All writers of fiction should be required by law to go out and do a bit of reporting from time to time, says Michael Frayn in his introduction to Travels With a Typewriter, a collection of travel articles he wrote in the 1960’s and 70’s. Until he’s in charge the next best advice would be for all readers to read a book like this. The reason Mr Frayn gives – to remind the writer how different the world in front of their eyes is from the invented world behind them – is a valid one, but for me there’s a sort of inversion of that reasoning. If you want to make the characters in your writing feel whole, look to whole people for your inspiration. For all the Grand World History of these articles it’s the people in them that linger in the memory, their own small-h history that frames the wider politics of the day. And what’s changed, fifty-odd years on? Regimes come and go, or simply stay perhaps beyond the reasonable logic of the day. Attitudes harden or soften. The young become the old. But still there are people there, thinking their thoughts and doing the things they must to make some sense of the place they inhabit, sometimes even in the face of everyone else’s displeasure. Sometimes because of it. No, not much has changed.
I wasn’t alive when half these articles were written, and with the other half hailing from the early seventies it can seem like ancient history at times. It certainly would have felt like that had I read these at half the age I am now but there’s that strange elastic phrase, in my lifetime, that comes to mind with a few of the pieces here. How prescient that I should pick up Travels With A Typewriter so shortly after Fidel Castro’s ultimate surrender; not even he could beat time, though he had a damn good try. In 1969 the numbers were always large in Cuba, though most observers suspected the truth to be larger. What will happen there now, I wonder? Do the populace dare to tend a frail green blade of hope for better things or does that air of suspicion linger still? One thing I can be sure of is that true joy will still be found in the paseo. Israel, too. The ever-present rubbing of such close enemies that be nothing but a salt sting on either side. In my lifetime. Will that be true for the next generation? In a hundred years will the words Gaza, West Bank, Hebron still conjure the same images? And to Berlin, where things surely have changed. I can still remember watching the footage of the wall coming down in ’89. The open-mouthed gawping that became wide-eyed staring and smiling. In my lifetime. And America, where there is talk – though surely nobody believes it – of a new wall. There’s an interesting passage in Frayn’s American article that talks about politics as being part of the theatrical convention. People interested in politics aren’t surprised by politicians’ uncharacteristic behaviour any more than would a theatregoer shout impostor at an actor on the stage playing a role. He thought most political observers he’s met would be bored by ‘visible politics’, where men (these days he would not have omitted women from the statement) ‘said frankly and plainly what they thought’. And now we have President-Elect Trump, who a large proportion of us surely believe doesn’t even bother thinking before he speaks. How did that happen? Is it the politicians who have gone so wrong that we’ve lost faith in them, or is it us who have detached ourselves and our small h’s from that Grand World History that so shapes us whether we like it or not.
There’s no denying it’s been a rough year. It feels like a dark line we’ve drawn, and that made all the more pressing by The Reaper’s antics who has taken so many of those who were able to bring a little light to our lives. But one thing I am glad of is books like Michael Frayn’s Travels With A Typewriter. If nothing else it shows me that my small h counts. In some small way it counts. And if the biggest thing I have to worry about is how quickly or whether at all the UK leaves the European Union then things are really not so bad. And if a Cuban family can walk out on a balmy Sunday evening in 1969, knowing in that most secret part of their own minds all the fear and uncertainty that awaited the sunrise, and meet friends and shake hands and smile, then surely I must be able to find a way to be kinder, to be more tolerant, to make someone else’s way a little lighter. And then 2017 really can’t be all that bad.
Travels With A Typewriter was published by Faber & Faber in 2009 ISBN:9780571240890
Okay, so this isn’t what I’d normally do but I think Murakami’s reputation can withstand it. The truth is I’ve found it difficult to get something down for this review. Sorry, Haruki, didn’t quite seem sufficient and I’ve found myself in a place where I’m trying to justify my lack of engagement. It’s a problem I’ve had before when faced with isolated characters like Watanabe and Naoko, a situation where I find myself resistant to their ways. I become that insensitive person who just wants to shake them, that intolerable idiot who wants to tell them to get out and do something, that things aren’t nearly as bad as they think. That they’ll look back on all this and laugh someday about how serious they used to be, if only they could get over it (although he doesn’t, does he). Look how erudite Watanabe is, look how easy-going, a young man who can find a conversation with a voiceless old man in a hospital, who can bring the joy of eating cucumbers to a sad hospital bedside.
It’s not the writing. The writing’s focused, tidy. It’s not the supporting cast either. Midori and Reiko are there to be rooted for, bringing all the freshness and optimism you need. Can it really all be down to Watanabe? It’s not as if the warning signs aren’t there in the books he reads (I can’t help thinking he’d have had a more favourable trajectory if he’d picked up Steppenwolf instead of Beneath The Wheel).
Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps it’s a little too close, or a little too what-might-have-been. Whatever the echoes, they’re echoes I don’t want to hear. Sorry, Haruki.
You can find Haruki on Twitter @harukimurakami_