Friday, December 09, 2011

Food is not Magical

Haruki Murakami's new book 1Q84 conforms to his normal genre: magical realism. It's also very long: 925 pages, described as a doorstop in one review. In an earlier version of our real world, a book this huge would have been completely impractical as airplane reading -- but I bought the Kindle version. In fact, I couldn't finish it in a 13 hour flight from Japan, but now I have finished.

1Q84 is enjoyable, but I think it could really have been shorter. Before I left for Japan, I reread Murakami's much earlier novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, as preparation. I think I like it better, though it's less suspenseful. The magic in it is more spontaneous, the sense of unreality develops more effectively and maybe more naturally if that makes sense.

One thing I've noticed: magical realism has to be anchored in some sort of realistic world, and in Murakami, one area that stays real is food. While sampling or observing the many and remarkable types of restaurant food in Tokyo last week (Japanese-French banquet food, authentic sushi and other fish, tempura, noodles, rice bowls, kaiseki lunch, Edo hotpot, Wagyu beef, street vendors' offerings, small cakes and pastries in tea shops, and more) I wondered what Japanese people cook and eat at home. Murakami's descriptions of food are probably a reliable indication, even in the midst of the unreality of the plots of these novels.

Here's a sample of how Tengo, one of the two main characters, makes a meal for himself, after having shopped for the ingredients. He opens a beer, preps some "leathery edamame pods," and puts them on to boil. Then he daydreams about Aomame, the other main character, whom the magical side of things has destined as his own.
"Tengo chopped a lot of ginger to a fine consistency. Then he sliced some celery and mushrooms into nice-sized pieces. The Chinese parsley, too, he chopped up finely. He peeled the shrimp and washed them at the sink. Spreading a paper towel, he laid the shrimp out in neat rows, like troops in formation. When the edamame were finished boiling, he drained them in a colander and left them to cool. Next he warmed a large frying pan and dribbled some sesame oil and spread it over the bottom. He slowly fried the chopped ginger over a low flame." (p. 255)
It's almost like a recipe. As the ginger is cooking, he continues to think about Aomame whom, at this point, he hasn't seen in 20 years, since they were both 10 years old.
"He put the sliced celery and mushrooms into the frying pan. Turning the gas flame up to high and lightly jogging the pan, he carefully stirred the contants with a bamboo spatula, adding a sprinkle of salt and pepper. ...."
The cooking and daydreaming continue. "When the stir-fried shrimp and vegetables were ready, Tengo transferred the food from the frying pan to a large platter along with the edamame. He took a fresh beer from the refrigerator, sat at the kitchen table, and, still lost in thought, proceeded to eat the steaming food." After eating half, he puts the rest away in the refrigerator.

In contrast, in an earlier scene, Aomame was served an elegant meal prepared by a professional chef at the home of a rich woman: "boiled white asparagus, salade Nicoise, a crabmeat omelet, and rolls and butter" -- showing, I guess, the evident value of French food to the Japanese that I also observed. (p. 233) In her own home cooking, she prefers fruits and vegetables, as she's a fitness instructor with highly-developed standards for her own health and healthy eating.

Other characters mention eating packaged food, ready-to-microwave dishes, or packaged puddings, while Tengo cooks other elaborate dinners for himself as well as for a guest. He makes rice in a rice-cooker to go with sun-dried mackerel, tofu, daikon radish, pickled turnip slices, and pickled plums. Sometimes the foods mentioned are even less recognizable to the non-Japanese reader.
"Cooking was not a chore for Tengo. He always used it as a time to think -- about everyday problems, about math problems, about his writing, or about metaphysical propositions."
In an inn where he stays, Tengo is served the same breakfast every day "dried horse mackerel and fried eggs, a quartered tomato, seasoned dried seaweed, miso soup with shijimi clams, and rice."

During the course of the story, Tengo checks what is the number-one best selling book. It was a diet book entitled Eat as Much as You want of the Food You Love and Still Lose Weight. Tengo thinks: "What a great title. The whole book could be blank inside and it would still sell."

My suspicion has been that the Japanese choice of home-cooked foods differs substantially from the American diet, and these various scenes from the real side of magical realism seem to support that thought. I think Tengo was made special by the fact that he is a man who lives alone but cooks elaborately, but that his choice of food was suggested to be roughly normal. In any case, the level of realistic detail about food is an interesting inclusion among the magical events of 1Q84.

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