Rumi on Figs

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Figs 

The Ripe Fig

Now that you live here in my chest,
anywhere we sit is a mountaintop.

And those other images,
which have enchanted people
like porcelain dolls from China,
which have made men and women weep
for centuries, even those have changed now.

What used to be pain is a lovely bench
where we can rest under the roses.

     A left hand has become a right.
A dark wall, a window.

     A cushion in a shoe heel,
the leader of the community!

    Now silence. What we say
is poison to some
and nourishing to others.

    What we say is a ripe fig,
but not every bird that flies
eats figs.”

― Rumi, The Essential Rumi

Book Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami

colorless I used to think that it was only Americans who were so caught up with the experience of  “High School.”  I had believed it was an American construct, an over-idealized rite of passage that had spawned too many bad television series and “coming of age” films. I had believed it was strictly an American thing.

I’ve known many men for whom those “high school” years were the very pinnacle of their lives. It is those days that they keep referring to, those days by which they measure all others.  I mean I know men in their 40s and 50s, in their 60s and 70s, even in their 80s whose conversation invariably turn to the high-jinks and glories of their high-school days.

But I was wrong.

Haruki Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage revolves around five Japanese high school friends and the long-lasting effects of the decisions they made when they were twenty years old.  They are now in their mid-thirties; two are living in their hometown, one has moved to far-away Finland, one to cosmopolitan Tokyo, and the fifth one is dead, murdered.  The one-time connectedness of these five high-school friends haunts the hero, Tsukuru Tazaki.

Tsukuru–whose name is the only one the five which does not have a color attached and who believes himself to be “colorless–was abruptly dropped from the group when he was a sophomore in college in Tokyo. And he never was given an explanation, just the order to never contact them again.  The separation caused Tsukuri months of suicidal depression and then years of self-doubt, wonder, and the inability to relate to people. For Tsukuru, the five high school friends were an unprecedented harmony of spirits.  And yet there were several cracks in this group which he was too nice to notice.

Tsukuru’s name in Japanese means “one who makes things,” and indeed, that’s what he does. He makes railroad stations.  And in Japan, railroad stations are a very big deal and making connections is an intrinsic part of Tokyo life. Yet his treatment by his high-school friends has left him unable to make connections with people. There have been several romantic liaisons, but nothing serious and nothing he wished to pursue further. There was a friendship–tinged with a touch of homo-eroticism–that ended as abruptly as his friendship with his high-school mates. He was simply abandoned one day, his friend moving away from Tokyo with no forewarning and no intention of staying in touch.

And so we follow “colorless” Tsukuru as he tries to make his way in the world.

I needed a novel like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. There had been too few novels lately that gripped me from the beginning and made me read obsessively until I was finished. And Murakami has done that for me before. While I can’t remember the exact plots of his Kafka on the Shore or NorwegianWood, I do remember the obsessiveness with which I read them.  I can remember jotting down notes, following up allusions, taking notes. I remember protagonists who were like Tsukuru Tazaki: thoughtful, introspective, aware young men, burdened by what they cannot change in the past and fearful of the uncertainties of the future. And I remember getting caught up in their sadness and their serious attempts to make sense of their world. Murakami’s novels are both thoughtful and fascinating, outwardly exotic and inwardly philosophic.

And also I remember the fascinating side-trips of information. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, there is an odd but brief discussion of the genetic dominance of a sixth finger; there is a continual look at the music of Listz, particularly the “Le Mal du Pays” section of his suite “The Years of Pilgrimage.”  It is a piece that the young murdered friend played often when they all were together, and it is a record that his friend Haida had coincidentally left at Tsukuru’s apartment before he had left him. Towards the end of the novel, Tsukuru visits one of his old high-school friends–still seeking enlightenment as to why he was so unceremoniously dropped–and the friend has the piece in her pile of CDs. The two reach some reconcilliation listening to Listz.

Watching the trains

Watching the trains

Watching the people

Watching the people

 

And then finally there is the subject of trains and of Tokyo’s public transportation. When Tsukuru needs time alone, when he is filled with angst and confusion, he goes to the train platforms and watches the trains and the people. There is a certain peace he finds in the uniformity and the precision which such a place exhibits, against what seems impossible odds. (Shinjuko Station handles 3.5 million passengers a day!)

I had skipped Marukami’s novel before this, 1Q84, for a variety of reasons. It was a mistake on my part and one I will rectify shortly.

 

You can listen to the very recording of Listz that Tsukura played on his stereo in his apartment here:

Beware of Maya: Illusion, Cary Grant, Wes Anderson and Owen in Paris

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Towards the end of Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the elderly Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abrahams) says this about his mentor, the concierge M. Gustav H.:

“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”

And this reminded me of Cary Grant.

I saw three movies this week. And oddly–and not purposefully– they dovetailed into a similar theme.  I was sick as a dog in the beginning of the week and so, lazing around, I  watched two films on television.

The first was To Catch a Thief.  How gloriously campy it now seems.  Cary Grant’s ascots alone are only outdone by the sweet innuendos that he and Grace Kelly ad-libbed with Hitchcock’s permission.

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

It is all pure fantasy. Pure illusion.

One time, when Cary Grant was told by an interviewer that countless men would love to be “like Cary Grant,” he replied that so would he.  For he knew it was all illusion: the sophisticated banter, the artless seductions, the calm equanimity.  It was his job, being Cary Grant.  In the end, Grant ultimately left the movie business when the illusion gave way to reality. His type of character–as unreal as it was–was no longer in fashion in the gritty, realism of modern cinema.

A few days later I watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The entire movie is built on illusion, one that we all suffer from. The plot deals with the idea that we all believe that an earlier time was more exciting, more inspiring, more fulfilling.  The fallacy of the belief is wonderfully depicted, as Owen Wilson’s character–Gil Pender–returns to the 1920s and falls in love with a beautiful woman whose dream is to live in the 1890s. Even in the presence of his literary and artistic idols, Wilson’s character comes to realize that the past is painted with gold dust and that our image of that past is greatly unreal.

penderhemingwaystein

Owen Wilson with Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein.

And in the end, it is all illusion. Many of us believe that another time was better than the one we live in. And some believe that, if only, they had been born at a different time their lives would be so much different–and better. (At this point read, E. A. Robinson’s poem “Miniver Cheevy” which is referenced in the film as well.)

And so, I finally go out and go to the movies and I see Wes Anderson’s The Budapest Grand Hotel.  It is a beautiful movie to look at and the performances of Ralph Fiennes and his young protege, Tony Revolori, are extraordinary.  But it too is all illusion. The world it describes is long gone, if it ever existed at all. And the heroism of the film–if it can be called such–is that Fiennes’ character maintains the illusion that that world still exists, still matters. And we are even more removed from it than he.

And after all that is what movie making is about.  Sixty years ago, Cary Grant left movie making because he believed the magic had left, that hard-nosed grittiness had blown the magic away.

But that is not the case.  Most of the time, we still go to the movies for the magic. Whether it is the unreal pleasures of the moneyed classes in Monte Carlo or the time-tripping adventures of a sincere romantic in Paris, the movies still provide a good dollop of magic. And in The Grand Budapest Hotel all that magic comes full circle. For not only is the set and the landscape and the costumes and the cartoonish villainy not part of our real world, but even the characters themselves are clinging to an illusion, to a world that has longed passed, but which in our “Golden Age” memories is a thing of refinement, class and excitement…more civilized world than the one we know.