"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami

Written when Ryu Murakami was still in college, this dark, stomach-churning and more or less plotless novel won him the prestigious Akutagawa prize in 1976. Almost Transparent Blue follows a group of disillusioned Japanese youths burning themselves out in a dangerous sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle near an American army base, watching their lives go by in unnerving passivity.

The quote on the cover of Almost Transparent Blue claims that the novel is “a Japanese mix of A Clockwork Orange and L’√Čtranger.” Since A Clockwork Orange is one of my favourite books, this statement encouraged me to read it. However, it is nothing like either of those intelligent novels; I’ll grant some similarity with L’√Čtranger in the protagonist’s existential realisation that there must be more to life than orgies and heroin - it sure takes a genius to figure that out, right? However it does not have the same punch in this area as L’√Čtranger, which explores existential philosophy in a much more intelligent manner and is not plagued by an abundance of graphic sex, vomit and drugs. 

I really like Ryu Murakami; I have enjoyed all of his novels that I’ve read so far - In the Miso Soup, Coin Locker Babies, and Piercing. However, his debut novel is a piece designed to shock and disgust, with little of value hidden beneath the grime and filth. The first event which transpires is that the protagonist - Ryu - nearly dies from a heroin overdose, and the first half of this short novel (it is only 128 pages), is a crazy mess of orgies described in painstaking, nasty detail and incessant drug use, and every activity usually ends in the violent expulsion of various bodily fluids. On top of this, attention paid to dead insects and festering food lend the novel an overall feel of dirtiness and poor hygiene. It is so disgusting that I felt nauseous reading some of these earlier parts; it is gratuitous to the extent that once the initial repulsion abates it becomes tiresome to read such scenes.

The second half is better: it’s very dreamlike and the language Murakami uses changes (for the most part) from focusing on the precise recollection of vomit and semen to rich descriptions of bizarre details that Ryu notices around him; for example he is preoccupied with the various colours of blood that leak out of bugs when squished. Sometimes it’s a little hard to know what is real, and some speech isn’t contained within speech marks; both of which add to the hallucinogenic quality of the writing which is actually quite beautiful. 

If you have already read Almost Transparent Blue and were similarly repulsed then don’t be put off trying some other of Ryu Murakami’s works. He is a great author and his other novels aren’t as relentlessly gross as this one; he does a brilliant job of tearing apart the idealistic image of Japan that many people hold to reveal the dark underbelly. Nonetheless, there is something about Almost Transparent Blue which prevented me from completely disliking it. It has a certain power and Murakami’s skill with language is astounding. It has a lot to say about the American influence on post-war Japan and is at its core a brutal tale of lost youth which is rather poignant. Unfortunately this deeper side to the novel is a bit lost behind the murk of debauched sex, dirty needles and bodily fluids; the shock factor overpowers the deeper meaning of the book, making it a difficult novel to like.

Rating: 4/10

My other Ryu Murakami reviews:

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