Sunday, 6 June 2010

In the Miso Soup - Ryu Murakami

The first thing that really struck me about In the Miso Soup was its cover - it caught my eye again and again before I finally gave in to it. It took me so long to get around to reading because almost every time I picked up this book in a book shop the quote on the front - "Reads like the script notes for American Psycho - the Holiday Abroad" put me off just as quickly at the cover art had caught my eye. I've read American Psycho, and I enjoyed it, but I never quite understood what all the hype was about, so this quote didn't have quite the winning effect on me that was perhaps intended. So, having thoroughly judged this book by its cover I eventually read it.

In the Miso Soup is told from the perspective of Kenji, an unlicensed Japanese guide who shows tourists around the darker and sexier back streets of Tokyo. His client for the duration of this book is a fat American, calling himself Frank. However, from the off, Kenji senses there is something weird about Frank, and as two murders are reported he becomes even more suspicious and uneasy. Over this reasonably short book the tension and anticipation builds steadily, and although you can sense something is coming you are not quite sure what (or if you even really want to know) you cannot help but read on.

As is probably obvious from the comparison to American Psycho, this is a gruesome book at times, with unexplained violence that doesn't skimp on the descriptions. The lack of explanation can often make violence seem gratuitous, however seeing as Kenji is just as unsure of what it all means as the reader, the lack of justification makes sense. I’ve read another of Murakami’s books – Piercing – where the narrator is the one with violent tendencies, and I must admit I prefer Kenji, an outsider, telling us the story. Perhaps this is because it is hard to identify with a psychopathic narrator, where as Kenji is more of an ‘everyman’; like us he is a normal person viewing horrendous things. But, I think that part of what makes In the Miso Soup’s narrative stronger is the descriptions of Kenji’s psychological reactions. It is undeniably realistic and encourages the reader to really face up to Frank’s behaviour – you can’t suppress your own reactions to it when Kenji’s are so strong.

Although the violence is the most memorable aspect of this book, there is more to it. Most obviously it shows the reader darker side of Tokyo not commonly seen to tourists, and although prostitution is probably the dark underbelly of every city Tokyo's Red Light District is still distinctly Japanese in its etiquette and treatment of foreigners. It also presents ideas on Japanese culture and its relation to the West, personal responsibility and loneliness in a big city.

I found this book thoroughly compelling and recommend it if you want something a bit different, however probably not if you have a low tolerance for violence or are particularly easily offended.

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