Lit the Indecipherable Text of a Magic Spell

Shoraku Sanjin, “Bamboo Forest”

In a recent New York short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murukami (Sept. 5, 2011), I found a passage about literature that captures the central thesis of this blog.

Entitled the “Town of Cats,” the story has a protagonist, Tengo, who as a child is curious about everything. This differentiates him from his incurious and oppressive father. In the mathematical world, for instance, Tengo

would walk down a long corridor, opening one numbered door after another. Each time a new spectacle unfolded before him, the ugly traces of the real world would simply disappear. As long as he was actively exploring the realm of infinite consistency, he was free.

Even more wondrous than mathematics for Tengo is the world of literature. Here’s the passage that caught my eye:

While math was like a magnificent imaginary building for Tengo, literature was a vast magical forest. Math stretched infinitely upward toward the heavens, but stories spread out before him, their sturdy roots stretching deep into the earth. In this forest there were no maps, no doorways. As Tengo got older, the forest of story began to exert an even stronger pull on his heart than the world of math. Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape—as soon as he closed the book, he had come back to the real world. But at some point he noticed that returning to reality from the world of a novel was not as devastating a blow as returning from the world of math. Why was that? After much thought, he reached a conclusion. No mater how clear things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution, as there was in math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a problem into another form. Depending on the nature and the direction of the problem, a solution might be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. It served no immediate practical purpose, but it contained a possibility.


We are given an example in Tengo’s irresistible fascination with the novels of Charles Dickens. He uses these to explore the mysterious absence of his mother, which his father will never explain; the fact that he looks nothing like his father, nor has anything in common with him; and the way his father exploits him, using the presence of a child to facilitate his debt collecting. In other words, Tengo is using novels to make sense of his strange existence:

The one possible solution that Tengo was able to decipher from his readings was this one: My real father must be somewhere else. Like an unfortunate child in a Dicens novel, Tengo had perhaps been led by strange circumstances to be raised by this impostor. Such a possibility was both a nightmare and a great hope. After reading Oliver Twist, Tengo plowed through every Dickens volume in the library. As he travelled through Dicens’s stories, he steeped himself in reimagined versions of his own life. These fantasies grew ever longer and more complex. They followed a single pattern, but with infinite variations. In all of them, Tengo would tell himself that his father’s home was not where he belonged. He had been mistakenly locked in this cage, and someday his real parents would find him and rescue him. Then he would have the most beautiful, peaceful, and free Sundays imaginable.


This past week I saw a comparable example of someone using literature to make sense of the unexplainable. We were discussing Beowulf and I was explaining how I saw Grendel’s Mother and King Hrothgar as representing two different responses to grief—one strikes out at others, the other pulls into himself. A young African American student announced that something had just clicked for him.

When he was a child, his mother was killed with the driver of a passing car went into a diabetic coma and struck her. The student said that his grandmother was a Grendel’s Mother, wanting to make someone pay, while his father sank into a depression. Indeed, his grandmother then turned his anger against his father for the withdrawal.

In other words, what has appeared to be a set of random responses were suddenly drawn together in a narrative that appeared to have transposed the problem into another form. Nor did it end there. When I asked the student if there had been a giant sword, such as the one Beowulf wields to kill Grendel’s Mother, with which his family had dealt with the grief, he knew exactly what it was: his Christian faith.

I suspect this is not the end of it. The student must still carry the scars of his mother’s death, and the narrative of Beowulf may seem to promise further solutions.  A old classic in a required English class suddenly became, in Murukami’s words, “a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell”—once which may seem to serve “no immediate practical purpose” but which contains a possibility.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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