This week, a new story, Kino, a long short story written by Haruki Murakami. An English version of Kino first appeared in The New Yorker in February, 2015 and was subsequently included in his collection Men Without Women, published by Knopf in 2017. Kino was first published in Japanese in 2014. Readers may remember a similar process occurred with Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, Casting Shadows—a story written originally in a different language and translated to English, then published in the New Yorker, then published in English as part of a story collection.
Nothing wrong with that, just sayin.’
The title has meaning, oh yeah.
Dena speaks Japanese; what I’ve learned is that in that language, words in isolation don’t have much meaning. Everything is context but a translation of Kino that makes some sense in the context of the story is “wandering soul.”
The story begins in imperfect time:
“The man always sat in the same seat, the stool the farthest down the counter.”
In other words, this sentence is describing an event which re-occurred over time. On more than one occasion, a particular man always sat in the same seat, a particular stool farthest down the counter. Please compare this with “The man sat at the stool farthest down the counter.”
The fact that the man always sat at the same seat adds meaning—over time, the man deliberately picked the same seat on multiple occasions. He must have wanted to sit there, and the sentence—from the narrator’s perspective—indicates the narrator noted this repetition and made meaning of it.
(whiny voice—Well, duh. Why are you making such a big deal about this?)
We’re looking at technique here, best beloved. Why does Murakami start in imperfect time? I think because he wants to establish “the man” as a presence whom Kino must recognize.
Many of Murakami’s stories seem to involve a more or less passive narrator/storyteller who describes someone he (usually a man) encounters and goes on to show the other person’s impact on him. Kino certainly begins like this, and the reader might think, “Huh, I’m reading a story about this guy who always sits in the same place at Kino’s bar.” But Kino takes this structure down different paths, as we shall see.
(Are you going to go over every line? What a snooze fest).
The narration is first person and generally past tense, which implies that the events shown have already occurred. And this, dear friends, reveals the presence of the implied author who tells the story.
Heh, heh, heh.
In the second paragraph, Kino switches to past tense and a particular event. “Kino remembered the first time the man had come to his bar…It was seven-thirty on a chilly mid-April evening, and the bar was empty.” For several paragraphs, the story describes this first meeting between “the man” and Kino. We already know the name or word Kino, as it’s the title. Now we learn that Kino is a human, that he owns the bar where “the man” identified in the first paragraph sat on a stool. And we learn that the story is largely told from Kino’s perspective. After “the man” leaves that first time, Kino “…glanced up occasionally at the seat the man had occupied. It felt like someone was still there…” Again, this is a statement about presence. “The man” remains present when he’s not there.
In the next paragraph, the narration returns to imperfect time. “The man”—still unnamed—is observed by Kino becoming a regular at the bar, a regular who always orders the same thing, who says little, sits in the same spot and reads.
After a paragraph break, we have a new section that is about Kino—not “the man.” It explains who Kino is and how he came to own the bar. It is not written from Kino’s perspective, more from the impersonal perspective of the storyteller. We learn that Kino wanted to be a runner but had to give up his dreams after an injury. He worked as a product rep for a running shoe company, excelled at it, but came home unexpectedly from a trip and found his wife in bed with one of Kino’s colleagues. After a divorce, Kino no longer wanted to work at the company.
So in this section, we get a sympathetic portrait of Kino, a good fellow who has had some misfortune. After another paragraph break, the story explains that Kino has an aunt who wanted to retire from running a coffee shop. Kino offered to lease it, and his aunt agreed, she “…named a figure for the monthly rent, far lower than what Kino had expected.”
Another thing we are being shown is that, whoever “the man” is, the story seems to be about Kino. He sets up a bar in what used to be the coffee shop and lives upstairs. He claims he doesn’t feel angry or bitter toward his ex-wife. “The most he could do was create a place where his heart—devoid now of any depth or weight—could be tethered, to keep it from wandering aimlessly. Kino (the name of the bar)…became that place.” A stray cat begins visiting; Kino feeds it and installs a pet door so the animal can go in and out. But the cat prefers to use the front door, just like the customers.
We readers get a good deal of information here from the implied author explaining the background in summary fashion. Other writers might present Kino’s “backstory” as part of dialogue in a dramatic scene. A clumsy example might be that a customer at the bar asks Kino, “Hey pal, how long you had this place anyway?” and Kino tells the story. However, I think Murakami’s technique works very well. Much of Kino is dramatic scene, so the contrast provided by these background sections is welcome.
As we begin the story, we have questions: Who is Kino? How did he come to run the bar? These are quickly answered. And amidst the background, we learn about his aunt and get the powerful image of his heart needing tethering—the first reference to Kino being someone who is suffering. As we will see, these elements become central.
The question as yet unanswered, that the story must address, is: why is “the man” coming to Kino’s bar?
‘Kay. Till next time, my friends. I think I’ll take the whiny voice for a walk.