Trump as a Haruki Murakami Villain

Wind-Up bird Chronicle


This fall for the first time I will be teaching a first year seminar on “The Existential Fantasies of Haruki Murakami.” I find Murakami to be a mesmerizing writer, as do a number of my students, and I want to figure out just how much substance he has. In rereading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1998), one of my favorites, I was startled to come across a character who reminded me of Donald Trump.

Noboru Wataya is the brother-in-law of Okada, the protagonist, and early in the novel Okada suspects that he is behind the unexpected desertion of Okada’s wife Kumiko. It so happens that Noboru Wataya is indeed mixed up with her disappearance, but in a complex way that touches on the novel’s deepest themes.

Before getting into the details, I quote at length Okada’s description of Noboru Wataya. I believe you’ll find the extended passage worth it because, other than Trump being a businessman while Noboru Wataya is an economist, the two are similar. Both have an instinct for debate, know how to deliver killer putdowns, and instinctively sense “the direction of the wind.” Both operate out of a vision that has been “fabricated by combining several one-dimensional systems of thought,” and neither lets consistency nor the fact get in the way. Because neither has any core convictions, neither is vulnerable to attack and therefore each can “concentrate all his attention on pure acts of combat. He needed only to attack, to knock his enemy down.” Here’s the passage:

Once he got a taste of the world of mass media, though, you could almost see him licking his chops. He was good. He didn’t mind having a camera pointed at him. If anything, he even seemed more relaxed in front of the cameras than in the real world. We watched his sudden transformation in amazement. The Nobora Wataya we saw on television wore expensive suits with perfectly matching ties, and eyeglass frames of fine tortoiseshell. His hair had been done in the latest style. He had obviously been worked on by a professional. I had never seen him exuding such luxury before. And even if he had been outfitted by the network, he wore the style with perfect ease, as if he had dressed that way all his life. Who was this man? I wondered, when I first saw him. Where was the real Noboru Wataya?

In front of the cameras, he played the role of Man of Few Words. When asked for an opinion, he would state it simply, clearly, and precisely. Whenever the debate heated up and everyone else was shouting, he kept his cool. When challenged, he would hold back, let his opponent have his say, and then demolish the person’s argument with a single phrase. He had mastered the art of delivering the fatal blow with a purr and a smile. On the television screen, he looked far more intelligent and relatable than the real Noboru Wataya. I’m not sure how he accomplished this. He certainly wasn’t handsome. But he was tall and slim and had an air of good breeding. In the medium of television, Noboru Wataya had found the place where he belonged. The mass media welcomed him with open arms, and he welcomed them with equal enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t stand the sight of him—in print or on TV. He was a man of talent and ability, to be sure. I recognized that much. He knew how to knock his opponent down quickly and effectively with the fewest possible words. He had an animal instinct for sensing the direction of the wind. But if you paid close attention to what he was saying or what he had written, you knew that his words lacked consistency. They reflected no single worldview based on profound conviction. His was a world that he had fabricated by combining several one-dimensional systems of thought. He could rearrange the combination in an instant, as needed. These were ingenious—even artistic—intellectual permutations and combinations. But to me they amounted to nothing more than a game. If there was any consistency to his opinions, it was the consistent lack of consistency, and if he had a worldview, it was a view that proclaimed his lack of a worldview. But these very absences were what constituted his intellectual assets. Consistency and an established world view were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media’s tiny time segments, and it was his grteat advantage to be free of such things.

 He had nothing to protect, which meant that he could concentrate all his attention on pure acts of combat. He needed only to attack, to knock his enemy down. Noboru Wataya was an intellectual chameleon, chasing his color in accordance with his opponent’s, ad-libbing his logic for maximum effectiveness, mobilizing all the rhetoric at his command. I had no idea how he had acquired these techniques, but he clearly had the knack of appealing directly to the feelings of the mass audience. He knew how to use the kind of logic that moved the great majority. Nor did it even have to be logic: it had only to appear so, as long as it aroused the feelings of the masses.

 Trotting out the technical jargon was another forte of his. No one knew what it meant, of course, but he was able to present it in such a way that you knew it was your fault if you didn’t get it. And he was always citing statistics. They were engraved in his brain, and they carried tremendous persuasive power, but if you stopped to think about it afterward, you realized that no one had questioned his sources or their reliability.

These clever tactics of his used to drive me mad, but I was never able to explain to anyone exactly what upset me so. I was never able to construct an argument to refute him.It was like boxing with a ghost: your punches just swished through the air. There was nothing solid for them to hit. I was shocked to see even sophisticated intellectuals responding to him. It would leave me feeling strangely annoyed.

And no Noboru Wataya came to be seen as one of the most intelligent figures of the day. Nobody seemed to care about consistency anymore. All they looked for on the tube were the bouts of intellectual gladiators; the redder the blood they drew, the better. It didn’t matter if the same person said one thing on Monday and the opposite on Thursday.

Noboru Wataya is more than just a hollow man or a chameleon, however. We come to learn that his power lies in his ability to get people to surrender to their worst impulses. His sister describes this as a kind of rape of the mind that robs one of one’s autonomy:

If it hadn’t been for you [her husband Okada], I would have lost my mind long ago. I would have handed myself over, vacant, to someone else and fallen to a point beyond hope of recovery. My brother, Noboru Wataya, did exactly that to my sister many years ago, and she ended up killing herself. He defiled us both. Strictly speaking, he did not defile our bodies. What he did was even worse than that.

The freedom to do anything at all was taken from me, and I shut myself up in a dark room alone. No one chained me down or set a guard to watch over me, but I could not have escaped. My brother held me with yet stronger chains and guards—chains and guards that were myself.

And further on, explaining how she came to lose her moral compass:

He may have opened some kind of drawer inside me, taken out some kind of incomprehensible something, and made me give myself to one man after another. My brother had that kind of power, and as much as I hate to acknowledge it, the two of us were surely tied together in some dark place.

Okada understands what Kumiko tells him because Noboru Wataya has had a similar effect on him. As he explains to another character,

Every time I talk to that guy, I get this incredibly empty feeling inside. Every single object in the room begins to look as if it has no substance to it. Everything appears hollow. Exactly why this should be, I could never explain to you with any precision. Because of this feeling, I end up saying and doing things that are simply not me. And I feel terrible about it afterward.

Okada could more accurately say that there are two “me’s”—Haruki’s fiction is filled with images of splitting—and the darker “me” continually threatens to take us over. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is particularly interested in the way that Murakami revisits Japan’s dark history, especially its 1931 invasion of Manchuria. As Murakami describes it, in the course of the occupation Japanese citizens do previously unthinkable things, such as (in the case of one sensitive man) executing a Chinese prisoner with a baseball bat.

A one point in the novel Okada himself, when assaulted, finds himself pummeling his assailant with a bat far more than is warranted once he has gained the upper hand. Noboru Wataya, we come to realize, is ourselves, our dark double. As Okada has it explained to him by a guide figure who has herself been mentally raped by Noboru Wataya,

“Noboru Wataya is a person who belongs to a world that is the exact opposite of yours,” said Creta Kano. Then she seemed to be searching for the words she needed to continue. “In a world where you are losing everything, Mr. Okada, Noboru Wataya is gaining everything. In a world where you are rejected, he is accepted. And the opposite is just as true. Which is why he hates you so intensely.”

And further on:

“Hatred is like a long, dark shadow. Not even the person it falls upon knows where it comes from, in most cases. It is like a two-edged sword. When you cut the other person, you cut yourself. The more violently you hack at the other person, the more violently you hack at yourself. It can often be fatal. But it is not easy to dispose of. Please be careful, Mr. Okada. It is very dangerous. Once it has taken root in your heart, hatred is the most difficult thing in the world to shake off.”

“And you were able to feel it, weren’t you?—the root of the hatred that was in Noboru Wataya’s heart.”

“Yes I was. I am,” said Creta Kano. “That is the thing that split my flesh in two, that defiled me, Mr. Okada.”

Of course, Donald Trump not yet goaded his followers into doing anything on the order of what the Japanese did in Manchuria. However, he has the ability to incite hatred and then he feeds on that hatred. He resembles Noboru Wataya in the way he separates people from their higher instincts and puts them in thrall to their lower ones. I think of an important blog essay written by Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein in this regard.

Bernstein is taking issue with an essay written by his colleague Megan McArdle that attempts to absolve the GOP for the rise of Trump. Republicans, McArdle said, didn’t put racist and misogynist ideas in the heads of Trump supporters. They just grew there.

Bernstein disagrees:

[V]oters have all sorts of ideas in their heads: conservative, liberal, some of which would make for good policy, some which would not. Most of those ideas — healthy or toxic — are relatively loosely held, and many times no candidate or party elicits responses based on those particular views. 

The more some ideas are frozen out of politics — for better or for worse — the less they thrive “in peoples’ heads.” And, more important, only when politicians highlight those ideas do they escape from peoples’ heads and become political issues. Yes, neither Trump nor earlier Republican dog-whistlers created the audience they played to. But there are many potential audiences in the electorate. Politicians and political parties choose which ones to nurture — and are fairly held responsible for those choices. 

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is filled with images of sterility, symbolized by a dry well. Okada must go deep into that well—which is to say, deep into the Japanese unconscious—to face up to a dark history that eats away at Japanese society. America needs to do some deep well diving of its own.

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