Sometime Murakami translator Jay Rubin has written a delightful book called Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, which Vintage has released as a kind of companion to their very stylish Murakami reissues. It has a lot of great stuff in it, including a discussion of the issues of translation that we’ll get to later, as well as some extracts from and descriptions of early Murakami stories that have not been published in English. It’s a rare treat for those of us who love Murakami’s dreamy weirdness but haven’t quite got around to learning Japanese.
One story, which Rubin describes as one of the weirdest of Murakami’s anthology A Perfect Day for Kangaroos (Kangaruu-biyori)—he seems to have a thing for kangaroos, which is kind of gratifying—is called “Tongari-yaki no seisui”, which Rubin translates as “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes”. It’s about an imaginary traditional Japanese delicacy manufactured by a mysterious concern whose patriarchs turn out to be a bunch of blind crows who eat nothing but the cakes in question, approving or damning new recipes and pecking at each other. It’s very weird. Anyway, Rubin closes with this interesting anecdote of life imitating art:
The word translated as “Sharpies” is tongari-yaki, meaning, more or less literally, “pointy-baked-things”. Some time after he wrote the story, Haruki and Yoko were walking along a Tokyo street when they were bowled over to see a billboard advertising a new snack: tongari-kon or “pointy-corn”, cornucopia-shaped corn chips. “Pointy-corn” has since become far better known than Murakami’s story. Just remember, though, Murakami’s “pointy-baked-things” came first!
Well, maybe you had to be there—but it certainly would be weird to see something you’d invented for a story appear pretty much unchanged in the real world. Imagine how Jules Verne would have felt if he’d stuck around to see actual space travel, or how David Foster Wallace must have felt when those toothbrushes with tongue-scrapers on the back hit the big time and began to be advertised heavily. You may remember this from Infinite Jest:
Stylistically reminiscent of those murderous mouthwash, deodorant, and dandruff-shampoo scenarios that had an antihero’s chance encounter with a gorgeous desire-object ending in repulsion and shame became of an easily correctable hygiene deficiency, the NoCoat spots’ chilling emotional force could be located in the exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian who accepts a gorgeous meter maid’s coquettish invitation to have a bit of a lick of the ice cream cone she’s just bought from an avuncular sidewalk vendor. The lingering close-up on an extended tongue that must be seen to be believed, coat-wise. The slow-motion full-frontal shot of the maid’s face going slack with disgust as she recoils, the returned cone falling unfelt from her repulsion-paralyzed fingers. The nightmarish slo-mo with which the mortified pedestrian reels away into street-traffic with his whole arm over his mouth, the avuncular vendor’s kindly face now hateful and writhing as he hurls hygienic invectives.
Anyway, House Foods Corporation‘s Tongari (“Pointy”) Corn is now indeed a popular treat in Japan, where it is reportedly described as “a corn snack of crunchy type!” and comes in standard flavours plain salt, roasted corn, fresh cheese and tuna mayonnaise.
I also wonder how Murakami reacted to Steve Martin’s enduring 1983 film The Man With Two Brains, in which Dr Hfuhruhurr recites the poetry of John Lillison, England’s greatest one-armed poet and the first person ever to be killed in a car crash. The Collected Poems of John Lillison only features two attested poems, until Steve Martin invents some more. The first is “In Dillman’s Grove”:
In Dillman’s Grove, our love did die,
and now in ground shall ever lie.
None could e’er replace her visage,
until your face brought thoughts of kissage.
But the most famous one, which was also referenced somewhat indulgently in LA Story, is “Pointy Birds”:
O pointy pointy,
Anoint my head,
I have often wondered what these pointy birds, or “tongari-tori”, were. Perhaps Murakami has finally given us a clue. More later.