I know, I've said countless times that I'm no fan of Haruki Murakami, and yet I still read his stuff here and there. Read his new short story, 'Cream', published in The New Yorker, January 28 2019, and translated from Japanese to English by Philip Gabriel.
In an interview with Deborah Treisman for the same journal, and this was also translated by Philip Gabriel, Murakami suggested that he might make this "into a series (or a full length novel)."
Although the narrator never solved the mystery of what happened that day, he did learn something that stayed with him ever since. Did having no answer become an answer in itself?
Sometimes asking the right question is better than getting the right answer. I’ve always kept that in mind in my life, and as I’ve written my stories.
The story is set in Kobe, where you grew up. What made you choose that as the location for “Cream”?
It was because the scenery that this eighteen-year-old man sees and the scenery in Kobe blend together within me.
Obviously a sad 'Murakami man' is the protagonist in 'Cream'. He was telling a story to his youth to a friend. The then young eighteen-year-old said yes to an old schoolmate's invitation to a piano recital on a Sunday in the middle of nowhere on a mountain in Kobe. He got the address right, but the steel gates to the venue remained locked, and there weren't anyone else in the vicinity. No cars were parked outside either. It was all very quiet for an event that was supposedly to start soon.
He wondered why did the schoolmate (a girl, obviously) pranked him with such an invitation to a non-event. He went to a nearby park to think it through. An old man spoke to him, and opened the conversation with an obscure statement, "A circle with many centers." It was a line that the young man didn't understand, and the old man continued to literally speak in circles.
I didn’t think that the old man was off, mentally. And I didn’t think that he was teasing me. He wanted to convey something important. So I tried again to understand, but my mind just spun around and around, making no progress. How could a circle that had many (or perhaps an infinite number of) centers exist as a circle? Was this some advanced philosophical metaphor? I gave up and opened my eyes. I needed more clues.
But the old man wasn’t there anymore. I looked all around, but there was no sign of anyone in the park. It was as if he’d never existed. Was I imagining things? No, of course it wasn’t some fantasy. He’d been right there in front of me, tightly gripping his umbrella, speaking quietly, posing a strange question, and then he’d left.
I'm not sure if how this short story can be expanded. I'm only a little curious as to why the girl pranked him back then. He only recalled that the girl wasn't too impressed by his piano-playing skills, and wasn't too pleased about having to practice with him for a four-hands recital because he kept hitting the wrong notes. Surely, that's not enough to hold a grudge? But one never knows what teenagers are thinking.
The ending is as obfuscating as any other Murakami story. A circle without centers. I paused rather long to consider that. I imagined the young boy seated on a bench on that afternoon, wondering why, and how that would be the most major issue in his young life. That made my head hurt. The story ends in a question mark, and seemingly concludes that complicated issues will always be looped into an infinite pain if one keeps dwelling on them. I can never understand the author.
“Yeah, of course. Back then, it bothered me, too. A lot. It hurt me, too. But thinking about it later, from a distance, after time had passed, it came to feel insignificant, not worth getting upset about. I felt as though it had nothing at all to do with the cream of life.”
“The cream of life,” he repeated.
“Things like this happen sometimes,” I told him. “Inexplicable, illogical events that nevertheless are deeply disturbing. I guess we need to not think about them, just close our eyes and get through them. As if we were passing under a huge wave.”