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Debbie Henderson
Sound Commentary, October 2010

This novel with two titles was Murakami’s second, published in 1985 in Japan; the English translation was published in 1991. For those of us familiar with his more recent titles (Kafka on the Shore, Wind-up Bird Chronicles) the newly released audio version of this novel is a great opportunity to explore his earlier work in a different medium.

The two narratives are presented in alternating chapters, weaving a double helix of narration that keeps main characters/storylines dancing around each other, but never really touching. Towards the end things start to overlap and the connections you only suspected start to become tangible.

The two main characters are represented by two readers. The odd numbered chapters, read by Adam Sims (a film and stage actor who trained in London and has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company), follow the life of a calcutec, a human that is being exploited by the government for his unique mental capabilities. Calcultecs are trained to intake massive amounts of information, scramble it in their brains, and then regurgitate it when presented with the proper password, which in this case is “the end of the world.” The even numbered chapters, read by Ian Porter (a television and film actor whose credits include Saving Private Ryan, The Bourne Ultimatum and Gulliver’s Travels), follow the life of a semiotec, also an extension of government, but a lesser calcutec, if you will. The government seems to be fractured and working against itself in this world. The two characters don’t interact with each other, but who’s to say they are not one and the same in different places along the same timeline?

Murakami is the master of stream of sub-consciousness. He explores the nuances of human identity through brain activity, i.e. capacity, input, interpretation, use. What is the self? Does intelligence support or obscure humanity? His characters struggle with the age old utopian questions. Does the sacrifice of individuality make for a happy whole? He approaches it on multiple levels: the “we-ness” of eastern culture vs. the “I-ness” of western culture, the seeming absurdity of government controlling disciplines that appear rigid but actually require creative thinking, the concept of ignorance is bliss. The loss of self is faced by both characters.

The distinct voices of the two readers are essential to keep track of the story. It would be easy to get lost if there were only one narrator. The strong, energy of the calcutec, is balanced by the calmness of the semiotec. Both are approaching their ends as they know it. Readers will love the way Murakami’s mind works, and he is good at sharing his thought. He describes two elevators and gets you to think about which one best represents your life. He talks you into imagining the earth shaped like a coffeetable. He makes you ponder the similarities between your shadow and your alter ego, or your primary ego. The storylines are engaging, sometimes quite imaginative fantasy, but always thought provoking. Your mind will wander back to this book time and again as small everyday occurrences remind you of these characters and their circumstances.

Did I mention that unicorns comprise a common thread that weaves between these two stories?

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