Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Haruki Murakami and The Jerusalem Prize

A few months back I read on ABC website that one of my favourite authors Haruki Murakami had won "The Jerusalem Prize" for literature in Israel. The ABC article makes mention of Murakami's musing as whether he should accept the prize or not - "I asked myself - is visiting Israel the proper thing to do, will I be supporting one side?" The article does not provide an answer to this question - but obviously he did turn up and collect the prize. The article did, however, provide this rather quixotic quote: "If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg. Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg, each of us confronting a high wall, the high wall is the system". I was bemused by this quote and wanted to read the transcript of the speech, but at the time I could not find it anywhere on the web. I wanted to know what Murakami had actually said at his acceptance speech in Israel given the deadly incursion into Gaza at the time that left upward of 1300 Palestinians and 13 Israeli's dead.

The original ABC article came from AFP, who in turn quoted the Jerusalem Post. Reading the Jerusalem Post article (which quotes more Murakami that the ABC article) I was not much clearer as to what Murakami had said. If he had given a personal opinion about the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. I got the distinct impression from the article that Murakami had not given a direct opinion, rather had embedded his opinion in an obscure wall / egg metaphor. The title of the Jerusalem Post article was 'Murakami, in trademark obscurity, explains why he accepted Jerusalem award'. The first lines of the article are: "Israel is not the egg. Confused? This might be the only explanation we will ever hear from Japanese bestselling author Haruki Murakami - and in true Murakami style, even it will be somewhat vague." A little later in the article, the author with tongue-in-cheek says "And here Murakami... making a clear statement that left no room of reinterpretation. No time for ambiguity, this." Tongue-in-cheek because he then quotes a slightly extended version of Murakami's wall / egg metaphor. It is not a clear statement.

Many weeks later I remembered that I wanted to read that speech and thought perhaps it had now been uploaded. It had been. Here are four places I found the speech:

http://www.47news.jp
http://www.salon.com/
http://www.haaretz.com/
http://fidanuar.blogspot.com/ (contains a Japanese translation)

I read the transcript and didn't have that much trouble figuring out what Murakami was saying. He was on the side of the Palestinians. Not that he was anti-Israeli (as people), but he certainly wasn't on the side of the Israeli State (or government). I also realized that the quotes in the paper were not very accurate, in fact they were paraphrasing. I'll take three examples:

Jerusalem Post: If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg.

Transcript: Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will do it. But if there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

Jerusalem Post: We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs," he urged. "We have no hope against the wall: it's too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us - create who we are. It is we who created the system.

Transcript: We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, and we are all fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong--and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from our believing in the warmth we gain by joining souls together. Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow the System to exploit us. We must not allow the System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: we made the System.

Jerusalem Post: When I was asked to accept this award," he said, "I was warned from coming here because of the fighting in Gaza. I asked myself: Is visiting Israel the proper thing to do? Will I be supporting one side?

"I gave it some thought. And I decided to come. Like most novelists, I like to do exactly the opposite of what I'm told. It's in my nature as a novelist. Novelists can't trust anything they haven't seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands. So I chose to see. I chose to speak here rather than say nothing.


Transcript: A fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came.

The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The UN reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens - children and old people.

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me - and especially if they are warning me - "don't go there," "don't do that," I tend to want to "go there" and "do that." It's in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.


My apologizes for the long transcript quotes - but it shows clearly how the "quotes" in the newspaper articles were more paraphrases of sentences that occur in different paragraphs. The quotes from the Jerusalem Post are those that were picked up and transmitted around the world via AFP, The Guardian, ABC (Australia).

And how about the Jerusalem Post's claim of 'obscurity' and 'vagueness' regarding the wall / egg metaphor? Well, let's quote Murakami himself:

"What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor."

Not the most obscure unpacking of a metaphor I've ever read. If you add the above paragraph with the 'I will always stand on the side of the egg' quote - then it isn't hard to say which side of the conflict Murakami's sympathies lie. Murakami then goes on to outline a deeper meaning of the metaphor where we as individuals are the eggs, The System is the wall. "We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System". It would seem to me that his sympathies lie with individuals (regardless of their religion, nationality or race). It wouldn't be too much a stretch to see The System as those institutional structures of State, of Capital, of Church that seem to exist independent of individuals - yet in whose name those individuals suffer war, poverty and intolerance. But that is me putting words into his metaphor now...

I think it obvious that the original Jerusalem Post article is deeply misleading - and in as much as it is - the international press that quoted only from the Jerusalem Post is equally misleading. Not all the international press, however, relied upon the Jerusalem Post. Haaretz published the transcript of Murakami's speech on their website. And reports I read in the Iranian press appeared to be able to quote Murakami correctly.

Regarding the transcripts of Murakami's speech - I discovered that there were in fact subtle differences in the online versions of the speeches that I came across. Murakami gave his speech in English (though not particularly easy to understand English - see the excerpt on the youtube video). The Haaretz version of speech was largely re-published word-for-word on Salon.com - though strangely with a noticeable exception. These two paragraphs didn't make it through to the Salon.com version:

"This is not to say that I am here to deliver a political message. To make judgments about right and wrong is one of the novelist's most important duties, of course.

It is left to each writer, however, to decide upon the form in which he or she will convey those judgments to others. I myself prefer to transform them into stories - stories that tend toward the surreal. Which is why I do not intend to stand before you today delivering a direct political message.
"

The 47news transcript also misses out the above two paragraphs, and also the following italicized section: "Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott."

What is interesting about the 47news article is the note (in Japanese) from the person who posted it saying that he had edited the official transcript given out by the organizers of the Prize where it differed from his own recording of the speech. And there are a number of places where his transcript does indeed differ from that on the Haaretz site. Here are the main differences I noted (there are other smaller differences):

Haaretz / Salon - Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion
47news - Diplomats and generals tell their own kinds of lies on occasion

Haaretz / Salon - One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the war.
47news - One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the battlefield.

Haaretz - And I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak to you here today.
47news - And I would like to express my gratitude to the readers in Israel. You are the biggest reason why I am here. And I hope we are sharing something, something very meaningful. And I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak to you here today. Thank you very much.
Salon - the whole last paragraph is missing from this version

I am not sure what to make of the differences between the transcripts. Is it possible that the organizers added in a couple of paragraphs into the speech to emphasize that Murakami was not making a political message? Was the transcript published by Haaretz the full script provided by the organizers? Was the 47news reporter working from his/her recording not putting in those sentences because they were never said? Or did the 47news reporter take those sentences out of the organizer's transcript by accident or design when editing the script? (However - those same sentences were removed in the Salon.com version which is otherwise near identical to the Haaretz verion). I have some faith in the 47news script in part because it does contain more text in the closing paragraph of the script - 3 sentences are not in the Haaretz version - 3 sentences that even the Jerusalem Post was able to quote almost correctly because they supported its case. Without finding a video or audio recording of the speech (and I have looked for one) I cannot say why these discrepancies have occurred.

One thing is for certain - Murakami was not expressing support for Israel's actions in Gaza. He later published an article in a Japanese literary journal Bungei Shunju strongly condemning Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. You can read an article about this at ynetnews.com. Unfortunately I have not been able to get a hold of this article - and being in Japanese would not be able to read it myself if I could. If anyone comes across a translation of the article - I would like see what he actually said.

1 comment:

TOSHI said...

Hello, I was amazed that how Murakami speech was distorted! Anyone, who would appreciate Murakami’s novel, can understand his clear criticism against the current situation at Israel.

But the distortion is getting worse now.

He was told that don’t go and say nothing, but he chose to come and say “something”
Nobody care about what he actually said apart from you ?

The Gurdian managed to give the impression that Murakami visited to Israel for his marketing campaign! What a liar within the system (wall). (- please read Murakami’s original transcript)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/29/murakami-iq84-novel-published

Murakami said he had decided to thank his Israeli readers for their support. Three of his novels – Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – made it on to Israel's bestseller lists.
"I gave it some thought," the Jerusalem Post quoted him as saying at the award ceremony. "And I decided to come. Like most novelists, I like to do exactly the opposite of what I'm told."

TOSHi