I was expecting Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World to be a really bizarre book but it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it was a head trip, but I didn’t find the book so out there that any general reader willing to accept the strange and sometimes ambiguous wouldn’t be able to follow or enjoy the story.

The story is told from the point of view of the main character who is also the narrator. He is a 35-year old male living in a Tokyo that doesn’t exist as we know it. There are pop culture and literary references to ground it in reality, but in the reality of the book there is an information war going on–The System runs everything and is essentially the government, versus the Semiotecs who seem to belong to a corporation. Our narrator doesn’t have a name. He works for the System as a Calucutec, basically a human information launderer. He gets sent on jobs to code data and then scramble it by shuffling, an encryption that he does in his mind and only he can unscramble.

The thing about shuffling, however, is that it is an unconscious process and even if our narrator was captured and tortured he could never reveal the encryption key. In order to be able to shuffle he had to have brain surgery and have his core consciousness sealed off from the rest of his mind. His core consciousness then gets a title, our narrator’s is The End of the World. It is the core consciousness that does the shuffling. Our narrator’s brain has two circuits, his everyday mind and The End of the World. By playing a certain series of tones on a tape recorder, he gets the circuit in his brain to switch. When the shuffling is done, the circuit changes back to normal on its own.

Things are going fine for our narrator until he is sent on a top secret job that is so secret hardly anyone in the System knows about it. He is asked to shuffle data for a scientist who has figured out how to turn off natural sound. The scientist is also studying skulls because he believes that skulls hold traces of the minds they used to contain. Then things start to go wrong.

In chapters that alternate with the story I just described, is another story about a walled town with unicorns and in order to live in this town you must give up your shadow. Your shadow is literally your shadow but it is also your mind. You can live without mind and all is peaceful and you feel happy and everything is rather idyllic. But with your mind goes all your memories of who you were and what you experienced before you came to the town. Eventually connections between the two stories start to form and by the end of the book the stories merge, or rather, one of the stories wins and becomes the dominate “real” story.

Murakami has a great sense of humor. And the literary references are everywhere. The narrator talks about books a lot and even does a comparison between Turgenev and Dostoyevsky and why he likes Turgenev better. Early in the book there is a scene that brings together both the humor and the literature. The narrator has just arrived for the first time at the building where the scientist lives and works. He is met by the scientist’s granddaughter starts to escort him down a long corridor. She hasn’t said a thing to him and he tries to break the ice by commenting on the length of the corridor:

It was then that she said, “Proust.”Or more precisely, she didn’t pronounce the word “Proust,” but simply moved her lips to form what ought to have been “Proust.” I had yet to hear a genuine peep out of her. It was as if she were talking to me from the far side of a thick sheet of glass.

Proust?

Marcel Proust?” I asked her.

She gave me a look. Then she repeated, “Proust.”

He then falls silent, trying to figure out what she’d said if it wasn’t Proust. But he can only conclude that she had said Proust:

But what I couldn’t figure was, what was the connection between this long corridor and Marcel Proust?Perhaps she’d cited Marcel Proust as a metaphor for the length of the corridor. Yet, supposing that were the case, wasn’t it a trifle flighty–not to say inconsiderate–as a choice of expression? Now if she’d cited this long corridor as a metaphor for the works of Marcel Proust, that much I could accept. But the reverse was bizarre.

A corridor as long as Marcel Proust?

Whatever, I kept following her down that long corridor.

Humor and literary references aside, the book mulls over the meaning of mind and consciousness and identity–what are they? Are they something we create? Or are they actual neurological functions? Can mind and consciousness be separated and if so, what happens? Murakami also suggests what I found to be an intriguing definition of immortality. If you enjoy neuroscience or psychology or even philosophy, you will enjoy this book and all the questions it poses. If you have no interest in those subjects, you still might enjoy the book simply for the well-written story.

With the completion of this book, I have officially finished the Japanese Challenge. As a result I have now finally read both Mishima and Murakami for the first time and I look forward to reading more of them. Thanks Bellezza!