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  • Alan Bray

Snakes


When we last left Kino, he’d just had the encounter with the woman burned by cigarettes and was shown feeling ambivalently about her.

Ambivalent—please note that word as it will reoccur.

The next scene after a paragraph break concerns Kino’s now ex-wife coming to the bar at her initiative after the divorce has been finalized. The couple has a glass of wine, and then, “The cat padded over and, surprisingly, leaped into Kino’s lap.” This is an unusual occurrence as the cat is generally aloof. Kino’s ex-wife says, “I need to apologize to you.” There is a sense here of the cat as another guardian to Kino, protecting him from pain and danger as Mr. Kamita does. His wife wants to talk about their break-up, but Kino is reluctant. “…he was starting to forget all that had happened back then. He couldn’t recall events in the order they’d occurred. It was like a mixed-up jigsaw in his mind.” As she talks about what went wrong between them, Kino imagines his ex-wife’s back covered in burn marks.

What’s going on here?

His ex-wife seems to be trying to have an ordinary conversation with him, to apologize for her part in their break-up. But the reader is cued that there is more going on. The cat acts in a protective way, Kino imagines his ex-wife as similar to the woman he slept with, a woman he thought was vicious. When we last heard about that woman, Kino was imagining that she’d return when she wanted to, have sex with him again and show off her new burns. It’s not a very sexy or positive image, and now he seems to be mixing up the woman he slept with and his ex-wife.

Kino is in trouble, I would say.

After a paragraph break, “Fall came, and the cat disappeared. Then the snakes started to show up.”

Well, an ominous beginning to this section of the story.

“The cat…was like a good-luck charm for the bar. Kino had the distinct impression that as long as it was asleep in a corner nothing bad would happen.” It leaves, and then the snakes start appearing. Snakes, we are told, are rare in Tokyo. After seeing three different snakes outside the bar in a week, Kino phones his aunt who tells him that “Snakes are essentially ambiguous creatures…the biggest smartest snake hides its heart somewhere outside its body, so that it doesn’t get killed.” She tells him how snakes are ambiguous, having both good and evil qualities. Kino is disturbed; we are shown another section of imperfect time that collapses several nights. He closes the bar, goes upstairs, wonders if the woman with the burns will return. He hopes she won’t; he hopes she will. “Another case of ambiguity.”

‘Kay. Some important connections are being made. Snakes, according to Kino’s aunt, are partly good and partly evil. Ambiguous creatures—Kino feels a lot of ambiguity; is he like a snake?

After a paragraph break, Mr. Kamita returns and lingers till he is the last customer. He addresses Kino. “Mr. Kino…I find it very regrettable, that it’s come to this…you’ll have to close the bar. Even if only temporarily.” Kino is startled, to say the least. Mr. Kamita continues: “I really liked this bar a lot…Unfortunately though, there are some things missing…That cat won’t be coming back…For the time being, at least.” Kino looks around the bar, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. “He did, though, get a sense that the place felt emptier than ever, lacking vitality and color.”

Mr. Kamita continues: “Mr. Kino, you’re not the type who would willingly do something wrong…But there are times in this world when it’s not enough just not to do the wrong thing. Some people use that blank space as a kind of loophole.” Kino responds: “You’re saying that some serious trouble has occurred, not because I did something wrong but because I didn’t do the right thing?” Mr. Kamita nods. He tells Kino again that he must close the bar for a while and go far away. Maybe hang religious talismans around the house. “Don’t stay in one place very long. And every Monday and Thursday make sure to send a postcard…you can mail it to your aunt…do not write your own name or any message whatsoever. Just put the address you’re sending it to. This is very important, so don’t forget.” Kino, surprised, asks if Kamita knows his aunt. “Yes, I know her quite well. Actually, she asked me to keep an eye on you, to make sure nothing bad happened. Seems like I fell down on the job, though.” Kamita says when it’s all right for Kino to return, he’ll be in touch. Until then, stay away.

Whoa!

I believe this is another instance of the implied author cueing the reader that this is not a story written in a realist style about a lonely guy in Tokyo who owns a bar. Mr. Kamita makes his guardian role explicit here and links himself to Kino’s aunt, who may be the ultimate guardian. What is going on here? Mr. Kamita seems to be saying that instead of doing the right thing, Kino did nothing, and that this created a space in which bad people could get through. The woman with the burns, perhaps? The gangsters? It could be that Kino’s aunt, worried about her ambivalent nephew who has a poorly formed identity, had stashed him in the bar for safety with Mr. Kamita and the cat as guardians. However, Kino can’t stay out of trouble. He gets entangled with the lady with the burns, confuses her with his ex-wife, and those darned snakes start showing up. The guardians decide the only solution is for Kino to escape into anonymity for a time.

Kino lives a life without meaning and is tempted by violence and pain as a way to feel authentic. If one views human life as an opportunity to develop and become more fully alive, he’s not doing so well. In order to show this, the implied author uses allegorical characters and supernatural elements. The story remains essentially realistic—the snakes don’t talk, although the bad gangsters are one-dimensional, they appear human. The woman with the burns seduces Kino in a stylized, film noirish way but she doesn’t fly through the air or turn into a cheetah.

What?

My point is that Kino makes use of magical realism. In “real” life, we don’t have guardians with superpowers. (Sorry, we just don’t).

Let’s talk about magical realism.

‘Kay.

A narrative strategy that is characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction.

In Kino, magical realism is used as a tool to find an identity, not to confirm it.

Ooh!

My friends, the clock on the clubhouse wall says it’s time to go.

Wait, wait! We want to hear about magical realism.

We’ll talk about it next time. Till then.

#Kino #Murakami #AlanBray