“Kino” by Murakami, with a nod to I.B. Singer

This is the latest published (in English) short story by Haruki Murakami, and is part of the 90th Anniversary issue of the New Yorker. It’s the only fiction piece in that giant issue, and reflects his standing in the New Yorker pantheon of contemporary writers.

“Kino”, is the title of the story and the name of the protagonist.  I’ve chosen to free-associate/write about it because I find it so mysterious and magical. Those qualities are typical in the works of the author. But this time around, I found a kind of order in the mystery.

Finding order in mystery is a magician’s endeavor. By doing so, the magician is then able to intervene in the mundane order of things and effect amazing transformations. The magician knows of a mysterious, unknown reality underlying our day to day world. That reality manifests itself subtly through various signs, including what appear to be coincidences.

Murakami offers us a magicians-eye view of the world in so many of his stories. This story is one of those, and contains some of his favorite markers including jazz, a cat, and a bar. Kino runs the bar, a cat has adopted him, and he always has jazz playing on the sound system.

Swirling these seemingly mundane items together (alcohol, jazz, cat), with mysterious snakes and people who may be demons, (and one who acts like a guardian angel), makes for an intriguing potion to imbibe.

But when you think about it ..those “mundane” items are themselves loaded with ambiguity and mystery. You never know when a cat will appear or disappear; alcohol can put you in another reality quite quickly; and jazz depends on unpredictable patterns.

So we are in for a ride, even though the story starts ordinarily enough at the bar with its owner Kino presiding. Jazz plays in the background, the cat lies comfortably in place, and a quietly charismatic customer who always orders a scotch and water with two cubes of ice, occupies his customary spot at the end of the bar

Thinking about short stories that involve guardian angels, demons, and unadulterated adultery(Kino discovered his wife in flagrante delicto with his best friend), reminds me of the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a writer from another time and culture than Murakami, equally adept at weaving together the intensely personal and the magical.

Both writers are aware of the subterranean connections underlying consensual reality. Indeed, the angels, demons, mysterious serpents, vanishing cat, and coincidences that emerge in “Kino”, can all be seen as usually hidden aspects of a unified, complex reality which includes the layer we consciously experience.

Neither I.B. Singer or Murakami are primarily science-fiction or fantasy writers. The emotional thrust of their stories doesn’t lie with the presence of strange creatures and environments. That thrust is directly correlated with the impact the subterranean reality has on the very human protagonist. In this case, Kino.

Kino and his psychological changes are paramount to the story. Indeed, the elaborate concatenations of the tale and its cast of characters can be seen as a petri dish giving rise to Kino’s development.

And yet, the cast is more than that. Murakami presents them to us as manifestations of an underlying reality that can rise up and change our lives in ways we cannot imagine. We do not know the depth, nature and extent of our connections; nor how they may determine our fate.

Murakami reminds us of those aspects of the big picture which we tend to ignore or deny.   He alerts us to the unpredictability of life; its occasional strangeness; the potent presence of good and evil; and the ability of the human spirit to persevere and even deepen in the light of those truths.

His art is like a lantern on a stick, swinging to and fro, as we follow him deeper and deeper into the caverns of human existence.  We are indeed fortunate to have him as a guide.