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This post contains spoilers.

The quiet, melancholy music gradually gave shape to the undefined sadness enveloping his heart, as if countless microscopic bits of pollen adhered to an invisible being concealed in the air, ultimately revealing, slowly and silently, its shape.

-from Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

I’ve often wondered why I like Haruki Murakami’s books so much. Since I read Sputnik Sweetheart, about nine years ago, I’ve been a fan of Murakami’s writing. I devoured The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on the couch of a North Melbourne share-house, and his story collections kept me company on numerous subway rides through Seoul. Murakami’s short stories are good, but there is something so addictive about his novels. What that ‘something’ is, though, I’m not quite sure. His books are not compelling in any traditional, easy-to-point-to way: there are no real twists, Murakami’s main characters are fairly similar, and there’s a whole lot of confusing surreal stuff going on. I’m not the only one to find this writer oddly captivating, however. As Toby Lichtig notes in The Wall Street Journal Murakami is something of a “global literary rock star.” Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (his latest novel) sold one million copies in Japan in the first week of its release, and his work has been translated into more than fifty languages. Is Haruki Murakami just a popular trend, like loom bracelets or bubble tea? Do I like him simply because everyone else does? I don’t think so (I’ve never stayed up into the early hours of the morning making bracelets). Then why? As Daniel Handler asks in The New York Times, “What’s so beguiling about Haruki Murakami?”

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Perhaps the answer lies in thinking carefully about this latest novel. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is – simply put – about a man trying to understand why his close-knit group of school friends suddenly abandoned him when he was in university. The book revolves around (and sometimes meanders away from) this central mystery. Tsukuru, now in his thirties, is encouraged by Sara (a potential love interest) to discover the truth about what happened. Sara believes that if Tsukuru doesn’t comes to terms with his past he will always feel emotionally troubled, and will never be able to fully commit to a relationship with her (or anyone else). Tsukuru tracks down each of his former friends – two are still in his home town of Nagoya, one is in Finland, and one is dead. Without any great difficulty (everyone – with the notable exception of the deceased Shiro – is very willing to talk) Tsukuru learns what it was that led his friends to distance themselves from him. He returns to Japan ready to be with Sara (“It was a wonderful thing to be able to truly want someone”), and the novel ends just before the two meet. Will they get together and live happily ever after? Possibly. Probably it doesn’t matter – the real resolution seems to be the putting to rest of Tsukuru’s emotional confusion.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is seemingly simple and straightforward. However, as Meg Wolitzer writes for NPR, Murakami is “both easy to read IMG_20150623_162904and not so easy to understand.” Nothing much happens in this novel … except actually so much does. There are so many random moments and storylines that, at the time, don’t seem to add up to anything. But they stay with you long after the book is finished, burrowing away at your subconscious like fragments of a dream, nagging at you to thread them together and make them into some kind of whole. The character of Haida, for example, who re-introduces Tsukuru to a piano piece by Liszt (Le Mal Du Pays). The story-within-a-story of Haida’s father meeting a man destined to die. The building of train stations. People having six fingers (polydactyly). Swimming. A ‘Viva Las Vegas’ ringtone. Etc. My copy of the novel came with a page of stickers: a Starbucks coffee and a scone, a bottle of Cutty Sark, a sketch book, a pair of glasses. Reminders of bits and pieces of the novel that I’m now not sure what to do with. Perhaps if I stick them somewhere – anywhere – they will someday (subconsciously, dreamily) pull themselves together and make sense. Or maybe not.

There is a curious mix, in Murakami’s writing, of realism and surrealism. Lines like:

He switched on the AC, made coffee, and had a cup with a slice of toast and melted cheese

Co-exist in the same text with erotic dreams and people passing ‘death tokens’ to each other. Patti Smith, writing for The New York Times, wonders what readers of Murakami are looking for – “the surreal, intra-dimensional side … or his more minimalist, realist side?” For me it’s the combination of the two that is most interesting. One of the things I love about Murakami is his writing style (although of course my experience is somewhat diluted by reading in translation). It is so simple, but never feels banal. Each word feels deliberately placed, carefully chosen. There is something calming about reading writing like this – it reminds me of a haiku, or a tea ceremony. My brain likes this sort of careful control of language – it feels safe and comfortable reading these sorts of sentences. But Murakami also satisfies my brain’s craving for the ridiculous, for talking animals and unexplained body parts found in train stations. Daniel Handler comes pretty close to an explanation for Murakami’s popularity when he writes: “I think the secret to his [Murakami’s] appeal might be precisely the way in which his work filters itself into the brain.” Perhaps what makes Murakami so readable is his careful balance of the real and the unreal, the conscious and the unconscious. He is writing at a frequency that resonates with both areas of the brain. Just like a beautiful piece of music – relaxing, stimulating, and lingering.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949. He now lives near Tokyo. The English language edition of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki was first published in 2014.

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There’s a lot of great television out there these days – Game of Thrones, Utopia, Better Call Saul, Orange is the New Black … just to name a few (oh, and did I mention that The X-Files is currently filming a new series? I didn’t? Well, The X-Files is currently filming a new series. Yep, I said it twice. Here it is one more time – The X-Files. New Series. Right now.) It’s difficult to keep up, and I would have missed this series entirely had it not been recommended by a friend. I wasn’t the only one to come late to The Honourable Woman – NPR writes about it here as part of their ‘The One That Got Away’ series, and Gabriel Tate notes in this Guardian review that the mini-series “attracted respectable rather than spectacular viewing figures.” So what’s up with that? Why wasn’t my Facebook newsfeed a minefield of Honourable Woman spoilers (as it was earlier this week with Game of Thrones)? Is it because of the delicate subject matter (the Israel/Palestine conflict)? Or perhaps, as a few reviews have described it, The Honourable Woman is too ‘slow’ (although I found it pretty enthralling most of the time – and not because I’m ‘smart enough’ to watch a show about politics; simply because The Honourable Woman is genuinely thrilling in every traditional sense of the word). Whatever the reason, in my opinion this series is one of the best I’ve seen (and that’s saying a lot, given the TV renaissance we seem to be living in at the moment), and certainly deserves more attention.

To describe The Honourable Woman is a pretty complex task (I’m not entirely sure I’ve grasped all the nuances myself) but I’ll give it a shot. In a nutshell, it’s an eight-part mini-series, co-produced by the BBC and Sundance. The protagonist and ostensible ‘honourable woman’ is Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), although Atika Halabi (played by Lubna Azabal) is just as important a character as Nessa. Nessa Stein is a Jewish-British woman; the daughter of an Israeli arms dealer. In an attempt to promote peace between Israel and Palestine, Nessa (as president of The Stein Group) is building a fibre-optic network in the West Bank. Communication – like peace – however, is never quite as simple as laying cables, and despite Nessa’s insistence that she “must not be compromised” she inevitably is. The Honourable Woman is part spy-thriller, part family drama. It is the perfect mix of personal and political: as Andy Greenwald writes of the series in Grantland, “All politics is personal. And that can be a very dangerous thing.”

The Honourable Woman is certainly dangerous. It’s also complex, violent, and real – often to the point of being hard to watch. From the very opening scene – in which a young Nessa witnesses her own father’s assassination – this series is intense. The writing is wonderful, as are the performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lubna Azabal steal the show, but Andrew Buchan is also fantastic as Nessa’s brother Ephra Stein, as is Tobias Menzies as chief security advisor Nathaniel Bloom. Stephen Rhea is perfectly cast as MI5’s Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Andy Greenwald describes him as “a machete masquerading as a butterknife”, and I cannot do better than that!) The tension is high throughout, and the twists are many. I watched this on my own, and there were more than a few moments where I turned to my boyfriend with a shocked look on my face, only to have him say “What’s happened now?” Impressively, The Honourable Woman manages to address a conflict that is real and ongoing in a way that (for the most part) hasn’t pissed too many people off. There are no clear heroes or villains, both Nessa and Atika are both honourable (and dishonourable, at times) women, and everyone is compromised. The series makes clear the real messiness of such situations – it doesn’t matter whether or not you are willing to die for the ‘right thing’ if there is no clear cut ‘right thing’ to die for.

A few days ago a friend and I were discussing female protagonists on television. My friend pointed out that although there are more strong women on TV these days (I’m thinking Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones, and Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson in The Fall among others) there aren’t that many that are allowed to be strong and struggling. It’s almost as if we’ve become so determined to represent tough female characters that we’ve forgotten that these women are still only human, and deserve to have a bit of a breakdown now and then (just as male characters do). I think that – in Nessa and to a lesser extent Atika – we finally get to see two on-screen females that are really real. Both incredibly powerful, and both allowed to bend beneath the weight they carry.

The Honourable Woman was written and directed by Hugo Blick. Inspiration for the series came from an incident Blick remembers from 1982, when the Israeli ambassador at the time was shot outside a London hotel. NPR quotes Blick as saying: “Suddenly I felt that the world that seemed so distant was there on our sidewalks.” The Honourable Woman first aired in 2014.

This post contains spoilers.

 [I]t is right to chide man for being blind to … coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

(-from The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

I was recently looking for a birthday present for a close friend. I wanted to give her a book that has meant something to me, and I immediately thought of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – a novel that has stayed with me since I first read it at university about ten years ago. I bought a copy from the international book shop, and after taking it home and flicking through it decided it was about time I re-read Kundera’s novel myself. But when I went back to the shop the next day they had sold out. It can be difficult to find good English books in Phnom Penh, and I was almost ready to give up. I half-heartedly tried the second-hand book store a couple of streets over … and found this edition: IMG_20150611_070213The only Kundera book on the shelf (and half the price of the international book store!) I turned it over and the blurb informed me that the novel was first published in 1984 – making it 30 years old this year, just like me. Coincidences? Yes. But at least no one can chide me for not seeing them.

Set in Czechoslovakia from 1968 to the early 1980s, The Unbearable Lightness of Being charts (among many other things) the relationship between Tomas and Tereza. Tereza (a waitress) falls for Tomas (a divorced surgeon who loves sleeping with many different women) when he smiles at her in a diner. She follows him back to Prague and they start a life together. However, their relationship is constantly tested by Tomas’s infidelities and his insistence that sex is separate from love. Despite this, Tereza and Tomas grow old (and die) together, and – in the end – seem to find a kind of happiness.

This novel is, of course, much more complicated than that. For starters, it is in no way a conventional narrative. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is perhaps best described as postmodern, although Wikipedia calls it ‘philosophical fiction’, a genre I’ve never heard of before but that seems fitting. Kundera’s voice is very much present throughout the book, and he does not disguise the fact that he is using these characters as vehicles for ideas, as a way of exemplifying and sorting out his thoughts:

[C]haracters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about.

But isn’t it true that an author can only write about himself?

The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities.

And Kundera, it seems, is able to imagine an enormous amount of possibilities.

Lightness is a novel of ideas. The plot is secondary, and relatively quiet – a couple struggling with how to love each other, eventually growing old together. The outcome is no surprise – we learn early on that Tereza and Tomas die together in a car crash, and the book’s final pages focus on the couple on holiday in a hotel (in this way it reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – a novel that could be framed as tragedy but because of its time-jump structure also ends on a note of beauty and hope). The ideas of the novel themselves – while there are many, and while they are all deeply philosophical – are presented so simply and beautifully through these characters and the voice of the narrator; a voice that is not at all intrusive, or judgmental.

In this review of Lightness just after its publication in 1984, John Bayley wonders “[w]hether it will last, whether one will want to read it again”. Its presence on bookshelves all over the world in 2015 (even in Cambodia) is a pretty clear answer. As John Banville notes in The Guardian, while Eastern Europe may have changed drastically since the 1980s, Kundera’s novel still feels relevant. For me, it is the novel’s philosophical ideas that I remember most, and that I keep coming back to. I last read Lightness around 7 years ago, while living in South Korea. At that time I was somewhat obsessed with kitsch, a concept the novel describes as “the ultimate denial of shit”, or a way of thinking that “excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” The ‘cuteness’ of much of Seoul – the cafes, stationery, clothes – seemed to perfectly embody what Kundera was talking about. Two years before that I was on an island in Hong Kong finding solace (after having my heart broken) in Kundera’s meditations on love:

Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? … Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.

And now – in Cambodia at 30 years old – returning once again to this novel I find myself most captivated by two more of its ideas. The first – lightness and weight, and the second – poetic memory.

(1) Lightness and Weight

[W]hat can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, ‘sketch’ is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.

The older I get, the more I start to feel the weight of responsibility. The pressure to choose – a career, a country, whether or not to have children. Kundera examines this feeling through Tomas (who wants to be light, free, unburdened from all responsibilities) and Tereza (who wants the responsibility of loving Tomas and being with him). He talks about lightness by contrasting it to Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. Our lives, Kundera notes, are one-time-only deals. We don’t have the chance to live them over again; the actions we take now will not be repeated, and therefore are of no importance. Weightless. He talks about weight, on the other hand, in terms of es muss sein, a German phrase that means ‘It must be.’ We all have a mission, a passion, something we must do. Tomas must become a doctor. Tereza must love Tomas. Writers must write. Painters must paint. This is their weight. Kundera wonders which is more valuable – lightness, or weight? Freedom, or responsibility? There is no clear answer.

(2) Poetic Memory

Without realising it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty

Like most twenty-and-thirty-somethings in the 21st century I’ve wondered a lot about meaning, and where it comes from. If God is dead (that’s right, I referenced Nietzsche twice in one post – thank you, Arts degree) and the universe is chaotic, where then do I find my es muss sein? The answer – or at least, the best one I can come to – is that we create it ourselves. Kundera seems to agree, with his idea of poetic memory. We notice coincidences in our lives, draw them together, turn them into metaphors, and create meaning out of them. In this way we are not deluding ourselves, but rather opening ourselves to opportunities for beauty (not unlike the experience I had in Thailand a few weeks ago). When we do this we create poetic memory, and add these moments to the larger story of our lives.

There is so much more to talk about when it comes to this novel. Years from now when I re-read this edition I know I will highlight different paragraphs; different ideas will be discovered and applied to my own life. Richard Flanagan wrote in The Narrow Road to the Deep North:

A good book … leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.

For me, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is that great book.

For some reason, I’ve only read this one book of Kundera’s, though he has written many others, including The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Joke, and Immortality. His latest novel – published this year – is titled The Festival of Insignificance. Milan Kundera is 85 years old, and lives (in exile) in France.

(1) War

Decades would pass. A few short sections would be cleared by those who thought memory mattered, transformed in time into strangely resurrected, trunkless legs – tourist sites

(-from The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan)

I seem to spend a lot of my holidays visiting war memorials. I’m not sure if this says more about my own travel inclinations, or about war in general (i.e. that it is – or has been at some point – everywhere). In South Korea I went to Seodaemun Prison and the DMZ. In Japan I visited both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In Vietnam the War Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. And in Cambodia Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. So it felt natural, when we decided to spend our Thailand trip in Kanchanaburi, to visit Hellfire Pass – a museum built by the Australian government and dedicated to POWs tasked with building an impossible railroad during World War II. Hellfire Pass is an incredible experience – the museum is coupled with a walking trail along the old railway route, through Hellfire Pass itself. An audio guide provides info and interviews with surviving Australian prisoners of war. It is powerful, sobering, moving. There are official memorials as well as personal tributes along the trail: Aussie flags, letters, and knitted poppies harassed by hopeful orange butterflies.

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But there is something odd about coming to places like this while on holiday. We didn’t come to Thailand to see Hellfire Pass. We came because we had time off work, because we wanted to see our friends, and because we hadn’t explored this part of Southeast Asia before. Visiting the war memorial was secondary. We went because that is what tourists do when they’re in Kanchanaburi. We went because we wanted to drive our motorbikes somewhere. And we went because we were interested – in the history, the stories, the atmosphere. Not as students, or historians, or relatives of those who suffered or died. But as tourists. Enjoying our experience. Free, (relatively) wealthy, well-fed. Lucky.

At the same time, visiting Kanchanaburi and not going to the museum would have felt disrespectful. So you just have to go, and it just has to feel not-quite-right to listen to stories of hundreds of men dying in the wet jungle of cholera, and then go out for lunch.

For he loved poetry above all, and the Emperor was a poem of one word – perhaps, he thought, the greatest poem – a poem that encompassed the universe and transcended all morality and all suffering. And like all great art, it was beyond good and evil

(-from The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

Being in Kanchanaburi did, however, lead me to want to know more about the effect of World War II in this part of the world. Most rewardingly, it inspired me to download Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, based largely on the accounts of his father, who was a POW on the railway. The book is complex; an epic, a work of art that delves deep into the unpleasantness and psyche of war in a way that a museum can’t (even with a really good audio guide). Coming not just from the point of view of POWs but also from that of Japanese officers, Flanagan’s novel is able to go deeper; questions raised by the Hellfire Pass museum are stretched and expanded in The Narrow Road. Most notably, the idea of violence coming not from individuals but through something larger and less definable – human nature, the ‘system’, grand notions of a meaning greater than single men or women (notions like culture, poetry, love, the Emperor).

[H]e put the bugle to his lips with his good arm and once more saw the smoke and smelt the flesh burning, and suddenly he knew it was the only thing that had ever happened to him

(-from The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

Flanagan’s novel also examines the complicated nature of going on after living through a war. Surviving, ageing, and then dying and realising that the most meaningful experience of your life was the war. How to make sense of that? How to reconcile the fact that living through the most horrific suffering was the experience that gave your life the most purpose, the thing that made you feel most alive?

Does this mean that in order to really live we need war? Or, or least, situations that test us and fill us with fear and adrenaline and purpose?

Maybe yes. But then if, in our lives, we are never faced with these difficulties, should we seek them out? Do we go looking for pain? For violence, for madness, for malaria?

Or should we just be grateful to have lives where we are safe, comfortable, lucky – but not ever quite alive?

Seeing war memorials, at least, should be more uncomfortable – like walking the Hellfire Pass trail. It should be unbearably hot. It should be rocky underfoot. You should be bitten by ants and wary of snakes. And you should get violently, mercilessly, rained on.

The things I remember most about Hellfire Pass are the little details that almost made the war feel real. The split-second flashes of reality, like watching a movie in HFR and realising what you’re seeing is real actors. The things that almost did that for me at Hellfire Pass were the letters to Glebe in Sydney, a place I’ve been, where my friends have lived. The multiple choice postcards, provided by the Japanese officers. The telegrams delivering good and bad news to named individuals at actual addresses. And the personal memorials strewn along the trail. The knitted poppies, buzzed by real, living butterflies.11350013_10153262526914123_398122028_n

(2) Trip Advisor

No one makes love like they make a wall or a house. They catch it like a cold.

(-from The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

Wi-Fi, Trip Advisor, and being able to download books anywhere anytime to my Kindle has replaced the Lonely Planet pre-planning travel ritual. Last year in Vietnam Emma Chan and I used Trip Advisor every day – to find hotels, restaurants, transport. We ate wonderful food, stayed in great places, and spent a minimal amount of time researching.

My boyfriend isn’t as big a Trip Advisor fan as I am. His argument is that using Trip Advisor takes the surprise out of travelling. It makes your trip easier, more comfortable – but is that really always what you want? Do you really want to erase all opportunity for surprise, for adventure, for something unpleasant to happen (something that might feel more meaningful – if more uncomfortable – than anything else)?

Between the four of us we had a few discussions about whether to use Trip Advisor or not. As expected, all the Trip Advisor places we visited were great. Most of the others were just okay, a couple were absolutely terrible, but one or two were amazing.

While Trip Advisor was able to make most of our holiday smooth and enjoyable the one thing it couldn’t control for us was the weather. At the end of our Hellfire Pass walk it poured. We were soaked, shivering, and hungry. Scared the storm might keep up until evening, we started the long drive back to town in the midst of it, teeth chattering, rain pelting our cheeks like pebbles. We stopped for a late lunch at a roadside restaurant where Brett had the best cashew chicken of his life, and Emma and I had red curry shrimp that was equally delicious and painfully spicy.

This is the thing about travel. Sometimes the best parts are inextricably tied up with the worst. It’s like being hit in the face with dozens of butterflies while you’re on a motorbike – beautiful, slightly magical … and also annoying and kind of dangerous.

Does that mean we should seek out rainstorms?

No. But maybe it does mean not trying so hard to avoid them. Maybe it means less Trip Advisor. And maybe it means recognising that the most memorable moments are rarely the planned ones; that the best things in life seem to happen to us, rather than because of us. Falling in love, getting all the green lights, spotting a Dalmatian puppy in a cafe. Our only agency – really – lies in being open and available to those moments, letting them happen, recognising them when they are happening, and – most importantly – enjoying them.

(3) Flame Trees

Bird with bright blue back

Surprises me in profile

With long orange beak.

You never see the best moments coming.IMG_20150516_105208

They arise out of a hundred different variables coming together at just the right time, in just the right place. Like monkeys at typewriters, somehow creating poetry.

This happened – for me – on our last day in Kanchanaburi. We went back to The Bridge on the River Kwai in the late morning, just before getting ready to leave. It was my blood sugar rising again after a hypo. It was having a good, long chat with Emma Chan the night before. It was sunshine, and people busking ‘We Will Rock You’ along the bridge. It was my boyfriend photo-bombing people’s selfies with his monkey face. It was the dark grey sturdy there-ness of the bridge, its history, the thought that those POWs who built it might be happy to see this carnival-like atmosphere. It was the bright blue sky and the brilliant red flame trees against it. Trees I didn’t know the name of before coming to Kanchanaburi. But now I do.

Like a drug it faded quickly. Walking back, getting hotter, noticing children busking/begging, and it was gone. What remains is the knowledge that these moments can happen, do happen, and that life is always the potential for them.


Just in case you don’t want to leave too much to chance…

We stayed at…

The Dang Derm Hotel, Khao San Road, Bangkok

Good Times Resort, Kanchanaburi

We ate at…

Nut’s Restaurant, Kanchanaburi

MANGO Vegetarian and Vegan Restaurant and Art Gallery, Bangkok (just around the corner from Khao San Road)

We drank at…

Golf Bar, Khao San Road, Bangkok

We went to…

Hellfire Pass, about 90 kilometres outside Kanchanaburi

Erawan Waterfall, about 45 kilometres outside Kanchanaburi

(To get to Hellfire Pass and Erawan Waterfall we rented motorbikes for about $5 per day from a shop just around the corner from Good Times Resort, on Maenamkwai Road)

Central World Shopping Mall, Bangkok

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