You get the feeling from Murakami’s latest novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, that while the rest of Japan was waiting with champagne on ice for his Nobel, he took a more sardonic view of the circus. "What a strange world we live in,” says a character in the book. “Some people plug away at building railroad stations, while others make tons of money cooking up sophisticated-sounding words.”
A recurrent opposition is set up in the book between those who live by making things and those who live by words or ideas. The word tsukuru, the narrative explains at some length, can mean to “create”, but Tsukuru Tazaki is named after its more basic meaning, to “make or build”. Following the conventional world view, Tsukuru thinks that as a mere builder of railway stations, he is much less interesting than two of his childhood friends who deal in words: one has become a car salesman, stereotypically an occupation defined by smooth talking. Another runs a corporate training company called Beyond that brainwashes middle management employees into following orders. A third is a pianist and the fourth, Kuro, is a potter who makes exquisite though flawed cups and bowls: “It doesn’t bring in much money, but I’m really happy that other people need what I create”; Tsukuru understands this, since “I make things myself”. Just as Kuro etches her name on the undersides of her pottery, Tsukuru writes his into the wet concrete of the stations he builds. They feel the deep sense of kinship that anyone who makes things with their hands will recognise.
There isn’t necessarily an opposition of course: there have always been potters, sculptors, and carpenters who write, and writers who construct bridges or make planes. The author-note in The Small Wild Goose Pagoda describes Allan Sealy as an apprentice to a bricklayer and the book contains detailed passages on building gates and walls. Edmund de Waal is a renowned potter. Murakami, in a recent interview to the Guardian, describes writing itself as manual work: “I guess I am just engineering something. I like to write. I like to choose the right word. I like to write the right sentence. It’s like gardening or something. You put the seed into the soil at the right time and in the right place.”
In August this year, literally by accident, I discovered precisely how manual writing is. My dog was being attacked by a bigger dog and as I tried to drag my charge to safety I toppled, fell on hard concrete, then noticed that everyone around me was staring at my right arm. An hour later, I was on an orthopaedic’s table cradling my deformed elbow. The doctor diverted me with small talk as he tried to set the dislocated joint in place. “What do you do?” he murmured, yanking my dangling forearm. “A potter,” I screamed, almost throwing up with the pain. “I’m a potter.” “Oh, I see, an artist,” he said pulling savagely. I think I passed out at that point and they transferred me to the surgery.
At that crucial moment, when my work flashed before me as one’s life is said to before death, why had I claimed I was a potter? The fiery pain was my moment of truth: suddenly I realised I regarded writing, which is my bread and butter, as a kind of sleight of hand. Writing? All my friends write. Anyone can write. You can do it with half a brain and one arm. But making pots out of clay -- things that other people need -- few can do that and those few are fully-armed. It was my instinct to stick to the pottery story because then, you see, the doctor would truly appreciate that my arms were vital in a way they weren’t for accountants or writers. I am no ceramic artist, my clunky pieces are cherished by kind-hearted family and friends alone. Yet if I never wrote a book again I knew I would make pots; if I never made a pot again I had no idea what I would do.
Two days after the surgery, I found myself landed with a writing deadline. It would be difficult typing one-handed, but still, one hand meant five fingers, and the writing would distract me from the pain. I would manage. I opened the book into which I usually scribble notes or sometimes a draft before I start typing into my laptop. I picked up a pen.
Perhaps a thought entered my mind, perhaps it didn’t. At any rate, by the time I got to pinning the thought to paper with my left hand, it had flown off, an unvanquished butterfly. After struggling to write left-handed for many frustrated minutes, I gave up and turned to the computer. I would just type the article straight in. I tapped one word, then another. Attempted a third. But by this time, my mind had swerved off the road, disgusted with the pace. Use a voice recorder, helpful friends suggested, but I could no more think aloud than write one-handed. When I complained in despair to my barber who was chopping away my hair because one hand isn’t enough to tie a ponytail, she whipped out her mobile and said, “Let me show you a video, this man has no arms, no legs, and he manages everything so well!” A close friend was worse: “Wittgenstein’s nephew played Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand after his right arm was amputated.” Luckily I’m not musical, I said, aiming a punch with my left fist.
I could manage quite a lot one-handed -- but not everything, and writing one-handed was one of those things.
“When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down,” says Ferris Jabr in a recent New Yorker essay on “Why Walking Helps Us Think”. This connection between mind and body is felt keenly by even beginner potters who moan that “on some days, nothing works.” It is only over weeks of work at the wheel that you realise those are the days when for some reason the switch that connects your brain with your fingers has short-circuited and you don’t have the power to repair it. Try too hard and you sweat for nothing. Try too little and you get nowhere. Every potter waits for those days when there is a seamless, inexplicable flow of energy uniting body, mind, clay and wheel that results in pots Bernard Leach described as “life flowing for a few moments perfectly through the hands of the potter." This is the “life” that either flows or doesn’t through pieces of writing as well. I was finding out writing was manual work after all: it’s hard enough making words come alive when you are functioning normally, it was impossible one-handed.
Ultimately I did manage to meet my deadline, typing two-handed, clumsily using the flats of the fingernails of my immobilised hand. Once I figured that technique out, it was business as usual: the brain had needed only to be tricked into believing both hands were at work. But a spinning ball of clay on a wheel isn’t fooled by mind games. Two months later, I still haven’t been able to make a pot.
“Talent only functions when it is supported by a tough, unyielding physical and mental focus. All it takes is one screw in your brain to come loose and fall off or some connection in your body to break down, and your concentration vanishes, like dew at dawn,” says a pianist who flits through Colourless Tsukuru. In the book’s brilliant finale, Tsukuru sits alone at Tokyo station during rush hour, still and meditative, the distillation of solitude in “an overwhelming crush of humanity”. In Murakami’s world, the unassuming maker of things understands much that others don’t.