitled (Sprawling Octopus Man), by Thomas Houseago
Nasher Sculpture Center
Dallas, Texas

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 20 – Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

Read it online here:
Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

In any case, he had to learn how to move his body. He couldn’t lie there staring up at the ceiling forever. The posture left him much too vulnerable. He had no chance of surviving an attack—by predatory birds, for example. As a first step, he tried to move his fingers. There were ten of them, long things affixed to his two hands. Each was equipped with a number of joints, which made synchronizing their movements very complicated. To make matters worse, his body felt numb, as though it were immersed in a sticky, heavy liquid, so that it was difficult to send strength to his extremities.

Nevertheless, after repeated attempts and failures, by closing his eyes and focusing his mind he was able to bring his fingers more under control. Little by little, he was learning how to make them work together. As his fingers became operational, the numbness that had enveloped his body withdrew. In its place—like a dark and sinister reef revealed by a retreating tide—came an excruciating pain.

It took Samsa some time to realize that the pain was hunger. This ravenous desire for food was new to him, or at least he had no memory of experiencing anything like it. It was as if he had not had a bite to eat for a week. As if the center of his body were now a cavernous void. His bones creaked; his muscles clenched; his organs twitched.

—-Haruki Murakami, Samsa in Love

I always think about believability in fiction. You don’t have to worry about this in non-fiction… it’s by definition true and believable, even when it is wildly unlikely. But fiction has to be believable.

One important idea is “making a deal with the reader.” This has to be done right away, preferably in the very first sentence. You have to alert the reader, make a deal with the reader, and then keep up your end of the bargain.

The best example is Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Turning into a giant cockroach in the middle of the night for no apparent reason isn’t believable, is it?

But Kafka writes his genius opening line:

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

You see, Kafka has made a deal with the reader. If you continue with the story, you have agreed that people can be changed into a giant cockroach (vermin) for no reason. He offers the deal, you accept it, and he keeps it.

Today, I planned on stopping for lunch, by myself. I looked forward to the quiet and the break. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to carry my Kindle or even a book. No problem, the library was right next door and, looking in at the New Fiction display, I saw a copy of Men Without Women, Stories by Haruki Murakami. Bingo.

While I ate, I looked through the table of contents for a brief selection, something I could read during the short sliver of time I was allotted. I found Samsa in Love, and was able to finish before I had to head back to work.

Samsa in Love is Metamorphosis in reverse. It starts out with Gregor Samsa waking up in his bare room, now transformed back into a human. He remembers little of being Gregor Samsa, but even less of the time he spent as a cockroach (except for a strong fear of birds). The story tells of his first few steps in becoming human again, including falling fast in love with a hunchbacked locksmith sporting an ill-fitting brassiere.

The story makes a deal, and sticks with it.

Interview with Haruki Murakami:

Is each book you write fully formed in your mind before you start to write or is it a journey for you as the writer as it is for us as readers?

I don’t have any idea at all, when I start writing, of what is to come. For instance, for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the first thing I had was the call of the bird, because I heard a bird in my back yard (it was the first time I heard that kind of sound and I never have since then. I felt like it was predicting something. So I wanted to write about it). The next thing was cooking spaghetti – these are things that happen to me! I was cooking spaghetti, and somebody call. So I had just these two things at the start. Two years I kept on writing. It’s fun! I don’t know what’s going to happen next, every day. I get up, go to the desk, switch on the computer, etc. and say to myself: “so what’s going to happen today?” It’s fun!

—-from The Guardian

(click to enlarge)
Adam, by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, plus admirer
Cullen Sculpture Garden
Houston, Texas

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 19 – The Pomegranate by Kawabata Yasunari

The Sweepers
Wang Shugang
Cast Iron (2012)
Crow Collection of Asian Art

The Sweepers
Wang Shugang
Cast Iron (2012)
Crow Collection of Asian Art

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 19 – The Pomegranate by Kawabata Yasunari

Read it online here:
The Pomegranate by Kawabata Yasunari

Two weeks or so before, her seven-year-old nephew had come visiting, and had noticed the pomegranates immediately. He had scrambled up into the tree. Kimiko had felt that she was in the presence of life.

“There is a big one up above,” she called from the veranda.

“But if I pick it I can’t get back down.”

It was true. To climb down with pomegranates in both hands would not be easy. Kimiko smiled. He was a dear.

—-Kawabata Yasunari, The Pomegranate

Today’s delicate short story is by Kawabata Yasunari, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. He wrote several acclaimed novels, including Snow Country and the semi-fictional The Master of Go. But he was also known for his very short works, which he called “palm-of-the-hand” stories.

Kawabata Yasunari:

In Zen there is no worship of images. Zen does have images, but in the hall where the regimen of meditation is pursued, there are neither images nor pictures of Buddhas, nor are there scriptures. The Zen disciple sits for long hours silent and motionless, with his eyes closed. Presently he enters a state of impassivity, free from all ideas and all thoughts. He departs from the self and enters the realm of nothingness. This is not the nothingness or the emptiness of the West. It is rather the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless. There are of course masters of Zen, and the disciple is brought toward enlightenment by exchanging questions and answers with his master, and he studies the scriptures. The disciple must, however, always be lord of his own thoughts, and must attain enlightenment through his own efforts. And the emphasis is less upon reason and argument than upon intuition, immediate feeling. Enlightenment comes not from teaching but through the eye awakened inwardly. Truth is in “the discarding of words”, it lies “outside words”. And so we have the extreme of “silence like thunder”, in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. Tradition has it that Bodhidharma, a southern Indian prince who lived in about the sixth century and was the founder of Zen in China, sat for nine years in silence facing the wall of a cave, and finally attained enlightenment. The Zen practice of silent meditation in a seated posture derives from Bodhidharma.

—From his Nobel Prize Lecture

Buddah
Liu Yonggang, Chinese, b. 1964
China, 2013
Painted Steel
Crow Collection of Asian Art
Dallas, Texas

Tampopo

Do you have a recipe that requires egg yolks? This provocative scene from Tampopo is one hell of a way to separate an egg.

It was early afternoon and I was down in East Dallas, overheated and very hungry. As I contemplated the twists of neighborhood streets and grids of avenues I tried to think of someplace to get something to eat… something good, quick, cheap, interesting, on the way home, and, preferably, someplace I’ve never been to before.

One word popped into my dehydrated and sun-frazzled brain – Tampopo.

Tampopo, on Greenville Avenue in Dallas

Tampopo is a bright humble-looking little Japanese café on Greenville Avenue – just south of Northwest Highway (on my way home). I had heard of it, driven by it, but never actually stopped there. Its name (Japanese for Dandelion) has always fascinated me, because it is also the name of one of my absolute favorite films.

Tampopo (the movie) is an odd lark of a film, a Japanese comedy loosely modeled after a Clint Eastwood Western yet set in a Ramen Shop run by a young widow named Tampopo. It is a wondrous wandering mess of a movie – jumping around in tone and sliding sideways into odd set pieces that have very little to do with the main story….

Except they are all about food. Tampopo is struggling with her third-rate Ramen shop until a macho truck driver and his sidekick come along and end up devoting their skill and energy into creating the perfect ramen. It is greatness.

The movie is very difficult to see in the United States. I had to jump through some hoops to get a copy of a DVD and it is one of my prized possessions.

So, I stopped in at Tampopo (the restaurant) and ordered some Beef Udon soup. I was a little disappointed they didn’t offer Ramen – but I’m a bit of an Udon man myself anyway. It was good and a nice treat on a hot day.

My Beef Udon Soup. Unfortunately, I had a telephoto and couldn’t get the soup in focus… but you get the idea.


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Woman in the Dunes

When I was a child, I was always seeing, in small, sheltered areas of sand or loose dust, the cone-shaped depressions where ant lions lived. I was fascinated by these and looked them up in the encyclopedia (these were the decades long before the Internet – I can’t imagine how rich my childhood would have been had I access to that unlimited fount of useless knowledge) and learned of the insect hiding at the bottom of the self-constructed pit. These sand-traps had a strange fascination for me, I would seek them out and study their various sizes, locations, and patterns of distribution.

I never seem to see these anymore. I don’t know why?

For some reason, it was years before I ventured out to an ant lion pit with a simple sheet of typing paper and learned how easy it was to scoop up the sand and sift it off the paper in such a way as to expose the tiny, flat, gray, insect with the immense mandibles that hid at the bottom of the cone, waiting for unfortunate prey.

In looking for a movie to watch from the Criterion Collection I settled on, for no real reason, a strange Japanese work called Suna no Onna (literally “Sand Woman) – better known by its English name – Woman in the Dunes.

I had heard of this movie decades ago – but for the longest time, never was able to see it. You forget how hard it used to be… I’m talking before a thousand channels of cable television, before VHS even… to see obscure foreign films. You could read about them, and I did, but you could never actually see them.

I read the book, by Kōbō Abe, and wondered if the film followed it closely. Finally, about ten years ago, I was able to get a VHS copy at an avant-guard video store. I was very disappointed. The transfer was so bad all I could see was a blur. It really made no sense. I hoped the original was better than this horrible copy of a copy of a copy.

It is. The Criterion Collection edition they are streaming from Hulu+ is crisp and clear. Because of this, the black and white visuals of moving sand are awe-inspiring.

The story is a simple one. An entomologist, scouring a remote seaside area looking for the key beetle that will get his name immortalized into the entomology texts, and simply trying to escape the city for a awhile, is tricked into getting himself lowered by rope ladder into a deep well in the sand. At the bottom is a recently widowed woman (she lost her husband and daughter to a sand cave-in) who needs help it the nightly task of shoveling the sand out of her home.

The rope ladder is pulled up and he is trapped.

The movie is a long one, slow moving, and concentrates on the man’s slow realization of the hopelessness of his situation, of his eventual resignation to his fate, and on the complex evolving relationship between him and the woman. She has trapped him, but she was trapped herself, and really didn’t have any choice. She is terrified that he will leave.

I was young when I read the book. I didn’t realize how universal the man’s fate was. We’re all stuck in that well of sand and all we can do is shovel as fast and as hard as we can.

Ant Lion Pits