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ON SPAGHETTI AND MURAKAMI

HARUKI MURAKAMI’S BOOKS have entertained and occasionally baffled me. They’re typically first-person narratives, with side trips to history, psychology, and fantasy. This Japanese writer came to mind while reading The New Yorker, September 6, 2021, which published Murakami’s short story “The Year of Spaghetti.”

Here are tidbits about spaghetti, Murakami, and his world. 

Background. After attending Tokyo’s Waseda University, Murakami published his first novel Hear the Wind Sing in 1979 after working as the owner of a small jazz bar for seven years. Wikipedia notes, “His work spans genres including science fiction, fantasy, and crime fiction, and has become known for its use of magical realist elements. His official website lists Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Brautigan as key inspirations….”

Haruki Murakami, Kyoto-born 1949, Japanese writer of bestsellers translated into 50 languages.

Particularly memorable to me, obviously in English translation, are A Wild Sheep Chase, 1989; Norwegian Wood, 1989; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1997; and 1Q84, 2011. “The Year of Spaghetti,” translated by Philip Gabriel, originally appeared in The New Yorker, November 11, 2005. It appeared in the collection of short stories, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, 2006. 

Spaghetti and Life. Murakami’s narrator opens with “Nineteen-seventy-one was the Year of Spaghetti. In 1971, I cooked spaghetti to live, and lived to cook spaghetti. Steam rising from the pot was my pride and joy, tomato sauce bubbling up in the saucepan my one great hope in life.” 

“Fine particles of garlic, onion, and olive oil swirled in the air,” he says, “forming a harmonious cloud that penetrated every corner of my tiny apartment, permeating the floor and the ceiling and the walls, my clothes, my books, my records, my tennis racquet, my bundles of old letters. It was a fragrance one might have smelled on ancient Roman aqueducts.”

Illustration by Seymore Chwast in The New Yorker, September 6, 2021. 

A Lone Diner’s Visitors. “As a rule,” the narrator says, “I cooked spaghetti, and ate it, by myself. I was convinced that spaghetti was a dish best enjoyed alone. I can’t really explain why I felt that way, but there it is.”

He says, “Every time I sat down to a plate of spaghetti—especially on a rainy afternoon—I had the distinct feeling that somebody was about to knock on my door. The person who I imagined was about to visit me was different each time. Sometimes it was a stranger, sometimes someone I knew. Once, it was a girl with slim legs whom I’d dated in high school, and once it was myself, from a few years back, come to pay a visit. Another time, it was William Holden, with Jennifer Jones on his arm.”

William Holden?

“Not one of these people, however, actually ventured into my apartment. They hovered just outside the door, without knocking, like fragments of memory, and then slipped away.”

Spaghetti Choices. “Spaghetti alla parmigiana. Spaghetti alla napoletana. Spaghetti al cartoccio. Spaghetti aglio e olio. Spaghetti alla carbonara. Spaghetti della pina.”

“And then there was the pitiful, nameless leftover spaghetti carelessly tossed into the fridge.”

A Phone Call. One afternoon at 3:20 p.m., the narrator is interrupted by a phone call from “a girl, a girl so indistinct that, by four-thirty, she might very well have disappeared altogether. She was the ex-girlfriend of a friend of mine.”

She’s trying to track down the friend who owes her money. “I’m sorry,” the narrator tells her, “But I’m cooking spaghetti right now.” It’s a lie, and he’s reluctant to get involved.

He concludes with, “Durum semolina, golden wheat wafting in Italian fields. Can you imagine how astonished the Italians would be if they knew that what they were exporting in 1971 was really loneliness?” 

I’m reminded of philosopher Paul Tillich who wrote in The Eternal Now, 1963, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”  Google Translate offers 孤独, kodoku, as both. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

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