In Japan, God Isn’t Dead–But He Might Be Cold

Haruki Murakami writes strange tales about parallel universes, towns filled with talking cats, entrances to other worlds hidden at the bottoms of wells, and dark rooms populated by creatures that you MUST NOT look at. He also references the militarized Japan of the early 20th century and the devastating aftermaths of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway the same year. And he writes about jazz. And classical music. And running.

And sometimes all these things are in one book.

Murakami is a superstar author in Japan, with midnight launch parties for his novels filling Japanese bookstores with hordes of fans panting to snap up his latest work. Here in the West, I and the rest of his devoted non-Japanese fans are forced to cool our jets while we wait months–or years–for the translations of his newest books to hit the shelves.

The mysterious nature of Murakami’s narratives attracts me in a powerful way–I enjoy stories that take place in liminal spaces, in places that can’t be found on a map, but that are quite real to the characters wandering around in them. So it’s very intriguing that the most recent English translation of a Murakami novel contains a small mystery of a different kind, involving wordplay, a fairly famous quotation, and Carl Jung.

1Q84

Murakami’s giant novel 1Q84–published in Japanese in 3 volumes between 2009 and 2010 and in a single English volume in 2011–moves its characters in and out of two parallel timelines–one taking place in the Tokyo of 1984 and the other unfolding, amidst mysterious “Little People,” disturbing sex and violence, and beings split into two physical entities, in a place/time that the protagonist calls 1Q84; the Q, she says, stands for “question.” And she–and we, the readers–do have many questions about that alternate world. (The title itself is a bit of bilingual wordplay: the Japanese word for “nine” is pronounced “kyu”–like the letter “Q.” In Japanese, the title is pronounced ichi kyu hachi yon–“one nine eight four.”)

Near the story’s end (don’t worry, no spoilers here), a trained killer is philosophizing with the person he is about to assassinate, and he tells a story that invokes Carl Jung, whose theories and archetypes Murakami frequently references in his books. The killer explains that Jung, with his own hands, built a small stone castle on his property in Switzerland. And over the door to this structure, the renowned analyst inscribed the following quotation: COLD OR NOT, GOD IS PRESENT. The killer continues:

“I don’t know much about God. I was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had some awful experiences there so I don’t have a good impression of God. And it was always cold there, even in the summer. It was either really cold or outrageously cold. One or the other. If there is a God, I can’t say he treated me very well. Despite all this, those words of Jung’s quietly sank deep into the folds of my soul. Sometimes I close my eyes and repeat them over and over, and they make me strangely calm. ‘Cold or Not, God is Present.’”

Touching words, perhaps, coming from a hardened fellow who finds meaning in a quotation from a long-dead man of science.

But here’s the thing: The quotation is wrong.

I’ve always loved the story of Jung erecting that castle–Bollingen Tower, it’s called. He inscribed its outer walls with a number of quotations, and the one chiseled over the door is in Latin; it reads:

VOCATUS ATQUE NON

VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT

It means “Bidden or not bidden, the god is present.” Another way to translate it is “Called or not, God is present.”

Called. Not Cold.

Jung's Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

Jung’s Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

I was understandably startled when I read the passage, and its mistranslation of the Latin quotation, in 1Q84. I kept turning pages, thinking that at some point, the character would learn of his error, and it might prove to be a poignant moment when he would have to revisit his fondness for the altered line. But that never happened. The book ended; the mystery remained unexplained.

I was mystified. Murakami is an erudite, worldly author. Could the mistake have been made by his translator? I discussed it over dinner with my Japanese friend Toshimi, who had introduced me to her favorite author in the first place. She fetched the English and Japanese versions of the novel and looked up the passage in the Japanese volume. “It’s not a mistranslation from the Japanese,” she reported. “Murakami uses the word tsumetai–‘cold.'”

Huh. Could the writer have misheard the quotation at some point and thought that “cold” was the correct word? Not likely, we decided. Given the author’s fascination with Jung and his theories and archetypes–and given also Murakami’s mastery of English (he has translated The Great Gatsby, among other books, into Japanese), it’s just not possible that the famous writer doesn’t know the correct translation of the Vocatus line.

So we have a small, real-life mystery, courtesy of the author who writes large, mysterious novels. I’ve searched for an explanation in online reviews and articles, but I’ve come up emptyhanded. A couple of sites mention the mystery, but offer no explanation except to assume that it was a mistranslation from the Japanese. And I haven’t found any comments from the author on why he did what he did.

My theory: I think Murakami read or heard the quotation translated into English at some point and noticed the resemblance between the words “called” and “cold,” especially when pronounced with a Japanese accent. Japanese doesn’t have that “aw” sound, so “called” sounds just like “cold” when pronounced by a Japanese speaker. In fact, the two words are spelled and pronounced exactly the same way when written in Japanese katakana, the syllabary used to write out foreign words. They are both spelled as コールド  (which sounds like kourudo). Given the Japanese love of puns and wordplay (just look at the book’s title again), I think he purposely created the character’s story around the mistranslation to add a layer or two of complexity to an already complex story. One could argue that the mistranslation is sad: a quotation that has calmed an unfortunate man in the midst of a painful life is not real–it’s meaningless. He has been drawing sustenance from a mistake. Or, looked at from another angle–from a parallel universe, if you will–one could argue that Murakami has added a layer of hopefulness to his story: the quotation as remembered may be meaningless, but the character has imbued it with meaning. And that imbued meaning has become the important thing, the thing that sustains him.

Life is like that, Murakami might be saying. Maybe there’s no intrinsic point to our existence; maybe it’s all nasty, brutish, and short–but we have the power to give it meaning. To make it count. To think we hear “Cold or not, God is present” and to make that nonsensical axiom into a source of comfort. I like this possibility best of all.

Of course, his Japanese readers would have an extra layer to peel away before they could get this meaning–they would have to know the Latin quotation and know the correct English translation before they could recognize the English pun at play. This seems like a fiendishly twisted path to the author’s ostensible message.

But keeping in mind what Haruki-san puts his characters through in his beautiful, violent books, it might not be outside the realm of possibility for him to put his readers in a bit of a puzzle, as well.

Tower Image: By cgjung.net (site cgjung.net (avec accord)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Hey, Kids, Let’s Stay Up All Night!

 Insomniacs

Today’s post is the first in what will be an ongoing, occasional series of reviews of fabulous children’s books. If you want to inspire learning, creativity, and joy in a child, a great place to start is by reading to them. As I’m sure many of you do or did, I read to my children every night when they were growing up. A major favorite was Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Socks, which became a yelling, finger-snapping, racing-through-the-tongue-twisters adventure.

Okay, fine, it wasn’t very good for making them sleepy. But it was awfully big fun.

Even when my girls got a little “too old” to be read to, we didn’t care. We left Dr. Seuss behind, but we curled up on my giant bed and I read the Harry Potter books and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events out loud to them. “One more chapter!” the older one begged every night. (The younger one didn’t beg. She always fell asleep before I was done.)

So without further ado, let me encourage you to delight your kids–and yourself–with The Insomniacs.

“The Insomniacs weren’t always a night family…”

Written by Karina Wolf and illustrated in dusky shades of midnight blue and charcoal by The Brothers Hilts, the book tells the story of a family that moves twelve time zones away–and finds themselves unable to sleep through the night, which, on the other side of the globe, used to be their day. They try to exist “normally” in their new time zone, dragging themselves off to work and school in the mornings, even as their bodies tell them it’s time for bed. At night, they fight to fall asleep–they count sheep, they meditate, they drink warm milk–but to no avail.

One night, after a family meeting, they head out into the night, searching for the secret of sleep. What they find instead is a whole world of creatures that stay up all night and sleep all day.

“And then the Insomniacs noticed: the darkness was full of life.”

Insomniacs 2

The family is delighted. They decide to do as the bats and owls do and become nocturnal.

The book will appeal to all the little ones who find it so hard to go to bed at night; the idea of a family that wakes at dusk and goes to sleep as the sun rises will tickle their imaginations. There are some great learning opportunities built in, too, like when we meet the daughter’s new pets. Google with your kids when they ask, What’s a bandicoot? What’s a fennec? Discuss with them what they would do if they were to switch their days and nights.

The Insomniacs is a well-written, beautifully illustrated story and a springboard for exploration and creative imagining. Your kids will want to hear it again and again–and so will you.

#indie30 Day 2: Child Detectives Sent Me Overseas

Day 1 of BootsnAll’s #indie30 Project was a big ol’ success around Glorious Curious headquarters: my post and tweet were favorited, retweeted, commented on, and reblogged by the splendid members of the BootsnAll community–and Glorious Curious gained several new followers! Many thanks to all of you who looked so kindly on my writing–your interest and support are so greatly appreciated!

Day 2 tries to pin down the inciting event that made you decide that you were going to be a traveler:

When, where, what, and with who is the story of your travel origin?

I decided I would be a traveler because of five fictional children and their jet-setting adventures.

I was six years old–my hair in pigtails, my nose in a book, and my mom and dad had subscribed me to The Happy Hollisters book club. The Hollisters were five brothers and sisters who solved mysteries with the help of their perfect parents, and every month, they and their adventures were delivered directly to my house by our mailman, who dutifully handed over a small brown box bearing a label addressed to me. To me!

One month I tore open the eagerly awaited box to find The Happy Hollisters and the Punch and Judy Mystery nestled inside. There on the dust jacket were the siblings, cobblestones underfoot, mountains in the background, Italian flag hanging from a puppet theatre where a masked figure of Punch was cavorting. This particular escapade, I realized, took the Hollisters to Italy.

Hollisters

 

I had traveled out of the country before–every summer, my parents and my sister and I flew off to northern Quebec to visit my mother’s family. But the Hollisters were crossing an ocean. They were staying in hotels. That was something else again. I headed straight for the couch and began turning pages.

I’m sure the story was perfection for a six year-old. But here’s the funny thing: I remember almost nothing about it. What I do remember, what I clearly remember thinking as I read that book, was this:

It takes an airplane 8 hours to fly from JFK to Rome. You fly overnight. You wake up in Italy. I will do that when I grow up.

And I did. And the first time I did it, I actually thought of the Hollisters as I boarded the plane. And the grown-up me grinned at taking the travel dream of the pigtailed, bookish, six year-old me and making it real. The story was no longer a story–it was my life.

 

Read This Post (If You Want To)

Engraving of a reading group from Le Livre, Paris, 1883

Engraving of a reading group from Le Livre, Paris, 1883

“You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re laughing.” – Janet Potter

Recently, The Millions published “28 Books You Should Read If You Want To,” an essay by Janet Potter that takes on the traditional format of “must read” lists published by everyone from Amazon to The Huffington Post. Instead of coming up with an arbitrary, subjective list of books that you must read before you die, or before you can consider yourself well-read, or because you’re a woman or a man, Potter has created a list of twenty-eight books you should read “if you want to.”

Here’s the brilliant thing about her list, though: there are no book titles on it.

Instead, the list’s items read like the quotation above: they’re suggestions for finding gems of books in unlikely places, based on what other people are reading or talking about or arguing over. Read the book “that your favorite band references in their lyrics,” she suggests. Or the one “that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore.”

I was struck by this list, not just because it describes a splendid and serendipitous approach to choosing what you read for pleasure, but because of how this approach might inform the way we teach children in our increasingly standardized, cookie-cutter, test-based school systems, where students are forced to spend their time memorizing rudimentary facts, and where deep, or even (heaven forbid) slightly off-topic, investigation is squashed for lack of time and “importance.”

What if educational curricula looked more like this list? What if we created guidelines, frameworks, for various subjects, and within those frameworks, made students responsible for their own deep investigation of the subject matter? Yes, yes, we need to teach them the definition of “noun” and “molecule,” but what if the learning of those definitions took place as a natural part of the inquisitiveness and joy of exploring a new subject in a way that was relevant and creative and exciting?

Think of the college model of teaching English composition: you read an assigned text, but you are asked to explore it in a personal, non-scripted way through a “reader response”–by choosing a passage or a section that you find interesting or confusing, and then writing a few paragraphs identifying the section, giving your thoughts, asking your questions, and trying to make connections between the writing that intrigued or dismayed you and some other text or experience. Connections that might help you, and the rest of the class, make sense of the text.

You are being asked, in short, to think.

And to use writing as a way to assist your thinking, to lay out your ideas and confusions and try to work your way through them. Then you bring your response to class and share it, discuss it with the instructor and your classmates, who offer their own ideas and pose their own questions. The instructor is there to facilitate the discussion rather than to run it, and in this way, the class becomes more invested in the text. It becomes more relevant to them, as they ask and answer each other’s questions, relate the writing to their own lives, and even gain a new understanding of their own literary and academic tastes.

Why not routinely apply this approach in a pre-college setting? Why not apply it to all sorts of texts, in science and history, for example? Engage students in this type of self-guided exploration of the parts of the subject that interest them the most. Use that interest to keep their attention, to get them to learn more, to encourage them to spend more time learning. They will still learn those definitions and rudimentary facts, but organically, as part of their investigations. Those little pieces that presently make up the sum total of the learning experience will recede to take on their rightful role, as the important but small building blocks that allow students to think critically and write and speak intelligently about interesting subjects.

When you take piano lessons, you memorize all sorts of musical terms–in Italian, no less. You learn that fermata is a stop, that forte means loud, that legato means smoothly. No one needs to give you a list of those terms and insist that you memorize them; you naturally learn them because they apply to what you’re doing, to your ability to play better, to understand the music that moves you.  And you don’t forget them, because you’re using them. They are tools.

So here’s to using a collegiate approach to teach younger students. To using an approach that is far more engaging and meaningful than memorizing facts in a vacuum and regurgitating them onto a bubble sheet to be scored by a computer. An approach that is ruled by choice, deep investigation, and critical thinking.

Read Janet Potter’s article, “28 Books You Should Read if You Want To” here. It’s delightful.