‘Slow Boat’ by Hideo Furukawa (Review)

Of my many reviewing flaws, perhaps the biggest is my tendency to lazily drag comparisons to other writers into my posts, and the one name invoked more than most belongs to a certain Japanese writer you may have heard of.  I’ve been doing my best behind the scenes to cut down on this trend (believe me – hardly a draft gets written without his name cropping up…), but today, thankfully, there’s no need to be on the lookout for rogue Haruki Murakami references.  You see, my latest read is virtually impossible to review without referring to the great man’s work – especially when even the writer feels the need to talk about him 🙂

*****
Hideo Furukawa’s Slow Boat (translated by David Boyd) is the latest in Pushkin Press’ series of Japanese novellas, and it might well be my favourite so far.  The story is told by an unnamed male narrator as he wanders around his home city of Tokyo on a rather chilly Christmas Eve, but these scenes are interspersed with memories of the past, involving three women and the man’s failed attempts to leave Tokyo.  As the story progresses, a third strand appears.  The narrator, despite the cold weather, manages to nod off wherever he stops to rest, and in his dreams he finds himself in a strange room covered with dust.  A hotel, perhaps?  Or maybe something a little less static…

The keys to the story are the three long sections relating his love affairs, each of which is doomed to a premature ending (none of which are his fault).  The first, in which he falls for a twelve-year-old girl while unwillingly attending summer school, sees him making the effort to approach someone who has spent her life immersed in fiction:

It takes some time for it to click – someone else is wading through the muck of her mixed-up movie worlds with her.
Her words are getting through.
This is where strangers meet.
An alien makes contact with one of her own.
For the first time, maybe ever, she realizes that she wants to communicate.  Then, just like that, she’s talking to me, at hyper-speed.
So I start decoding her, my dream girl, at hyper-speed.
p.29 (Pushkin Press, 2017)

Years after this fling is over, he gets together with a university student, only to be betrayed by the universe (and terrorism…) when she demands a commitment.  Finally, having got himself back on his feet, he meets his dream girl at the restaurant he sets up – and that’s when the sky falls in once more.

But what is Slow Boat?  Well, in part it reads like a homage to Tokyo.  The narrator makes a lot of his never having left his hometown (or, at least, his home prefecture), but what he’s actually doing in his story is taking us on a tour of Greater Tokyo (the overwhelming size of the capital is an idea mentioned in another story of his I read in the Comma Press collection, The Book of Tokyo), from the reclaimed coastline to the inland mountain villages, with the major train lines seen as the veins and arteries of the metropolis.  You could image dedicated fans following in his footsteps, taking selfies in places where crucial scenes happen (I’m only half kidding here…).

It’s also a novel(la) made up of short pieces, with the narrator’s memories interspersed with several ‘chronicles’ written by a boy/man who turns out to be a friend of the narrator.  There are several different styles included in the book, as befits a writer who seems to change genre with every work, and one of his focuses is on the language itself, and its inability to express his true feelings:

Still, I’m writing this in Japanese.  It’s the best language I have for writing down my experiences (or the contents of my brain).  No question.  Language has its limits, but it’s all we’ve got. (p.7)

This preoccupation with the limits of language pervades the book, with the writer constantly trying to find the right words (and usually failing).

*****
But let’s not beat around the bush too long – there’s a huge Murakami-shaped shadow looming over the whole undertaking, one apparent from the very start of the book.  If you take a quick peek at the copyright page, you’ll see a couple of versions of the original title (in the Roman alphabet), namely 2002-nen no surō bōto and Chugoku-yuki no surō bōto RMX, which should be enough to pique your curiosity.  The first (Slow Boat, 2002) has more than a hint of one of Murakami’s early novellas (Pinball, 1973, which itself pays homage to a Kenzaburō Ōe work), while the second (Slow Boat to China RMX) will remind many readers of a Murakami short story.  The RMX?  Let’s leave that for now…

A quick read through the book will have you stumbling over Murakami allusions wherever you look, from jazz albums to dreams (but no cats, surprisingly enough).  The school the narrator is sent to after he becomes a problem student? “The End of the World Elementary”.  Appearing in a room without a functional door in what may or may not be a fantasy?  Very After Dark.  A slightly disturbing (but essential to the plotline) obsession with breasts?  Well, take your pick, but 1Q84‘s Fuka-Eri comes to mind.  For the real Murakami obsessive, though, the ‘aha’ moment comes when the narrator talks to his friend Nohara and asks why he’s changed his first name to Kaku, with the whole name now reading as ‘Heartfield’.  Wait a minute…

And that, of course, is because the whole thing is an intentional show of respect, with the ever-resourceful Furukawa taking a Murakami short story and giving it his own spin, a remix (RMX…) if you will.  In the Liner Notes entitled ‘Writing About What I’m Writing About’ that round off the story (and if you can’t see the Murakami allusions in both those ideas, then there’s really no helping you…), Furukawa explains his decision to respectfully revisit a classic and reinvent it, creating a literary cover song:

There’s no reason you can’t do the same thing with stories.  To take your love for the original and situate it in the present.  Back to this book.  To the subtitle: A Slow Boat to China RMX.  A nod to Haruki Murakami’s unforgettable short story – “A Slow Boat to China”.  The story where my story begins.
For me, Murakami is at the centre of it all – the roots of my soul. (p.124)

At which point there’s only one thing to do…

It’s only when you go back to ‘A Slow Boat to China’ (included in The Elephant Vanishes) that you appreciate exactly what Furukawa has done in his work.  He takes Murakami’s original concept, a story reflecting on three meetings with Chinese people over the course of his life, and adapts or expands on certain elements while playfully throwing in allusions to other works.  Certain ideas from the original story (for example, the Yamanote line) take on a new significance in the remix, and while luck plays a minor role in Murakami’s story, Furukawa blows that up a little in his version, all the time staying true to Murakami’s ideas.

As you’ve probably guessed, I loved this book, and whether you will or not may depend on which side of the Murakami line you find yourself on.  However, Furukawa is a wonderful author in his own right, so I’d urge even the Haruki haters to give Slow Boat a try, especially as there’s more than a hint of Ryū Murakami in the narrator’s more violent and anti-social tendencies.  A literary remix with hints of both Murakamis?  If that doesn’t intrigue you, then you might as well stop reading here.  For everyone else, you know what to do 🙂

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